Program Participant

Adjusting to Life Outside Prison—with CHD’s Help

When Jose was released from prison after 42 years, he found it difficult to cope with freedom. He was one of the thousands of prisoners in the US every year who complete their sentences, but end up committing another crime and going back behind bars.

“I was lost,” he said. A prisoner re-entry program in the Boston area provided him with housing, but other services were lacking. By getting in a fistfight with his roommate, he had violated the terms of his probation, and was incarcerated again. “But I didn’t give up,” he said. “I just needed guidance.”

At present, Jose has been out of prison for five months and is now part of CHD’s Behavioral Health for Justice Involved Individuals (BH-JI), a program funded by MassHealth and the UMass Chan Medical School that supports people being released from the Franklin, Hampshire, and Berkshire County Jails. Jose, who had grown up in Holyoke after coming to the US from Puerto Rico when he was 16, was referred to BH-JI through a parole residential program in Northampton.

In the BH-JI program, launched in February of 2022, CHD community support navigators meet with prisoners before they leave jail—up to six months before they are released—to build a support plan, and follow them once they are released for three to 12 months, with the first 30 days being daily communication with visits, calls, or texts. After that period, they are visited weekly. The navigators connect participants to such services as housing, medical insurance, mental health stabilization, primary care, and substance use treatment—including Medication Assisted Treatment.

Jose is by far the longest-serving ex-inmate that BH-JI has supported. He came from a family of 14 children, left school after fourth grade, started drinking at 12, and went to reform school in Puerto Rico. In Holyoke, he hung out in the streets, drank heavily, and used heroin daily. “I was drinking and drugging,” he said. “Sometimes I would pass out at someone’s house and they’d have to call my friends to come pick me up.” During a drinking binge in 1980, he was so intoxicated that after he killed someone, to this day he can’t remember the actual act. “I remember before and after,” he said. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but in 1993, a judge reduced his sentence to second degree murder. That’s when he vowed to turn his life around.

“I started working on myself—educating myself,” he said. Homemade wine was available in prison, so was heroin, which was smuggled in, but he said enough was enough: if he were ever paroled, he reasoned, he could reinvent himself and stay out of trouble. He knew he could not change the past. The murder, he said, “will stay with me forever—it’s something I have to live with day after day. There are some things I cannot fix. But I didn’t want to get out and be the same person I was. I started taking advantage of every program to better my life—to be a different person.” He completed the prison’s Violence Reduction Program, the Alternatives to Violence Program, and participated in AA and NA. “I’ve been sober for 29 years,” he said.

Completely removed from society since 1980, Jose is slowly adjusting to life on the outside—figuring out how to use a smart phone and a debit card. He has been working with his navigators on learning how to use technology, applying for housing, and retrieving his identification documents and social security benefits. Among other things, navigators are supporting his recovery and making sure he is following through with his mental health and medical appointments—and that he is getting to AA meetings.

“This program is doing a lot for me, and I appreciate it,” said Jose, pointing out that BH-JI is a far cry from his previous re-entry program in the Boston area. “What I didn’t find over there I am finding over here,” he said. “And before, I had anxiety. I cried a lot, and I wasn’t really associating with people. I was isolated. Now, I’m coming out of that.”