Although we are regularly contacted by people in prison, it’s rare to receive a letter that offers the kind of advice we received from Kevin Poppen, who is currently incarcerated at Growlersburg Conservation Camp #33 in Georgetown, Calif. And what we learned from him can go a long way towards helping those who are incarcerated prepare for their lives on the outside.
We heard from Poppen after sending him a copy of our book, Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed. He wrote to thank us for the book and encourage us to include what he refers to as a “reentry journal” in our next edition. And it’s such a good idea that we certainly will but don’t want to wait until then to share it with our readers. We decided to interview him by mail to see what other ideas he has.
Create a reentry journal
The idea to create a reentry journal came to Kevin Poppen when he was in solitary confinement. (He’s been incarcerated for 17 years.) Here’s the story, in his words:
“About four years ago, while sitting in administrative segregation (solitary confinement), I would daydream for hours and hours on end about what I was going to do when I got out of prison. For five months straight, I sat in a concrete box 24 hours a day, was allowed to leave the cell only once every three days for a five-minute shower. I spent five months staring at a wall creating budgets (all with arbitrary numbers, as I had no way of researching anything), playing out whole scenarios in my head about what I would do, where I would go, what I needed to accomplish and what might get in my way.”
One day Poppen grabbed a notebook and started randomly writing down his thoughts into what he describes as a “dream journal.” It even included a floor plan of what his future house would look like. At one point his sister sent him a box from Amazon that included a nice leather-bond notebook. About the same time, Poppen began to read Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed and three other job search books that we recommend. And he started to record useful information in his journal.
How his journal is organized
Poppen has several pages in the front of his “Re-entry Journal” for brainstorming. This section includes random thoughts, ideas, addresses and whatever. The rest of the journal is broken down into sections – housing, employment, nonprofit and social service info, and a detailed to-do list for once he begins his new life.
Where does he get his information? “Although some of the info came from the four books, but a lot of contact information and ideas I have in my journal came from years of slowly collecting. One inmate on the yard may have an inmate resource list of available services, another may have lived at a particular transitional housing location, another may have the address of a nonprofit that sends books to inmates.
“One good book I remember helping quite a bit at the time was published by Root & Rebound. (The organization’s Roadmap to Reentry provides legal information to those leaving prison.) Another way I’ve compiled info over the years is through inmate legal newsletters and magazines, such as Prison Legal News, California Lifer News, and newsletters from the Initiate Justice and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
Deciding what info to include
Poppen narrowed his topics down to the three things necessary for survival – food, shelter and clothing. And what one needs to obtain these things – employment.
Examples of what he included in the different categories:
- Food – physical and website addresses for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, churches and food banks.
- Shelter – contact info for transitional housing/sober living residences, Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) info for Section 8 housing options, etc.
- Employment – Turnaround packet instructions, job search websites, temp agency addresses, and info on how to conduct advance Google searches and use LinkedIn and zoominfo. Also resume ideas, interview questions, a strengths/weaknesses assessment and other useful tidbits picked up from the books he read.
In addition to compiling the information in his Reentry Journal, Poppen is creating a to-do list. That way he can hit the ground running when he gets out.
Here’s a list of the things Poppen plans to do immediately upon release:
- Check in at the parole office.
- Visit the DMV to obtain an identification card and make an appointment for a driving test.
- Visit government agencies to see if he qualifies for assistance (food stamps/general assistance).
- Check in with residence (sober living home or transitional living residence).
- Go shopping for work clothing.
- Start job search.
Change your mindset
While a reentry journal and to-do list will form a roadmap for reentry action, those leaving prison will also need to examine their attitudes, according to Poppen.
“Their heads need to be in the right place. Whatever behaviors or ways of thinking that got them incarcerated in the first place must be ironed out. Do this first,” he wrote.
“Some serious introspection needs to be exercised. I have yet to meet someone in prison whose real problem was the crime they committed. The problem is the underlying factors that caused the behavior in the first place. All the rest is a waste of time if someone isn’t prepared mentally and emotionally. The first step to prepare for reentry is to figure out the real reason one was incarcerated. And then seek help.”
Once that is taken care of, those preparing to leave prison need to assess what their needs are. “Then I would network, network, network. Learn how to write professional letters, and go on a letter writing campaign. Write every nonprofit that deals with inmates. Ask for referrals, and write some more,” Poppen wrote.
At the same time, they should write everything down in a journal and prepare a turnaround packet. “If they don’t have enough content for a turnaround packet, dedicate some time each day (while still incarcerated) to work on the things they need to do to fill out their checklist,” he wrote.
Poppen recommends keeping a day planner to record the dates when people write letters and the dates any responses are received. Write a short synopsis of the content of the letter and its response. That way people can remember what they’ve done and tracked their own progress.
And there’s one very important final thing to do, Poppen writes. “Anxiety should be addressed. It’s common for inmates to experience anxiety when thinking about and trying to plan for the future. This seems especially so the longer they have been incarcerated and the closer they get to their release date.
“It’s important they know that this is normal. They need to just put one foot in front of the other, and it will all work out. Being prepared is the best defense. It builds confidence and adds something to the equation.”