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This story and the images were captured by Humans of New York while visiting The Fortune Society — a Robin Hood grantee aimed at supporting successful reentry from prison.

“I killed people, shot people, and robbed people. I’m not blaming society for my problems. These are things that I did. I was sentenced to 32 years to life. When I went to prison, I decided that I was never coming out again. I had to prepare myself for that. I got rid of all my compassion, sympathy, and pity. I had to deal with bruisers every day who might decide to throw a punch at me. So I suppressed all this stuff for three decades. Then oddly enough I was granted parole. Now I’m trying to learn to care again after spending 32 years in prison. Do you know how difficult that is?”

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“Max has been helping me learn how to rebuild my relationships. I’ve been trying to connect with my 17-year old niece. I don’t even know where to begin. When you’ve been in prison for 32 years, how do you relate to your teenage niece? I completely messed it up. She tried to give me some advice a few days ago, and I viewed it as a challenge and completely blew her off. Max saw that I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I explained the situation. Max helped me realize that my niece was being compassionate and I’d completely shut her down. I had misinterpreted the entire situation. So I immediately asked for permission to leave. I took two different trains out to Queens, knocked on my niece’s door, and gave her a single flower. I told her how sorry I was that I’d hurt her, and she started crying and hugged me. I was able to do that because of Max.”

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“We’re trying to unlearn the years of self-protection that it took to survive in prison. What works in there doesn’t work out here. In prison, vulnerability is considered a weakness. But vulnerability allows you to connect on an emotional level. Without it, you can’t develop skills or build healthy relationships. I want this support group to be a safe place for ex-felons to begin to feel vulnerable again. I want them to learn that they can express vulnerability, and experience the joys and disappointments of other people without getting hurt. If they can’t learn to express their vulnerability in relationships, they will end up back in prison. They’ll become isolated from their families because those relationships were built on deception, instead of trust. They’ll choose to express their vulnerabilities through drug use, or violence. They might even strike back at their boss when they’re reprimanded at work. The goal is to provide them with a safe platform to express their emotions before they’re filled up.”

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“My mom left me with my grandparents so she could prepare a way for us in America. But my grandparents passed away, so I came to America before my mother was ready. There were eight of us in one apartment. In my mind at the time, I thought that if I began to misbehave, I’d be sent back home. So one day I got in a fight at school, and when the teacher tried to restrain me, I hit her with a chair. I was only nine years old, but from that moment on, I became a system baby. My mom gave me up and I went to a foster home, then a boy’s home, then jail, then prison. When you go to prison, they make you strip naked, spread your ass cheeks, and cough. I refused to do it. So they beat me and threw me alone into the box. And I remember sitting in there alone, reflecting on my life, and where it had ended up. I started thinking about the other members of my family. My sister was a registered nurse. My grandmother owned two houses. My aunt was a payroll supervisor. My mother worked in advertising. I realized that success was in my DNA. For the first time, I developed a thought that prison was not a place that I belonged.”

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“I always say that I’ve done a life sentence — in installments. My behavior funneled me into the criminal justice system at the age of 17. I’ve done three state bids and numerous stints at Rikers. The cycle of recidivism is difficult to break. When you come out of prison, you have nothing: no home, no family, no money, and no job. The only thing you have is your social standing. And if your social standing in jail is perceived as higher than that on the outside, sometimes it’s preferable to go back. In prison, they called me ‘Pops.’ I got privileges. People respected me. I felt valued. When I got out, I had to start over.”

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