“The Return” by Branden A.

After spending eighteen years in prison, I felt like a baby bird taking his initial flight. I now had the entire universe to explore at my own free will. It was exhilarating, a feeling of being uncaged and free, but what was I coming home to?

Branden A., writer

Hired by the Indiana State Hospital within two days of release, I was making a living by working at a temp agency in the food service department. With my family and childhood friends in my corner, I felt hopeful about my future but the lights beyond the prison walls aren’t always bright.

I saw darkness. Humanity didn’t progress while I was gone, it declined.

Technology baffled me to the point of great confusion. I didn’t know how to email or tackle the basic things people take for granted.

Also, my hometown had become a war zone. My nieces and nephews had grown up alone – the cycle of incarceration – ever present in their lives. In my neighborhood, drugs were still there and the dealing game was strong. A lot of my childhood friends were still caught up in that life. I had to learn to distance myself from them. The lifestyle breeds jealousy, greed and criminal activity. It was still around me.

In addition to technology and the streets, I had a tough time adjusting to my work environment. I was lied to, passed over for opportunities of advancement and felt undervalued. I realized that everything I had learned in prison – studying culinary arts and receiving certificates – didn’t matter in the workforce because of office politics: who you know, and what you’re willing to do. Stress and anxiety weighed me down.

I quit my job with no safety net to harness my fall.

Two months had passed without employment and it tested my core but also revealed something – how I can endure – especially after almost two decades of incarceration. Still, I was completely broke, broken and embarrassed. I stayed in my house for two weeks, too embarrassed leave. I dove into my safe space, searching inside myself for answers. 

I shared my disappointments with my mom. I began to set boundaries with friends and started to build up the confidence I had developed in prison. With a change of mindset, I was now ready to forge ahead, and move at my own pace, feeling out the culture like a blind man reading braille.  I discovered a harsh truth: freedom isn’t free. To be free means sacrificing on a level I was not used to. I was used to feeling important and needed. It was my biggest adjustment.

This made me question who I was on the outside. It wasn’t easy.

While my prison neighbors (grown men with kids and wives who had once upon a time had ordinary lives) held monkey-style wars, I read. While the light in my cell stayed on for 24-hours and flickered a neon glow on my face, I learned. I continued to stick with it once I was released. I contacted my writing teacher to figure out how to continue to rise in my new environment. I wanted to build on the spark ignited while on the inside.

My sanctuary had become writing and I needed it now more than ever.

While in prison, I started writing on a serious level. I had a lifetime pass in the prison library where I spend an agonizing four years in solitary confinement and where there are only two choices: grow or give up. My choice was always to grow.

Within a month of being released from prison and through the work with the writing workshop, I was asked to do talks and readings in Indianapolis, including radio shows and writing contests, and people in my life were amazed with pride. How did the neighborhood knucklehead become a voice and community leader? How did a man that knows nothing about this day and age come home and change a community vibe by just being present? I had once been a street thug with no deep understanding of who I was, trapped in my warped sense of pride.

Was it the talk with my mentor, Mr. Sams, before he was released from prison? He showed me how one can make a difference by solely believing in himself as well as in others? Or, was it the writing teacher, Mrs. Deb, who had sparked a greater purpose of change because I could now see the special talent that was talked about? This gave me a vessel to hone my voice. Or, did it take me getting kicked out of one prison and sent to another facility within less than six months of my release? I had been labeled a notorious gang leader. It could have been the loss of my father and big sister while gone that was a wake-up call to my soul. I missed too many events. It was time to see the light and be the light, to shine.

Maybe it was a combination of all the people who lifted me up.

My neighborhood is filled with pockets of meth, heroin and pills that was once dominated by crack rock and cocaine but it doesn’t mean I am a product of it. I’ve come too far for to go back. My worst ordeal – imprisonment – made me the best version of myself. I took time to reflect, learn and grow. Without the downfalls, I wouldn’t know which way was up. I’m showing the world how to live, love and smile through adversity. I was gone for a long time but now I have returned.

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