Featured ReportingLatest NewsMarvel Cooke FellowshipPrison Protest

Rebuilding A Life After Years In A Cage

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

Exhausted, I grudgingly open my eyes and pat my blanket as I awkwardly search for my phone. I open Twitter to see that my account has blown up. As I search my DMs to read the comments of support, a warm calming feeling covers me. My eyes well up in tears as I read one comment in particular. “We are better with you here.” 

That is all it said. So few words – but exactly what I needed to hear. I remember the night before thinking how I probably shouldn’t post the tweet but I had no one to talk to. A person should never have to ask themselves if they would be better off dead or back in prison. Still, after less than six months out back on the streets, I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. I asked myself if I should just check out.

My name is Jessica Sylvia and I am a 47-year-old formerly incarcerated trans woman. I was released on June 20, 2022 after serving 222 months for a domestic violence-related crime involving my mother’s ex-husband. 

I consider the prison system to be nothing but state-sanctioned human trafficking. Kidnapping and caging a person does not equal accountability; it perpetuates violence. The human trafficking economy may not create safety, but it is big money. The United States spends $81 billion every year to incarcerate people. That number does not include all of the money generated around contracts that provide “care” and “services” For example, treatment is necessary. People need to communicate with their families and buy food. All of that costs money. The total incarceration economy could actually equal hundreds of billions annually. How many people have an economic interest in maintaining incarceration?

No one is surprised to hear that post-incarceration life is difficult and it is extremely easy to get sent back to prison. According to Harvard Political Review, two out of three are rearrested within three years of release, and 50 percent are re-incarcerated. There are many structural reasons for that uncomfortable statistic. It is more difficult than ever for people in the U.S. to secure housing, but it’s a genuine crisis for formerly incarcerated people, who are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness. We are all obligated to pay our bills, but there is no guarantee of work. The unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is 27 percent – which is higher than it was for the U.S. during The Great Depression. 

With challenges like that just to secure basic needs, how can we expect formerly incarcerated people to succeed? Rebuilding a life after years in a cage is a daunting task and some of those challenges are quantified and documented. But there are many more complicated, nuanced challenges that are less popularly known and harder to turn into data.

Meeting New People

Safear was released after doing eight years in prison. Safear is active in his community and has a support system that provided him with a part-time job and a place to live as soon as he was released. 

“For the average person without a job or housing lined up, it is just too hard,” Safear tells me. “When people know you have been to prison, they usually don’t want anything to do with you. They show it in their body language. I don’t even apply for jobs or housing because chances are you will be denied. Having a record impacts you psychologically.” 

Even though Safear had an iPhone before he was incarcerated, he tells me that he struggles to keep up with technology. “Just the amount of apps I’m on is overwhelming,” Safear says. “But the hardest thing has been time management. Time stands still in prison. Out here things are moving so fast it can feel overwhelming.” I relate to what Safear is telling me. Prison time moves extremely slowly. Suddenly a person feels as if they are living in fast-forward.

Kenneth Agtuca knows that shock as well as anyone. Now 70, Ken spent 50 years incarcerated. At age 17 in 1970, Ken was the youngest person living in The Washington State Penitentiary. His story reads a little like an action movie. As a young man, Ken earned a reputation as a fearless outlaw. He was charged under the habitual criminal act for his activities while incarcerated, extending his sentence to life without parole. In 1992, he escaped and was on the run for several months. He was eventually captured in Reno, Nevada. Federal charges soon followed after he was identified in a string of bank robberies. Ken ended up in Marion—a federal prison with a bad reputation. Ken had resigned himself to the thought of living the rest of his life in prison due to both state and federal sentences. In 2015, an unexpected change in the law offered him a chance at parole.

Ken went to a work release in January 2020 and was formally paroled the following October. He moved in with family but lived a fairly independent life. “Meeting people for the first time was the hardest thing to do,” Ken tells me in a deep gravelly voice. “I was locked up for 50 years and I had to explain where I have been. I didn’t want people to know about my past. I wanted to be seen as normal. I was in four different books and wanted nothing to do with the stigma of criminalization.”

