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-The normal things that you lose when you go to jail is everything.
I mean, your whole life -- whether it be a marriage, family, kids, finances.
-It screws up finding a job, finding a house.
Nobody would even consider us for housing.
No apartments at all.
-No country in the world incarcerates more people than the United States of America.
-One third of US adults have a criminal record of some kind.
One in two Americans has a loved one that's been to jail or prison.
-Tonight, from the "PBS NewsHour," four stories from four people who've all been behind bars on what happens after they serve their time.
-They say you're rehabilitated.
The world don't know that.
Corporations don't believe that.
-This is a system -- a legal infrastructure that criminalize and make it almost impossible for people to find their way back into society.
-The system is not created to help us succeed.
-This is a national problem of national consequence.
-I don't want to just be a felon for the rest of my life.
-And that's what's scary, because now I'm out here, I don't know, I'm just not set up for anything.
-I think that I'm always gonna be in a state of incarceration, even though I'm free.
-I'm Amna Nawaz, and this is "Searching for Justice: Life After Lockup."
-My name is Reuben Jonathan Miller.
I'm a sociologist at the University of Chicago.
My research is on the lives of people who've been to jails and prisons.
You know, we often think about the just over 2 million people -- this year, just under 2 million people -- who are locked away.
But about 600,000 people are released from American jails and prisons each year, and they join a population of about 19 million Americans who are estimated to have a felony record.
They return to a world where there are over 44,000 laws, policies, and administrative sanctions that target them, that prevent their access to employment and to housing, that limit their civic participation, and that constrain their ability to spend time with their families.
We've taught ourselves to be afraid of people who've broken the law.
And we govern through fear.
We govern through fear.
-My name is Michael Plummer.
I am 42 years old, and I spent 23 years of incarceration out of a 30-to-life sentence.
I'm a Washingtonian.
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C.
I move throughout the city because of family issues.
[ Siren wails ] This is before the crack epidemic really hit hard.
And I think, like, the people's free basing, and, you know, I didn't think they knew the effects of the drugs.
But I think my mom tried it one time and she was hooked.
And so one day she said, "I'm not going to work no more."
From that day, I remember it was extremely downhill.
My dad, he went to prison for a long time, and I moved around from family members to family members.
Sometimes I was homeless.
A lot of my friends and family members was killed.
And then those who went to jail, you know, they did 10 years.
They did 15, 20, and some of them still serving life sentences.
So, you know, my upbringing was -- was rough.
We got some family members, some older cousins who was in the street life, and I would ask them for money to eat and so forth, and, you know, they would give it to me.
But after a while -- and I want to say I was 12 or 13 -- they like, "We not gonna keep giving you money."
One of my older cousins said, "Look, take this right here."
And so he put it in my hand.
I said, "What is this?"
He say, "This is crack."
He say, "Sell each one of these for $10."
So he gave it to me at first.
So when I was able to do that, I was able to put food in the house.
So I went to school, but my main focus was on making money for survival purposes.
My daughter is Myuana Bullock.
She was born on May 14, 1995.
I felt a sense of responsibility for her.
And -- And I knew that I was 15 and that I was going to do a piss poor job.
But I tried my best for the time that I was there, as a -- as a young dad.
-Michael joins a small neighborhood gang.
One night after clashing with rivals, Michael shoots and kills another teenager.
-I think I was 16 when it happened.
I wind up murdering a guy over -- over a dispute that probably could have been talked about if the right people got together and talked about it.
I think it was blown way out of proportion.
And I was convicted for murder.
I was sentenced to 30 to life, which was in '98.
I couldn't believe it.
It was like -- like a "Twilight" movie.
Like, you hear sound, but you really don't hear it and, you know, you hear the sentence, and immediately, like, you start to think back on the mistakes you made and how you could handle the situation better.
And that's when reform started, I think, for me.
-My name is Rachel K. Schuyler, and I'm 32 years old.
And I have spent in and out of jail a total of about three years.
I grew up in, you know, Lebanon, Tennessee.
It's real country, and I loved being outside.
You couldn't get me out of the dirt.
There was a junkyard that my uncle owned.
I spent a lot of my time there.
I loved school.
I loved my daddy.
He was my hero.
Everything was good until, you know, he passed away and we moved to Texas.
Stuff got hard for my mom.
It was difficult for her to manage the bills and everything.
We ended up in the projects, and she just -- she stopped hiding everything.
Her addictions, her depression.
She just -- She went from being the caring mom to the addict again.
-By age 13, Rachel is pregnant.
She names her baby boy Johnny.
She and her son are placed in a group home for teenage mothers by Child Protective Services.
-I went to school like every other kid, but I had to wake up earlier and get my son ready for daycare and take him in, set him off, you know, for the day and watch him cry.
