An Exile’s Return From Prison

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One of the cruelest hopes we may experience in life is the irrational thought that a loved one who is dead may one day return. When your guard is down, in defiance of reality, you fantasize that that person will reappear, as real as anything. That’s a little what it’s like to have someone away in prison, and imagine their eventual return.

Meanwhile, the bitterest dream for the prisoner — that one day the gates will be unlocked and he will walk, live, and breathe outside those walls — is the slender thread of hope running through the days and years of his sentence. Until, that day arrives! He leaves the prison garb behind and suddenly sets forth to walk free in this world, and you’d think he would be excited and energized…

But instead, he falls into a deep, long sleep!

So went the first hours of freedom for Daniel Holden, the protagonist of Rectify, SundanceTV’s critically acclaimed fictional series about a man released from prison after 18 years. And now, as the fourth and final season of “Rectify” comes out, Daniel has come to Nashville, where he – like so many others – struggles against the odds to forge a new beginning. He comes to an agency called “New Canaan Project”. It’s remarkably similar to Project Return. Like at Project Return, the focus at New Canaan is on employment, and the core values are honesty, encouragement, and perseverance.

Daniel resembles more than anything an exile who has returned to life. Each person we convict and sentence to prison becomes an exile, banished from our sight and our collective consideration. Each prisoner who returns from exile – as almost all eventually do – has to start his life over, usually from nothing. For the majority, it’s about what they don’t have: no ID documentation, no clothing, no food, no housing, no employment, no transportation, no money. The fortunate ones have some family or friend who extends some degree of welcome. Either way, the returned exile, upon getting out of prison, finds there’s no place for them, really, to fit in. Life has moved on without them.

More than that, though, it’s just moving! So fast. Motion sickness is common on the ride away from prison. Falling into a deep sleep, like Daniel did, is also common. In exile, nothing moved fast, and much didn’t move at all, but paradoxically amidst all that slowness there’s no such thing as a good night’s sleep.

Meanwhile, return they do, every day, uncounted on and uncounted, and unaccounted for. It’s always difficult to know who’s getting out and when, but as many as 2,000 prisoners are being released today, and every day, from state and federal prisons across the US. About 300 a week in Tennessee. Each day, exiles return to the streets of Nashville. The lucky ones live initially in halfway houses, with curfews and chores and roommates. For each of them, like for Daniel, the job’s the thing: gaining and keeping employment is the linchpin for new life.

Make no mistake: none of this is meant to diminish harm inflicted and damage undone. People have been convicted of terrible things. The time does eventually come, though, when the sentence is deemed served, and the debt is stamped “paid”. The exile returns, emerging from prison like Daniel with both the heavy, lifelong regret for wrongs they can never make right, and the slenderest of hope for a new beginning.

Part of the Rectify story has been the question of Daniel’s innocence or guilt. But the real suspense of Season 4 of Rectify centers on two unknowns: can he find himself, and can he find his place in this world. The good news is, people returning from incarceration are getting jobs, fitting in, and starting over.

Project Return, like the New Canaan Project, keys on the hope and volition of the exile. Daniel, like the hundreds who come through Project Return each year, wants to find his stride and his selfhood in the motion of free life, and wants to find his future and even his redemption in employment. We at Project Return watch his struggle, we see the weight of his remorse and self-doubt, and we yearn for him to succeed and stay free. His freedom will be hard-won.

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