I reflect deeply on my own experience as Ken explains himself to me. Ken is a thoughtful and intelligent man. I get the sense he was as crafty as he was daring in his youth. Much older now, he carries the weight of his reputation as a curse. This is not the same man who was convicted of those crimes.

“I dodged a lot of questions and felt like I had to lie to feel normal,” he tells me. The self-censoring Ken describes is common for people who have been to prison. We understand that people will view us differently for our past. As a result, we often engage in code-switching. We feel at ease and reveal much of our lives to some people. To others, we find ways to hide the gaps or even conjure up stories of a fictional past. It is an awful feeling to know that your truth will likely frighten others and result in your abandonment. 

Ken explains that he could be truthful in substance use treatment groups. There, he found a judgment-free zone where folks are grappling with addiction. Other formerly incarcerated people in those groups understand what it is like to be criminalized. Still, Ken feels uncomfortable with being viewed as a legend by some who glamorize violence and admire his outlaw antics. He wants to build a new life and meet new people who will support him in making positive decisions.

Like Ken and Safear, I was one of the fortunate people released from prison with a place to live. I have managed to get by as a self-employed community organizer, consultant, and freelance journalist. Even though I have had housing, after 18 years in prison, at times I felt like a refugee. I had no clothes and no belongings. I spent much of the first two months going to appointments and gathering the things I needed – it felt like a treasure hunt! Almost everyone I knew still lived in prison. I appeared in the world out of nowhere and was starting over from scratch.

I can remember being at the grocery store and feeling surprised by how nice people are. I was used to being treated pretty badly by guards. Every day was fun and I cherished every first-time experience. I was excited to get my life back and I really wanted to date. 

It had been many years since I had the opportunity to be alone with someone. I soon found out that dating wasn’t easy. Like Ken, I have this huge gap in my life that I have to explain. I decided to just be honest. I felt like getting the deal-breakers out of the way would be the best way to go. I dealt with the transgender issue and the prison thing the same way. I would get hundreds of hits on a dating app every day. Guys often just swipe after seeing a picture and don’t read the profile. I thought it was odd how many cops were hitting on me. I was kicked off Tinder within weeks, after several reports that I was a felon. I had no idea the popular app is one of many that bans convicted felons.

I went months dating and trying to figure out the right time to tell people about my past. I avoided guys that I suspected were using drugs or that I thought would be trouble. The mature guys I was interested in didn’t want anything to do with me after hearing about my time in prison. It is hard enough for a trans woman where I live. Add criminalization to the situation and it feels hopeless. I started future-tripping; It’s a mind fuck.

The Supervision Stranglehold

I remember learning that I would have a community custody term of four years. That means I have conditions placed on me and I could be sent back to prison without breaking the law. For example, I am not allowed to have pepper spray. I am seen as a threat and not the vulnerable trans woman that I am. With anti-trans violence at record highs, living and dating in a small conservative town scares me. 

I can expect Department of Corrections (DOC) officers wearing bulletproof vests to beat on my door with flashlights every month unannounced. There can be no alcohol in the house. Something as innocent as my mother keeping a bottle of wine on the kitchen counter could get me violated and sent to jail. I panic just thinking who the hell would want to live with me for the next four years. 

I must attend domestic violence classes every week for a year and it will cost me about $2000. The crime happened nearly 20 years ago and I barely even remember it. What good is this supposed to do? My community corrections officer (CCO) tells me if I am not enrolled by the end of the month he will violate me. I get the feeling he would enjoy violating me.

I was told the chemical dependency class I completed in prison doesn’t count. Even though I completed it in prison as a condition of my sentence, DOC doesn’t honor it unless it is completed within the last six months of a sentence. Only a small percentage graduate during that small window at the end of their sentence. I graduated a year before release, so I am forced to take yet another assessment. Going to a treatment center for an assessment is a little like going to a barber and asking if they think you need a haircut; they profit from providing the service.

The millions of dollars appropriated for these prison programs are wasted on profits for what is too often euphemistically called “treatment.” The public should be aware of this. That money could actually go towards housing or education. 