I started sneaking out at night and smoking cigarettes.
And I mean, I would literally sit outside of my -- my window.
I wasn't, like, leaving or anything like that.
My son I was asleep and I could see him.
I got caught by one of the other girls and they told me that they were going to tell on me unless I showed them how I was getting out.
And I did, and then they all snuck out and went and vandalized what was our classroom on the property.
-Rachel says the other girls at the home blame her.
She's kicked out of the home, sent to foster care, and loses custody of her son.
-I just -- I lost it.
I started crying.
I remember I punched a hole in the -- in the jailhouse -- in the courthouse wall.
The girls had already packed all of my stuff into big black trash bags, and it was sitting outside the door.
I didn't even get to say bye to Johnny.
I started running away when they terminated my rights.
And I never really stayed anywhere while I was on the run from foster care.
I stayed everywhere.
I'd pass out drunk on the park bench to some random guy's couch or some lady that picked me up on the side of the road.
I slept in trains.
I traveled across the country on foot.
Just whatever I could do to get away from everything that I felt like I had ruined.
I was lost.
I didn't know what to do, and everybody that I was supposed to confide in and supposed to trust was like, "Just stop lying.
You're a bad kid."
And I was on so much medication for the anxiety and the depression and the insomnia that when I would go out on the streets, I would not feel right.
So, I mean, if you're on the streets, you're going to meet somebody who's doing drugs.
So, I mean, there was comfort in the numbness, I guess.
You know, a lot of people say it's freeing, and really it's -- it's a fleeting free.
Like, you're happy and everything is wonderful for a very short while, and then it's literally you're chasing a dragon.
It's a fire-breathing monster that you're constantly after because you can't get enough, you can't get back to that numbness again.
It's -- I wouldn't -- I wouldn't wish that on anybody.
My first charge ever was a possession of a controlled substance, less than a gram in possession of marijuana.
The second time I was arrested, I think I was already doing heroin.
They arrested us then for possession of marijuana.
We didn't have any more heroin.
The third big time that I got another charge was unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of prohibited knuckles.
The first forgery was -- it wasn't a fake check.
It was the ID that was forged.
-Rachel, for anyone who's never spent time in a jail or prison, what is it like day to day?
What does it feel like?
-A boarding school for criminals.
The first couple of times, it was horrible because I was scared and in a new place.
And you see on movies, it looks like you're going to get murdered every time you turn around and you got to hover over your food.
You know, I got used to it after a while because it really just turns out it was a lot like being in foster care.
The door locks behind you, every door you go through.
There's always somebody watching you.
They may or may not be abusing you.
There's always another person that's going to get on your nerves.
There's always another person that's going to hate you.
It's just like foster care, really, except for you get to learn new crimes because everybody's telling about how they got arrested, how not to do it next time.
-Well, to talk about drugs and addiction and crimes of poverty, I mean, many people find themselves in great despair.
They turn to drugs.
You know, they use drugs.
They get hooked on drugs.
These sorts of things happen.
And when they do, the police are there to arrest them.
[ Siren wails ] -[ Speaks indistinctly ] -The impact of the war on drugs, the longer sentences for everything, not just drug crimes, but everything ratchets up, the overuse of arrest and incarceration for what we might call crimes of poverty, addiction, of the criminalization of things like homelessness, because these things are associated with drugs and drug crime, a set of policing strategies that -- that attack low-level offenses, this led to many more people being arrested and incarcerated for much longer periods of time and has contributed in powerful ways to the ballooning of the prison system.
The literature tells us that the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to go to jail or prison themselves.
Incarceration takes someone out of a family system.
It destabilizes the family system.
This leads to deeper and longer bouts of poverty, deeper and longer bouts with homelessness.
It is a direct route into foster care, and we know that precarity leads to crime.
In other words, we've legislated the conditions that produce crime, not that reduce crime.
-My name is Michael Cevallos.
I'm 53 years old, and I've done about 28 years incarcerated.
I was real adventurous.
I would leave at five years old.
I mean, I would take my sister's bikes, go out to the levee.
We lived in Pasadena, Texas, and there was a levee behind our house that -- where they'd been, you know, digging and stuff for years.
And there's several -- several of these all of, like, lagoons almost, you know what I'm saying?
And there's hills and just like a perfect, you know, play place for someone that's curious and, you know, adventurous and stuff like that, I guess.
My father was a -- he was a mean person, you know, when he was drunk, and he was drunk a lot.
So I believe, looking back, that's why I didn't want to be where I was.
That's why I left at five.
That's why I would go out because I didn't want to deal with that.
I didn't want to -- I couldn't deal with him being mean to my mother.
