Some people are scared of change, simply because they don’t know what’s on the other side. For individuals with incarceration histories, that may mean repeatedly returning to the negative behavior that leads them to prison and jail. As Fortune participant Donnell Bruns shares, “I used to always go to jail, and my friend told me when I got out, ‘Maybe you go to jail so much because it’s easy for you—you’re not scared.”
Indeed, fear and safety take on added complexity behind bars. On one hand, incarceration is filled with violence (“It’s just a terrible environment to be in,” notes Donnell), but on the other hand, community and familiarity can be found there. Over time, that familiarity can decrease the brunt of incarceration sentencing, especially for individuals who have multiple experiences with it. “It’s safer outside [of jail,] but you’re so used to going to jail that you [tell yourself,] ‘I know this person, I know [what happens] over there. So, you step inside the room.”
Freeing oneself from the mindset of incarceration is a part of the process toward successful reentry. Through positive community support and immersive, culturally conscious programs, The Fortune Society aids in that process. For 50 years, we’ve shown that thriving as contributing members of the community and having a history of justice involvement do not have to be mutually exclusive experiences. Donnell discovered that through our Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) program, and it transformed his life. “If I wasn’t at Fortune, I’d still be doing what I [was doing],” he notes. His life, which was previously spent on the streets and involved in drugs, is now on an entirely different path. And it’s one that Donnell never wants to leave: “If I went to jail right now, I’d probably cry,” he says, “I’d lose my [apartment], I wouldn’t be able to go to school, I won’t get a job, and won’t see my daughter. Everything I worked for [would be] out the window.”
The support network Donnell has found at Fortune is helping him to prevent that from happening. Staff members like Court Advocate Jose Vazquez, Case Manager Amanda Torres, and Better Living Center (BLC) Social Worker Diane Racz have given him tools to thrive. Here, he’s shown how to communicate effectively and prevent relapse. And for the first time, steady employment is within reach. Those, like Fortune staff, who truly understand Donnell’s story is helping him see that new chapters can be added to it—one with surprise, happy endings.
Now inspired, Donnell wants to inspire others in return. His goal is to be a counselor, helping young adults see that change is possible. “I’m 37, will be 38 in a few months, and just [turned my life] around. So, I figure if I [share my story with] people who are younger, they won’t have to go through what I went through.” Disproving the perceived certainty of despair after incarceration was a turning point in Donnell’s story. He knows now: There’s nothing to be afraid of—Fortune is there for people with his background.
“Fear is a big thing. [Individuals with justice involvement sometimes] stick to what they know,” he notes, “…they don’t know where to live, they don’t want to live in a shelter,…[but] Fortune helps you.”
*Written by David Leon Morgan