Even though I have already paid thousands of dollars over the last 20 years I still owe over $15,000 in court fines due to compound interest. Thinking about all of the conditions, fines, classes, and appointments for the next four years makes me nauseous. I feel my dream of finishing my undergraduate degree slipping away. I am not sure how I will be able to work full-time and accomplish all that is expected of me. I feel as though I only exist so that others can extract value from me. I am trying my best but have just enough time, energy, and money left to survive. 

Safear is on parole for the next nine years—an incredibly long period of time to be vulnerable to mostly arbitrary rearrest. He tells me that he has a 7 p.m. curfew, which can cause a person to miss out on basic life experiences, like dinner with a friend. 

Safear is also required to do counseling and says he has three different counselors. Recently, he had an issue that resulted in a dangerous “no show” when he couldn’t make a session because of work.  Safear says he left a message with his counselor but due to a mistake, they didn’t get it. The counselor reported him to the parole agent as a “no-show” for a session. 


Shadowproof is paywall-free thanks to our supporters. If you appreciate our work, please donate or subscribe to keep us going.


“Counselors, new counselors, have no idea how what they report to agents, the impact that has on a person,” Safear said. “A parole agent could do a technical violation for six months. It was a mistake of someone failing to log the message I left.” I sense the mix of fear and frustration in his voice as he continues.

“A technical violation could result in a halfway-back house where you go… it’s like a prison on the streets. You can’t go outside there and have to schedule visits. You have to schedule programming throughout the day.”

“The guidelines are so difficult that it seems like you are set up for failure,” he explained. “It’s like walking a tightrope. The pressure you feel to try to keep everything together.”

“The counseling is only open weekdays until 3 p.m. How do you take that time off from work? They say it’s your problem. I understand the reason why people being supervised sounds like a good idea. Supervision actually becomes a hindrance to succeeding.” 

I ask Safear what would help him. “Not having the pressure of going back to jail for a technical violation would help me the most.”

“What that pressure does to a person’s mental health is awful. We have to make the distinction between technical violations and actual lawbreaking behavior. The pressure is unreal,” he said. “Technical parole violations should be abolished. How could you send someone back to prison for a technical violation?”  

Kenneth Agtuca was violated and sent back to prison for having a drink at a casino on his birthday. The federal parole agent gave him 60 days of no casinos and a breathalyzer requirement for his vehicle. The state parole people were less forgiving, deciding on three years in prison. Ken is currently incarcerated at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center.

The Slave Catchers

Whether a person has to report to a parole agent or a community CCO (or whatever title they have), it feels like being on a leash. Every person who has to report hopes they get lucky enough to have a chill CCO. 

They have such wide discretion, and the arbitrary nature of supervision feels peculiar. A CCO may decide to impose conditions or not as a matter of how they see a situation. For that reason, the biases of a particular CCO play a big role in one’s fate. As a trans woman, I never quite know how a person will react to me. 

When I met my CCO, I could tell he was an austere and conservative man. He seemed very skeptical about my line of work and aspirations to be self-employed. He soon demanded that I provide proof of paychecks and told me I am expected to work full-time. I soon learned that he had a very low opinion of me. Maybe having 1312 tatted on my fingers along with a big A on my right hand pissed him off. 

He made several comments about my body and clothing during check-ins. On one occasion it was my pink heels he didn’t like. Another time he bra-checked me and told me I need to dress appropriately, whatever that means. I wasn’t breaking any dress codes and thought I looked just fine. It was eerily similar to the times when prison guards pulled me aside to bra-check me or examine my appearance. It is degrading and insulting.

I already have a fear of men in uniforms from years of shitty prison experiences and my trauma was triggered the first time my CCO yelled at me. The second time, I asked him why it seems like he is always chewing me out. He immediately started yelling at me that, if I wanted him to chew me out, he could do that. I commented that I am sure he is very good at that. At that moment, his boss interrupted to pull him aside. I was afraid the guy was going to lose his temper and taser me or something. I was afraid to be in a room alone with him. 