-Was he physically abusive towards your mother?
Yeah, he was, throughout -- you know, probably until us kids started getting older.
Yeah, I love my father.
Do not get me wrong.
But for the most part, I mean, you know, I did drugs with my father.
There was really no -- really... father-son relationship, really.
My dad used to keep this pipe set on the side of his bed.
Well, inside that jar, he'd keep weed.
So every morning, I would -- I would get in there and I'd get me, you know, a couple of doobies, and I'd take off.
You know, I was 9 years old or whatever.
So one day I did that, and I got caught at school.
They took me to jail, and I got -- I got expelled and all that stuff.
I think I was in the fifth grade.
That's kind of where my -- that is exactly where everything really started for me with incarceration.
-As a teenager, Michael starts breaking into homes and stealing checkbooks and is caught writing bad checks.
-I'd just turned 17 in 1986.
I went to prison here in Texas with a 7-year sentence for, like, forgery or something.
I mean, I was scared to death.
-Why were you scared to death when you went?
-You know, the stories that you hear and -- and, you know, the violence.
There's surely intelligent people in prison.
They just don't really know how to communicate that great, so they use different things like violence and, you know, oppression and and things to, you know, to speak with.
-In 1990, he's convicted of burglary and sentenced to 25 years.
-Day-to-day life, if you're smart, is lonely.
You go through the, you know, daily motions.
You know, you look forward to certain things in the day.
And those -- that's what gets you through.
Reading the classics was definitely a way for me to escape.
It was actually a way for me to relive a life that, you know, I wanted.
I've read "Les Mis," which is, you know, one of my favorite books.
Most of the books that I truly love are about redemption.
So -- And at that period of time, they wrote a lot about redemption and about, you know, how, you know, to turn something bad into something great.
-It's quite true what it says there.
My mother was a tramp.
My father died in the gallows.
I myself was born in prison.
-I swore to myself that I would not be of that class.
I swore to get out of it, and I did get out.
-Did you expect when you got out that you might go back in again?
Never expected to go back.
And I've been back seven -- seven times.
♪♪ -My name is Renee Wyatt.
I'm 65 years old, and anywhere from 20 to 25 years of my life, I was in and out of jail, prison.
My mother was a nurse and we lived in West Los Angeles.
I remember being a little girl and her bathing me and combing my hair and playing pinochle in the kitchen and fixing dinner and having a lot of friends.
I'm not sure when things started to change in my life, but this one particular night when I was 8, my mother and the adults, they ran through our room and out the window.
So what happened?
The police raided that house, because I didn't know, but they were selling drugs out of the house.
And so my mother went to jail that night, and I walked up and down that street -- Figueroa -- looking for her most of the night until a friend of hers found me -- me and my brother -- and we went to stay with them for a while.
I ended up in foster care, I guess, until I was 12 or 13.
And then I decided I wanted to go home.
So I went to look for my mother.
And I ran away from the foster home.
So running away put me in really bad positions.
You know, I didn't know where to go.
It was horrible because I got exposed to prostitution at a really young age because I didn't have any other way to take care of myself.
And so that's where I started using -- using drugs and alcohol.
I was scared and, you know, false courage -- that's what it was.
-Did you reconnect with your mother at any point?
I eventually went home to live with my mother, so I was about...15.
I got there and my mother was addicted to drugs.
A lot of the things that I learned about the streets, I learned from my mother, hanging out with her.
She would give me to her -- her friends for -- for money or drugs.
She was in her addiction.
The amazing thing is, I was a heroin addict, too.
I had learned to use drugs in my house.
You know, I think it was impossible for me to live the lifestyle that I had -- that I had got thrown into sober.
I had been downtown L.A. homeless, in prostitution, dancing nude, heroin addict.
I did have several felonies for theft-related crimes -- burglary, petty theft with a prior.
Well, I've been to prison twice, but I've been to the county jail -- oh, man -- 30, 40 times.
Juvenile hall, five or six times.
Even though I was scared to death and I went to prison, I didn't have nowhere to go when I got out.
So I went back downtown L.A. That's where I was living.
You know, I think that's where the system fails us.
You know, I'm sure that I had made up my mind when I was in prison that I didn't want to go back to jail again.
I was tired of the lifestyle.
I wanted to change my life.
I didn't know how.
I just didn't know how.
And there wasn't a lot of services so that I could find something different to do.
♪♪ -What do you see as the intent of incarceration in America?
What is it supposed to do for someone when they're incarcerated?
-I mean, up through about 1970, we said the purpose of prison was for rehabilitation.
In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt issued a statement where he said that if the prison doesn't rehabilitate, it fails to do its duty.
