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.
On one occasion, I ran into an old friend who did not recognize me and just walked past me. I felt relieved: I wasn't even sure I wanted to be recognized. Now that I've been back a few weeks, I no longer fear such encounters as much and have discovered that being upfront about my recent past is the only way to wipe the slate clean and move forward.
In my first days back, I also feared old "triggers" to use drugs, such as smoke shops (which sell drug paraphernalia such as glass pipes and torches), hookup bars like The Eagle, cruising areas -- even certain food joints. Yet, as the days went on, I realized I was more afraid of the thought of being tempted by cigarettes, porn, sex, or drugs -- all of which had gone together, in my experience -- than I was actually craving them. In contrast to my previous, short-lived attempts at abstinence, my government-imposed long-term separation from people, places, and things related to drugs had, remarkably, restored my sanity.
I was also finally able to be open about my life. In prison, to not attract harassment, assault, or ostracization, I had concealed that I was gay and HIV positive. But in my first week out, I was able to walk into a 12-step meeting at NYC's LGBT Community Center, which had been beautifully renovated in my absence, and share my story with peers. It was enormously emotional and redeeming for me to be able to vent long-repressed feelings.
My first week after my release was filled with meetings with bureaucrats at Social Security and city housing offices, trying to get my public assistance, food stamps, Social Security Disability benefits, and housing arrangements secured. The case managers and coordinators perfunctorily completed what seemed to be endless intake forms, consent forms, financial forms, psychosocial evaluations, and online screenings with every possible detail of my past, present, and foreseeable future. As frustrating as the bureaucracies are, I couldn't help but feel grateful that the system was going to support me in getting back on my feet.
It was especially grueling for me to report to the parole office and probation offices. The conditions of my parole supervision were outlined in detail: I must be back in my apartment every single night by 9 p.m. I must have no contact with law enforcement agents and cannot socialize with other parolees or ex-convicts on supervision, even if we were to provide one another with moral support.
I cannot travel outside the five boroughs of New York City or frequent any establishment that serves alcohol as its primary business or that hosts illicit activities, such as gambling, drugs, or prostitution. I cannot consume alcoholic beverages or take any drug or medication unless prescribed. I must submit to urine testing two to three times per week and call an automated system nightly without fail to find out whether I need to report the next day for the screening.
But, there's more. I am to be enrolled and actively participate in an outpatient drug rehabilitation program, attend 12-step meetings, and put in 300 hours of community service. In addition, I am expected to seek active employment, complete vocational courses, and have at least a part-time job secured within the first month of my release.
Fortunately, I already have part-time work lined up as a recruiter for a National Institute on Drug Abuse-sponsored study of methamphetamine addiction and dependence, assisting Columbia University professor Judy Rabkin, Ph.D., who was instrumental in negotiating my plea agreement with the assistant district attorney who prosecuted my case. I had originally been facing up to eight years of incarceration for a conviction related to a sale of 21 grams of meth -- a non-violent offense that carried the same penalty as the sale of 100 kilograms of cocaine.
Through Dr. Rabkin's intervention and job offer, my sentence was reduced significantly and I was granted parole six months ahead of time, for which I feel extremely blessed. For countless other inmates, however, who have not been so fortunate, long sentences have been imposed, and they remain incarcerated with little hope of rehabilitation from their addiction. For more than first-time offenders, the prospect of ever seeing the streets again is even dimmer.
I may not visit either of my two remaining living family members -- my brother in Puerto Rico and sister in New Jersey -- for the first six months of my release. I'm looking at a lonely holiday season ahead, but even that beats being locked up.
I have already established a new safety net of supportive sober friends and strengthened ties to my family members, whom I so badly neglected in the past when drugs filled my entire day and night. Not one day passes when I don't drop to my knees at night to thank my Higher Power for my liberty, health, and sanity.
Despite all the suffering and tribulations of the past few years, I look forward to sharing my story with all those who will listen. I especially hope to reach those gay and/or HIV-positive men and women (including transgender women) still behind bars, to give them a sense of hope. For many of them, their day of freedom will also come.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.