I believed that I had mastered the bondage behind the gates of penitentiary. I mastered it because I knew what I wanted, and what I needed to work towards once I was released back into my community.

Little did I know, on that last day, when I was finally dressed and the gates to freedom opened to me, everything that I knew I wanted and what I believed I could achieve would be altered by the reality of what inmates called, “the real world.”

Nothing in the penitentiary prepared me for the many trials and the many failed attempts I would have while trying to regain what I lost.

I paid my debt and served my time. And, instead of providing returning citizens like me an opportunity to prove I can be a productive citizen, we mount barriers to every step of returning to our democracy. What we’re really telling returning citizens when they reenter society is, “You may have paid your debt, but we’re not going to help you become productive.”

And that’s why so many returning citizens fail after they re-enter society. We should not be judged forever because of a mistake we made on our worst day.

There are so many barriers to successful reentry. We struggle for a second chance at employment, housing, education and more. How can I prove that I am redeemable if I never get a chance to even provide adequate food or shelter for myself? To live with full dignity?

I have two minimum wage jobs, an education that I can’t afford, and everyday I make the difficult decision to either buy groceries or pay money towards getting my driver’s license. Because I’m trying so hard to make ends meet, I have to find new and creative ways to explain to my child why I can’t attend their school functions.

I paid my debt eight years ago, and I am still considered “not redeemable” by some.

To get through this, I’ve had to learn how to accept and believe that the relationship between the person I was, and the person I am becoming will have to be enough. And that that person deserves a full and unfiltered second chance.

It wasn’t easy getting to that place, but I did it by believing four important things:

  1. I learned to take each rejection as a step towards the right direction.
  2. I learned to never give up. I didn’t let the word “No” defeat me or keep me from becoming a better version of myself.
  3. I believed everyday had a chance at being a small beginning for something great. Never despise small beginnings. (This one is biblical, Zechariah 4:10, New Living Translation [NLT])
  4. I believe the way I viewed myself had a direct effect on the way the world viewed me, and I am more than my past mistakes.  

These affirmations have helped me over the last eight years. They have kept me from going back to jail or prison when times get hard to bear.

I paid my debt and I earned my second chance. It’s time we remove barriers to reentry for folks like me and give us a true opportunity to reintegrate in our communities.