Then the prison was to be judged by the "offender's" ability to secure work and hope and to contribute to their family.
But there's a turn in the 1970s, and this happens for a number of reasons.
I mean, so there's backlash from the Civil Rights Movement, but there's also a general disaffection with government intervention in anyone's lives.
And so a decision was made -- a policy decision was made that we no longer rehabilitate.
We can't help these kinds of people.
Now, at the same time, the prison is blackening.
You go from a prison that's 2/3rds white to a prison that's 2/3rds nonwhite by 1990.
We make a decision in this moment that nothing works, and what the prison is for is no longer rehabilitation.
What we need to do is get criminals off the street.
The prison is for incapacitation.
Well, then we get 2 million prisoners by incapacitating them -- 2.4 million at its height.
We get the fiscal strains that come with incarcerating so many people and we say, "Oh, we need to be smart on crime.
We need to think about the prison as a place where people can be rehabilitated again," and so the pendulum is sort of swinging back.
-It is swinging back towards rehabilitation now?
-At least rhetorically, at least rhetorically.
-But is that what's actually happening inside prisons?
-It is not what's happening inside prisons.
If we think about something like drug treatment, for example, of the people who are ordered to get drug treatment inside prisons, we have about a quarter of the capacity to meet their needs.
-Meaning those programs just aren't there.
-They're not there.
♪♪ [ Wind chimes twinkling ] -[ Speaks indistinctly ] -Yeah.
Can I speak to Mr. Chavez, please?
-I've been on parole for as long as I can remember.
I mean, since I was a kid.
I've never been off.
I don't think I've ever been off for 40 years.
[ Line ringing ] -Christian Chavez... -Is not available right now.
I'll record your message.
-So I'm kind of -- I'm extremely sick of that.
-Judicial Parole Office, how may I direct your call?
I need to speak to Mr. Chavez, please.
-I have to fill out a schedule every week.
That schedule has the days that I can move, and it has the hours.
Well, on the days that I can't move, this is lockdown.
As if you're going to lock me down this weekend.
[ Line ringing ] But that's really what it feels like.
I mean, a, you know, one-bedroom little townhouse or whatever it is, and it's -- feels like a cell, to be honest with you.
♪♪ Day one.
-In April of 2020, about three months after being freed, Michael builds a replica of his prison cell.
Nearly every night, he goes on Facebook Live for a series he calls "Cell Life."
-Look, never once was I ever incarcerated for something I did not do.
I've been guilty for everything I've ever been in prison for.
So this is not what this is about.
This is about wanting to change, wanting to be included.
I first hoped that I would stay free.
That was my main -- That's really the main reason I started "Cell Life," 'cause I'll take off for six months or a year hard.
I'm talking about working 16-hour days, but then I -- then I crash.
Coming to you from cell, self-enforced limited living.
It is a one-year experiment into personal transformation and educating society on some of the things that convicts face inside the prison walls and outside upon their release.
So I didn't want that to happen.
I'd seen the patterns already.
And so I said, "I'm going to do this and I'm going to, you know, start filming and maybe I can help somebody, too."
Day 2 of 365.
We're well on our way.
This is day 18.
This is day 25.
It is day 116 in a yearlong experiment into personal transformation.
-In September of 2021, after more than a year and a half out, Michael is arrested on suspicion of trespassing.
He spends four months in jail before being released but remains on parole.
♪♪ -I never plan to go back.
So every time, it's been extremely devastating.
This time, when I went to jail this time, I must have anguished.
I'm talking about anguished for days.
I could not -- could not believe it.
I just knew that this is not -- this just not right.
This is not where I want to be.
This is not what I want from my life.
There's so much more to this life than, you know, sitting in a cell, and what's ruined -- you know, I lost, you know, just the normal things that people lose when they go to jail.
It's part of the process, I guess.
-What are those normal things for people who don't know?
The normal things that you lose when you go to jail is everything.
I mean, your whole life.
So whether it be a marriage, family, kids, finances.
You know, people can say, you know, money, you know, don't make you happy.
Well, not having money doesn't make you happy either.
And that's what's scary, you know what I'm saying?
Because now I'm out here and I don't know, I'm just not set up for anything.
I'm not set up for any financial situation.
-In early 2022, Michael moves to Austin to live with his sister Amanda.
Together, they're building a business reselling thrift shop finds.
-You want to learn YouTube?
-Gmail -- YouTube is owned by Gmail.
You know that.
And it all -- it all interacts?
-When I was born, Michael was 10.
So at the time I was like 5 or 6, he was already, like, in jail, in boys' homes.
And anything that you click on this side, you're going to be able to view on the right.
[ Speaks indistinctly ] -[ Laughs ] -Family's important for people that are getting out.
They -- They need their family.
