Updated at 6:30 p.m. on July 28.
The media is beginning to reflect these changes. Perhaps nothing has stirred up the conversation quite as much as Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” which was inspired by author Piper Kerman’s actual experience of spending a year in prison. The show returned for its final season last week. And as critics have already pointed out, this season marks something new: We see what happens when main character Piper (Taylor Schilling) is released from prison.
This tracks with the reality that with more women going into prison, more women are coming home. The adjustment from prison to the community comes with challenges and complications — so much so that there is now a robust body of academic literature studying how returning prisoners fare in the job market, find housing and readjust to family life.
These are the stories of three women in Philadelphia who were released from prison recently — or even decades ago. They’ve since seen remarkable successes and also found challenges in places they never anticipated.
Joyce Granger was not supposed to come home. That’s what the courts told her anyhow, when she was sent away to prison in 1985 at the age of 18 for a murder conviction, and sentenced to life without parole.
Her fate changed after a series of Supreme Court decisions — both state and federal — deemed it unconstitutional to sentence anyone under 18 to life without parole. Granger got another day in court for a resentencing hearing. There, the judge decided she had done enough time. On November 27, 2018, she came home.
Her family showered her in love. She’s since been living with her baby sister in Philadelphia, and spends a lot of time with her nieces, nephews and a grand-niece.
Now 53, Granger has been forced to learn to navigate a world she had never lived in as an adult. She anticipated some challenges: learning to pay bills, for example. But what she didn’t foresee was the impact of witnessing young people struggle, just like she struggled when she was a teen. Her homecoming, after all, came during the opioid crisis, and she found herself square in its epicenter.
Granger first encountered teens strung out on opioids on the subway. She worked the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at a candy factory in the suburbs, so when she got on the subway home, it was late at night. She saw homeless boys and girls nodding off in the subway car — a not uncommon sight in certain parts of Philadelphia. “My heart just dropped,” she says. Yes, she’d been among many women who were struggling with addiction in prison. But in prison, most people had detoxed. If they did use, it was covert, Granger says.
Witnessing teens in the throes of addiction was both triggering and demoralizing for Granger. She had been in a comparable state before being sent to prison. Addiction doesn’t control her life, she says, but looking at teens experiencing it, she was overcome by a sense of helplessness.
“The poor babies, their poor mothers. I wish I had a magic wand to help them,” Granger says. But she recognizes that she can’t help all teens struggling with addiction, so instead is working to overcome that very particular culture shock on her own terms.
For now, Granger says, she’s focusing on her own goals: getting a place of her own and becoming fully independent.
Shawn Baker’s family has always been tight-knit. Her mother, daughter and granddaughter regularly made the schlep from Baltimore, Md., to rural Pennsylvania to visit her in prison throughout the eight years that she was incarcerated. When the 47-year-old was released on November 28, 2017, those three women arrived to take her home — but first, a meal at an Italian restaurant. Baker ordered fettuccine alfredo with mussels.
Choosing what she wants to eat, and when, is a freedom she continues to relish. “Anyone who comes from prison will tell you that,” she says, laughing.
But even more than late-night snacking, Baker says she is grateful to be able to earn a living:
Her challenge, though, is finding time to pursue a new career path and be there for her family, all while facing hurdles stemming from her criminal record.
In 2010, Baker pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for a fight she had with an acquaintance. She used her time in prison to plan for life after release: She became a certified peer specialist, an occupation akin to a caseworker, through a nonprofit health organization that provides training to prisoners. With that certificate and the professional connections she made, Baker managed to secure full-time employment within 30 days of release. She works at a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, helping people affected by the criminal-justice system navigate housing, employment or registering for government benefits. And she works a few hours with another nonprofit connecting women coming home from prison with various services. When she’s not working, Baker is studying behavioral health and human services at a local community college.
This year, the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition granted her the “Reentry Star of the Year Award.” She garnered this distinction “for her courage, resilience, and strength of character,” councilperson Helen Gym wrote in a citation of the award.
Baker recognizes she’s on the right track: “I have a job, I have an apartment, I’m driving, I’m grateful for all of that,” she says. But her family wants a piece of her, too. They missed her for eight years. Now, she’s just a couple of hours away. Yet balancing work and family life has proved challenging.
That balance is challenging for any parent or grandparent. In Baker’s case, however, she’s also saddled with parole obligations. Because her family lives in Baltimore, every time she wants to make the trip, she has to request permission to leave the county. And despite her tremendous successes, her economic stability is tenuous. She would like to be able to help her family with their financial struggles, but simply can’t.
Being there for them, and “trying to stay focused, going to school, it can become challenging and overwhelming,” she says. “But I refuse to give up.”
“Twenty-seven years ago,” says Sameerah Shabazz, referring to the day she was arrested. “Twenty-seven years. I always say that number because I need people to hear it.”
At 17, Shabazz was tried as an adult and convicted of voluntary manslaughter for her role in a street fight in which one victim was fatally stabbed. She spent three years in prison.
In the intervening decades, Shabazz has completed a bucket list’s worth of accomplishments: She earned a graduate degree, built a successful career in a field she is passionate about, raised a son and traveled the world — during her studies, she visited Ireland, South Africa and Germany, among a number of others. Today, she is the director of policy and advocacy at Ardella’s House, a Philadelphia nonprofit that serves women impacted by the criminal-justice system.
In Pennsylvania, like most states, a first-degree felony charge can never be expunged or sealed, short of a governor’s pardon. So the conviction will follow Shabazz no matter how many accomplishments she achieves or how closely she follows the law.
What hurts her the most is when her record impacts her parenting. She wants to be involved in her son’s education, but says she is prohibited from volunteering at his school: Any parent who leads a trip is required to undergo a background check. No zoo trips, museum visits or nature walks for her.
Shabazz’s son is 16 years old now, soon to be a senior in high school. “I have never been able to attend class trips with my son,” she says. “For years, I told him my work schedule was the reason. [When he was in] eighth grade, I told him the truth.”
It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Shabazz was in prison. Yet her record still dictates elements of her day-to-day life.