The next time I saw him, he started yelling at me in his office and he kicked me out for a minute so he could regain his composure. It was really starting to scare me. I confided in my therapist about the situation. She was deeply concerned that this guy had some kind of underlying rage about me that was coming out in routine interactions. I believe that my own community organizing work inspired her and she did something very unusual. She intervened and scheduled a meeting with his boss. After that, the yelling stopped and I was never alone in a room with him again. I don’t know what I would have done without the support of that therapist. My family was also starting to get worried but didn’t know how to help me. People are often afraid of confronting people with authority and worry that doing so may make things worse. 

I did a public disclosure request on my file and found some concerning things. It appeared that my classification risk level had somehow changed from low to high. My CCO documented comments that DOC should monitor me to make sure I am not taking advantage of my mother’s generosity. I read an entry that suggested I should lower my goals. One of the incidents where he yelled at me actually read that he had to calm me down, which was not what had happened. I was shocked at what I read.

Safear tells me, “The parole agent always says you have to try harder and do better. It’s like climbing a mountain with no climbing gear.” Just like my CCO, Safear’s parole officer comes to his residence randomly and unannounced. 

“I live with 2 other people and one is immunocompromised,” he said. “This parole agent goes from house to house and my roommates are terrified that he could bring a disease with him.”  

Safear tells me that his parole officer once visited him just to ask him about his activism. I get the feeling it was out of concern and not support. As prison abolitionists, Safear and I know our values conflict with the people who have power over us. Mine seemed to be intent on breaking me. I worry about Safear.

An Uncertain Future

I stated earlier that, within three years, two out of three are rearrested again and 50 percent are re-incarcerated. Ken was arrested and back in prison. According to those odds, either Safear or myself will be arrested in the next couple of years and there’s a strong chance one of us will be back in prison.

Over a prison phone, Kenneth Agtuca tells me, “I find myself thinking about the people that I am going to associate with and how I am going to do things. I have a life max and they can violate me without cause. There is a fear that it is looming, it is all around you. You don’t even have to be guilty. Under my guidelines, they can violate me without cause just for being under suspicion.” 

Ken doesn’t make excuses or complain about being sent back to prison. He knows that he doesn’t have any room for error and can’t let his guard down. It isn’t enough to simply obey the law now. Ken has to be squeaky clean if he has any hope of freedom. As a Native American, I know Ken has the support of his tribe. That support can carry him a long way if he can navigate the minefield laid out by the state. 

On May 18th, I arrive at the DOC office to check in with my CCO. A DOC officer approaches the mirrored window to inform me that my CCO no longer works at that office. I contain my excitement as he calls me back to his office. This guy is different; I get the sense he doesn’t hate me. I have a short conversation with him about how things are going for me. I have been checking in for nearly a year and things are pretty routine. I have never had a violation and I am doing my best to establish myself in the world. I expressed some concerns over my high violent classification and he notices some discrepancies in my file. “Hmm, I’ll check into this,” he tells me. The difference between this guy and my old CCO is amazing. I feel like he sees me as a human being.

A few hours later, I am home working on this story and I get a call. It’s the officer I spoke to earlier. He tells me that he put in some paperwork that was approved. I don’t have to check in for another 6 months. I am absolutely astonished. A sense of relief covers my entire body. I thanked him and before hanging up, he tells me, “Just remember, we’re not all bad.” I am sure he saw the 1312 blasted across my right fingers. 

I understand what he is doing. He wants to give me hope and change my attitude about the police. I appreciate him; I just think he misunderstands me. I don’t think that all police officers are bad people. I don’t want to dehumanize anyone and hope to be treated like a human being myself. I just happen to believe that policing dehumanizes us all—even the police. If anything, I’m concerned about what it will do to him.

Jessica Phoenix Sylvia

Jessica Phoenix Sylvia

Jessica Phoenix Sylvia is a formerly incarcerated community organizer, consultant, and social justice writer. She works with www.studyandstruggle.com and is currently working on a prison censorship exhibit called Return To Sender. Contact her at AbolitionJess1@gmail.com to commission her work.