They need to feel safe somewhere where they can -- where they belong.
And I think that my brother wants to be around me because he feels like he can be himself.
They're gonna go under your video.
-How you doing?
How are you?
How are you?
You had a safe trip.
Everything was okay?
-You want something to drink?
What do y'all want?
I got -- I got Cokes.
-Tell me about Elijah.
-Weird drink... Elijah is everything to me.
There's really nothing that I value more than my son.
I'd learned so much from him.
I mean, how to just be patient, how to communicate.
I mean, he's taught me so much.
You know, even through his anger, he's taught me things, you know?
-Has he been angry with you?
-Oh, he's been extremely angry -- angry with me for years.
He resented me.
You know, he should have.
I mean, I was not a good father.
I was not -- I was not a father at all, to be honest with you.
-You know, this is so good.
You got this.
-I think my family's vision of me is changing, which is good, but they're just so jaded from their past experiences, you know, that they have a track record that they're grading off of.
You know, and it's usually accurate.
How are y'all doing?
This is Michael Cevallos with "Cell Life."
The only active prison cell in the free world.
-Michael, do you worry you'll end up back in prison again?
And it's -- it's -- it's strictly up to me.
Nobody -- Nobody plays a part in me going back to prison.
I used to think they did, and I used to think that society or police or whatever.
But really it's completely up to me.
I think you should all go home and become.
dramatically more charismatic.
-Now, I have to, you know, develop skills in order not to, you know, have to -- or think I have to commit crimes in order to, you know, live.
But I think I'm good.
I think I got them.
I think I can do it.
-In February of 2022, after recording this interview, Michael Cevallos is arrested on a warrant for missing a court date related to a previous charge and sent back to jail.
He's released 10 days later on bond.
-Your daughter was not quite 2 at the time you were sentenced, is that right?
I want to say she's like 18 months, I think.
-Did you get to say goodbye to her, to anyone in your family?
-I can't remember whether my daughter was there or not.
But I did know throughout my incarceration, you know, I thought about her like every day.
Like, "I let her down.
I let her down.
I got to do something to right this."
And so I wanted to show her that -- that last act was took me out of society, that's not who I am.
That will not define me as your dad.
I did apologize for the impetuous act that I committed at that age, and I can't take it back and I can't say I know how they feel -- the victim's family -- because I never lost a child before.
But I know that it was wrong and I repented to God.
And from then on in prison, I tried to do my best to become a good person while I was behind them bars.
I enrolled in school and I got my G.E.D.
The Islamic faith, it appealed to me, so I said one day "I'mma become Muslim," and I did.
And so I wanted to become an imam.
I took every A.C.E.
class they had available -- that's adult continue education.
I had several jobs.
I wound up becoming a G.E.D.
I probably had every job you can think about in the prison.
I started reading more and, you know, world history and icons of the world.
And that's what make me say, "Okay, I got to change my life."
When I started reading about Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and all these guys who went to prison, and that stigma or that incarceration didn't define who they was.
And so now I wanted to start working on my legacy, even while I was in prison.
So I was released on February 10, 2020.
And it was like around 7:00.
[ Cheering ] And when I get to the door, the first person I see is my daughter.
It was -- It was surreal.
-After more than two decades in prison, Michael Plummer is released under a Washington, D.C., law that allows some prisoners who committed crimes as juveniles to be freed early.
-I was just thinking, like, "I'm finally free.
What's the next step in my life?"
You got to get a birth certificate.
You got to get a Social Security card.
So I was gone for 23 years, so -- and my -- and both parents passed away, so these documents was lost.
And so I had to go and get them again.
This felony is always over the top of your head, right?
Not having established credit long enough.
So I'm able to, you know, go and purchase a house or get the assistance that I need.
It's just always a barrier there, letting you know that you made a mistake and before this mistake that these barriers are going to be placed in front of you.
-Thanks to the jobs he had in prison and with the help of people he met, Michael finds custodial and maintenance work with a company that hires the formerly incarcerated.
-But when I see my first paycheck, I say, "Can a guy actually live off 800 bucks, you know, every two weeks?"
I said, "Isn't that enough?"
You got to make the judgment that's right for you, even if -- even if your peers dislike it.
-Soon, Michael gets another job mentoring young men in Washington, D.C.'s juvenile detention facilities.
-We think that there's no coming back from this.
This is the end result.
This is not the end result.
It is the beginning of a result.
What I do is I try to, you know, help these youth get on the right track.
I've been where they've been at in every aspect.
-When I see a youth who gets his G.E.D.
or gets a job, I know that there is hope for the rest of our community.
Our friends lose their lives violently in the streets right now.
Moving forward, if you was released right now, how you -- how you think you would cope with that?
