Back on the Outside
December 14, 2017
After nearly 20 years caring for New York City AIDS patients and pioneering HIV research at St. Vincent's Hospital, Gabe Torres, M.D., succumbed to meth addiction and his own HIV diagnosis before spending the past three years in federal and state prison on drug-related charges. Now, a few months out of prison, from his new home in the Bronx, he reflects on the journey that so many parolees, living with or without HIV, have to face: reentry in "the real world."
As the day of my release from Ulster Correctional in upstate New York drew closer, anxiety and trepidation mounted within me, but they were mixed with an insurmountable joy at the thought of again experiencing freedom. I would soon be able to experience the small things in life that I had learned to cherish and had missed so much during my incarceration, such as playing with a pet dog, taking a bike ride around the park, or surfing the internet.
My fantasy for the past 37 months and 23 days had been imagining myself walking through the barred doors of the prison, allowed to step outside into the free world again. And yet, I knew this could be frightening, too. I had met many inmates whose incarceration predated the advent of cell phones, the internet and other technology we take for granted nowadays.
When Oct. 12 finally arrived, after I gleefully distributed the contents of my locker --snacks, toiletries, playing cards, and a few books and magazines -- to my fellow inmates, I was escorted to the receiving and discharge department. There, I doffed my hunter-green uniform and was given a pair of chinos, a long-sleeve white button-down shirt, a belt, black boots, a New York State Department of Corrections ID card, $40 in cash, and a bus ticket to Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Crossing the threshold of the barbed wire electrified fence was momentous and thrilling in a way I can barely describe in words. Once outside, I walked with the other five released inmates to the bus stop and marveled at the nonchalance of passers-by and pedestrians, strolling down the street or meandering about totally oblivious to their gift of freedom.
My first bus trip without having to be handcuffed and shackled to another inmate or packed into a bullpen like I was part of a herd of cattle was exhilarating. Even making small talk with other bus passengers, asking directions at the information booth, or buying a pack of gum (which is prohibited in prison) at a convenience store was a wonderful experience, trivial as they may seem.
I navigated my way through NYC's Port Authority amid throngs of rush-hour travelers and found the subway, feeling dazed and confused by suddenly being able to direct my own path instead of abiding by the rules of a prison setting -- where you have to march in orderly fashion everywhere you go, and every movement is monitored on camera or by correction officers. I made my way to the Bellevue shelter where I registered for my first night, since I had to wait until morning to move into an apartment in the Bronx that had been secured for me by Matt Baney, a former colleague on the board of Bailey House, a housing nonprofit for people with HIV/AIDS.
That first night, my sister and her husband drove in from Jersey to bring me a coat, additional clothes, and cash. I was ecstatic to be able to greet my family for the first time like a normal human being, rather than as an inmate whose contact with visitors is intensely monitored to prevent the transfer of contraband. I bought a pack of Marlboro reds with some of the money, but as soon as I inhaled one, I became nauseous -- and immediately regretted spending a chunk of what little cash I had on cigarettes. I soaked the rest of the pack in water and threw them away.
After sleeping in a prison dormitory amid hundreds of raucous inmates for so long, that first night at the shelter was creepy: I was not used to silence at bedtime. I surrendered to exhaustion and fell asleep after thanking my Almighty for finally answering my countless prayers for freedom. After a long and convoluted journey through a dark tunnel that seemed endless, I had emerged at the other end -- and somehow was still sane.
The very next day, I moved into a furnished apartment in the Bronx and began piecing my new life together. I went grocery shopping and prepared my first home-cooked meal, which reminded me how much I had missed cooking -- and being able to decide when and what to eat. In prison, the unappetizing menu repeats weekly to the point that I had stopped watching TV ads for savory foods, as they would make me depressed.
Then, I set out filling my days with the activities of everyday life: establishing a routine, looking for a job, and communicating with friends again after a three-year absence. I was full of fear of having the word "convict" emblazoned on my forehead every time I met someone who knew me before my incarceration, so in a preemptive swipe, I volunteered the information to almost everybody I talked to the first few days. I would blurt out the fact that I had just been released from state prison, expecting people to take two steps back or shower me with "OMGs" or "WTFs." I had my own preconceived notions of convicts and criminals as untrustworthy and reprehensible.
To my amazement, instead of meeting with immediate rejection, I was embraced with true acceptance, interest, and caring by most. Most wanted to know what prison was like and how I had survived the experience, and they seemed honestly interested in my well-being.
Walking down familiar streets in Chelsea near my old apartment during my first few weeks back in New York was eerie. Three years had washed away many old storefronts and establishments. Trendy cafes had replaced old bodegas, and even longtime buildings had been remodeled. Turning a corner, I would look at people in an attempt to recognize them, only to be confronted with the insouciance and indifference of strangers.
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