Like, one of your friends being in harm?
So I know that's one less person that's not going to get murdered or go to jail.
I try to share with them my experience and let them know, "Look, I went down this road, you don't have to go down this road."
And I try not to be too judgmental because I let them know, "I was just like you, so I understand a lot of things you going do."
-♪ Thank you for your love ♪ -Not long after his release, Michael gets married to a woman he knew and dated before prison.
But they struggle to make it work.
They're now living apart and in marriage counseling.
-It's ups and downs.
You know, in life, marriage is not perfect.
And I think patience is -- is everything and tolerance.
It's all along with the two individuals want.
And it must be mutual.
-Oh, my gosh.
[ Speaks indistinctly ] -Wait.
-In the fall of 2021, Michael's daughter Myuana has her own daughter.
She names the baby Azuri.
-I'm like, "Wow."
And so this is just the most -- I want to say the most beautiful I've ever saw in my life.
-I used to be like, "Where's my dad?"
you know, when I was maybe about three.
Like, every little girl cries for her dad, so when you don't see him or he don't come, you get to wondering, like, where is he.
So, yeah, it was kind of hard, especially when I was in elementary where they'd have, like, father-daughter dances and stuff like that.
So I never had no one to accompany me.
So it was just like I didn't have a father figure, you know?
He tried, but I don't want to speak to him.
-How would you describe your relationship now?
It's actually good.
Actually gave me a text that was like he's sorry, you know, about everything that happened in the past.
You know, him being away.
He'd like to make it up with my daughter because it's crazy that he did almost 25 years in jail.
25 years later, I have a baby.
So it's just, like, perfect timing to me.
I feel like it's a chance and a way for him to start over, almost.
You know, like, see every milestone that she developed.
-How would you describe your dad to someone who's never met him before?
-My dad -- I'm -- The number-one thing I'll say is, like, my dad is like a soldier.
He's went through so much.
He had to overcome a lot on his own from a child to an adult.
-When I asked her what she wants people to know about you, do you know the word you used?
She said, "My dad is a soldier."
Do you know why she said that?
Let me see.
I've been through a lot.
♪♪ ♪♪ I've been through a lot, so some of the things I revealed to her, she probably don't, like, think that, like, a lot of people can endure it.
And even now, like, just navigating life with all the things that's been thrown at me, I think she look at me as a soldier.
-Is that how you want her to see you?
-Overall, I just want to look at me as her dad.
A guy who went down a path that was placed in front of him and he overcame obstacles and he did his best.
-In January of 2020, Rachel and her husband, Ian McClung, are arrested on outstanding warrants for forgery and taken to jail.
-It was scary.
I mean, we had heard a bunch of, you know, stuff on the news.
-Now, to growing concerns about the deadly coronavirus.
-The first case of China's new and deadly coronavirus has been reported.
-Some of us thought it was going to be a zombie apocalypse, like there were girls in there that were really, really worried.
-Their infant daughter, Olivia, is put in foster care.
To get her back, Rachel and Ian have to complete drug testing, parenting classes, and keep a steady home and jobs once released.
-When you left jail, tell me what that felt like?
What did you think was ahead for you?
-I was so excited because, I mean, it was going to be the first time in like 12 years that I'd be able to get my ID and get my life, you know, get a job and get -- and get everything together.
I was given a crappy hand as a teenager, and it's not my fault or my mom's fault.
It's just the way the cards fell.
I just didn't want to keep the cycle going.
The night that I got out, it was like 3:00 in the morning.
My bunkmate, my neighbor, got out with me.
We walked for 2 hours to her house in San Antonio, and I didn't live in San Antonio, so I stayed there for the night.
And then my brother came and picked me up and brought me to Austin the next morning.
My husband built a makeshift loft inside of the bridge of 183.
And then we we made a little house.
It was like a crawl space.
It was our way of quarantining because it was a box.
It wasn't like four flimsy walls of a tent.
So we stayed this far away from the main corner so as to stay away from all the people, because we're trying to get better, we're trying to improve our lives.
It's not easy.
We do eat out of dumpsters.
You know, we -- we do, you know, pick people's trash.
There are people out there that pop door handles and jack people's stuff out of their cars, like when they don't know what else to do.
Their mind -- you know, they're not right in the head, so they do what they know because they can't get any acceptance anywhere else.
The Goodwill Workforce Center was supposed to be able to get you piloted into your first job that could lead to a career in all these places that hire felons, but everything was closed.
It's like you're being promised all these great things and then there's just no availability.
I went online and filled out applications.
Nobody would hire me because I'm a two-time felon for forgery and nobody wants to write me a check.
-Rachel and Ian spend months on the streets and occasional motel stays.
They save enough from unemployment and COVID stimulus checks to move into a rental home.
-This is my, like, art desk, work desk.
This is Freddie's -- Freddie's corner right now, but it's eventually going to be the dance studio for my daughter because she likes to dance.
And then we have -- this is my kitchen.
I had to find this lady who owned the building herself and then give her an obscene amount of money for a deposit.
And the money is tight because we can't get actual jobs.
Because you think recycling, it's just going to be boxes and paper and all that, but you never know what somebody accidentally put in the wrong, you know, bin.
Oh, what's that?
It's just with the pandemic, there was nothing.
There -- Nothing was open, and everything that was open was like, "Too bad, you're a criminal."
-♪ U, V, W, X, Y, and Z ♪ -They get to see their daughter every week in a monitored visit at Family and Protective Services.
-♪ Next time won't you sing with me?
♪ -Olivia's so bright and she's so bubbly.
She's just got this great personality.
She's very happy.
She's just -- she's just a little squishy, cuddly bear, and I love her so much.
-What is this?
-That's your puppy?
-I really feel like if I lose another kid, I'm probably gonna end up in prison.
I just want a family.
That's all I've ever wanted.
-It's been nearly two years since Rachel and Ian were last arrested.
The Department of Family and Protective Services says they failed to meet requirements and moves to terminate their parental rights.
-They show up at the hospital every time I have a kid, no matter what, even when I'm -- when I'm clean and sober, when the child is clean and sober, when I have an apartment, I have two cars.
I had two jobs.
They showed up at the hospital the day that I -- the day that we were released, every single time.
-How many times did that happen?
-Olivia's number six.
-What was that like, every time?
-It's really, really frustrating.
I love all of my kids, and it's -- I feel like I failed them.
I feel like I never got a chance.
-A court battle follows.
After days of arguments, a unanimous jury rules.
Rachel and Ian's parental rights are terminated.
-[Crying] I-I don't -- I just feel like I have no purpose.
Like... Just to struggle every day... ...just to be told I can't do it, that I'm worthless.
♪♪ -Rachel appeals the ruling and keeps fighting for custody of Olivia.
But she and Ian are struggling to find work and make rent.
♪♪ Rachel puts her energy into helping the homeless she used to live among.
♪♪ -Knock, knock!
I brought blankets and heat stuff and food.
-We came to Austin for work and we ended up, like, homeless.
Started out in the woods and we just -- we were like that for almost three years.
We just got to kind of know a lot of these people.
So when we finally got off the streets and into housing, I mean, just, it -- it's hard to just forget about all that, so...
Especially for her, she -- she really, really likes helping people.
It's like she doesn't feel right without doing it regular basis.
-I have, like... -And it's like, I like helping her.
-I don't know if you want them.
-We're lucky to have each other.
-I was gonna ask you how you felt about me making... -I'm really lucky to have her.
-It's motivating to have somebody else care about you, to have, you know, somebody that you can call on when you need clean socks or when you need your blankets washed.
To have somebody that's been there and knows what you're going through.
You know, I don't have much to give back, but I want to give back what I can.
It's not much, but somebody else's garbage is another person's treasure.
[ Chuckles, sniffs ] -When you look ahead, where do you want to be a year from now?
What do you want your life to look like?
-I've -- I want to be with my daughter.
I want to be in a nicer home.
I want to have an actual -- either our business up and going and not having to worry about what's going to break down every other day.
I want to be a mom.
I want to be helping other people.
I want to make a difference.
-I write that the prison follows you like a ghost.
It's a -- it's a -- it's a whispering interlocutor in the ear of the landlady or the landlord of the -- of the social service provider, of the employer.
Because your record goes before you, and what your record does is it communicates to the other, you're a danger, that you're a risk.
And it tells them you're a risk.
It's impossible to leave behind once you're marked a criminal.
Have people been able to build productive lives for themselves?
Absolutely, people have been able to build productive despite the barriers.
And what we do is we look at folks like that and we tout the exceptions as the rule.
But most people -- most people live lives of poverty, live lives where they're dependent on others to meet their basic human needs because we've made them dependent.
-I got stuck down here and I could...
I could live with -- with no means.
-How long did you live down here?
-Like, I would say, 14 or 15 years.
-By her 30s, Renee Wyatt is living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, doing whatever it takes to feed a drug addiction.
-You know, once you get out of jail or prison, if you don't have nowhere to go, where do you go?
Back where you came from.
And what happens to you?
You get caught up in the same crap you were doing.
So, recidivism is a real thing.
-Tell me about the moment you decided to stop using drugs.
-So, I was in prison the second time.
I-I was wore out.
I was just tired of the lifestyle, was tired of running around like a crazy woman.
You know, I wanted to -- I wanted to change.
And so I started doing what I -- what I needed to do in the prison, preparing.
When I left, I went to Substance Abuse Foundation in Long Beach.
I did not go back downtown.
I had made a decision -- "I'm done with all of this."
-Let's open up in a word of prayer.
Most gracious God, we just thank you and praise you, Father, for this day.
-I started learning about the disease of addiction.
I didn't know what to do.
I just knew -- I knew what I wasn't going to do.
And that worked for me.
-Did you try to get jobs?
Oh, my gosh.
But I had such an extensive criminal history.
I didn't believe nobody was gonna hire me, no way.
If you say -- they ask you, "Have you ever been arrested for a felony?"
and you say yes, guess what happens to your application.
They file it in the trash.
They don't call you back.
They say you're rehabilitated, but the world don't know that.
Corporations don't believe that.
You know, they really don't.
And I said, I'm going to go to school.
I was in my early 40s, and it was an amazing, amazing adventure.
You know, that was an amazing feat, as well, you know, graduating with a master's.
I was 60 years old.
I was one of the oldest students in the class.
-In 2016, Renee becomes a social worker.
-Part of transitioning from incarceration to the free world is utilizing coping skills.
-Today, she works for A New Way of Life, an L.A. organization for formerly incarcerated women.
-When I went to prison, I didn't know who I was, and I've done 36 1/2 years in prison, so... -The things that I've gone through and the things that I've lived through makes me a good therapist.
Because people can tell me stuff and I don't faint.
They can say, "I slept in the alley with no clothes on," and I'll say, "Oh, yeah, I tried that."
"I've been to prison 10 times."
"Yeah, I went twice."
I've been everywhere.
There is nothing you can tell me that's scary.
Because I understand.
-Renee, tell me about your children.
-Oh, my God.
I have -- I have six kids.
And they are -- are just wonderful people.
I didn't raise my kids, but I'm here today.
-How hard was it when you got out of prison to start to reconcile with them, to start to have any relationship?
You know, you know, your family is the last people to forgive you, first off.
They believe you are a butthole and you will always be that.
And so, I agree.
Maybe I am.
But this is one thing I know for sure, is that I love you.
I want to be a part of your life if you'll have me.
And I'm really sorry I wasn't there for you when you were babies.
But I can't go back and get that time.
So let's start from there.
Let's start from here.
Let's get to know one another.
So, I have all these wonderful adult children, and I get to be a grandmother to all their kids.
And I couldn't show up for them, but I show up for all my grandkids to the best of my ability.
-Her daughter Christian was raised by Renee's sister-in-law.
-I don't have an actual, like, in-person memory of her, I think until I was like maybe 12.
So I do know, like, in my pre-teens, I was angry.
I was upset that she wasn't around.
As teenage years went on, it grew.
I think the first time I heard her full story, I was maybe 19, and she invited me to a church and she gave a testimony.
And it was the first time that I had heard her say anything about, like, her childhood and the things that had happened to her.
-What did you think at that moment?
-I understood what was going on.
-I think we need to think about formerly incarcerated people as people.
I think we start there.
And people make mistakes.
People have problems.
People have personality quirks.
People have issues.
The question for us is, is whether or not we're able to build a world in which people who have made a mistake have a place in it.
That's the question, and what place do we want to build for those people?
That's the bigger question, I think.
That's the question of justice.
Is a just world one in which most people who've made a mistake will struggle for the rest of their lives?
Is that justice to us?
And if it's not, then we need to do something else.
-I think I really would want people just to understand that about anybody that goes to jail.
You know, is that they're just people, man.
I don't want to give the misconception that people don't do bad things, 'cause that's not what I'm saying.
Just know that I take responsibility for my life, that's all.
I just want a better life, so I can give my son a better life.
-Once people see that you're a felon, it's... you're just -- you're a felon.
And I just -- I don't want to just be a felon for the rest of my life.
I just want to leave something behind to my kids that says that you're not a reject and you're not a reject's reject.
[ Sobs ] That you can be whatever you want to be.
And that I wish I had been better.
-It's really difficult when you first come home.
It's scary when you first come home.
It really is.
The system... you know, it's not built to help us succeed.
But we have to fight.
We have to keep going.
-Do not count the people out for a mistake that they make.
The most important part is what do you do to move away from that mistake?
Be patient with people.
Don't be so judgmental.
In my case, look at the work I'm doing.
Look who I am as an individual.
Judge me from that.
Don't judge me from my past.
Redemption is real.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -This program was made possible by The Kendeda Fund -- committed to advancing restorative justice and meaningful work through investments in transformative leaders and ideas.
More at KendedaFund.org.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.