By Pam Bailey
Holidays in general are rather meaningless in prison, but New Year’s eve packs a particularly painful punch, says Anthony “Pete” Petty. “It’s like, ‘man, it’s another year that I’m here.’ For other people, it’s a fresh start. But for guys inside, it is…more of the same.”
Except this time. This will be the first new year Pete will “ring in” from the free world in 30 years. What excites him the most as he looks forward?
“The unknown. The fact that I don’t know what the new year holds,” smiles Pete. “In prison, I knew exactly what each day would be like, for the next year and the year after that. I had a routine, and I did the same thing over and over, over and over. Now, it’s all up to me.”
That’s both a joy, and a little overwhelming. In fact, “overwhelming” is the adjective he uses to describe his exit from the D.C. jail December 11 into a frigid cold night and the arms of family and friends.
“I was incarcerated in a closed environment for so long; that’s all I knew. I came into jail when I was a kid. I lived in project housing with no bills or taxes to pay. Now, leaving jail as an adult, I knew I was going to have to deal with a lot of things — getting a job, a car, helping my family instead of them helping me all the time. Still, the joy of being able to walk out the door without handcuffs or shackles or belly chains on was priceless. I wanted to dance. I had told everybody I was going to dance and kiss the ground when I finally got out, but I forgot everything once it was real. So, it was like a… sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of feeling.”
In prison, Pete knew everybody who entered his world. Plus, the inmates managed to have some type of crude, homemade weapon at hand to protect themselves, if necessary. It wasn’t that different from the world Pete had known as a kid, when people walked around with guns as protection. Now, outside, “a lot of different people come at you real fast,” he notes. “I feel sort of unprotected. Honestly, it’s a feeling I’m having to get used to. But I believe in the law now.”
So, while everyone expects him to want to party, “I mostly like relaxing in my (sister’s) house. Just being in my room, watching TV, reading books.”
On the other hand, being released in the tine of COVID-19 is sort of surrealistic, he notes. There are many things he fantasized about doing once he was free, but so much is closed. (Including the Social Security Office; he needs his SS number before he can get a job or open a bank account, for example, but everything is online — and very slow.) And then, of course, there are signs of the tragedy of the pandemic all around. “2020 is one of the best years of my life, but it’s also one of the worst years ever. And not just because of COVID. One of the best people in my corner, my stepfather, died of cancer right before I came home. It really hurt that he wasn’t out there to greet and hug me when I got out.”
Adjusting to contemporary life
One aspect of contemporary life he’s quickly learned is why people say they are “addicted” to their smartphones. Buying one was his first priority, and “now I understand why people told me it rules their lives. What I’ve decided to do when I’m with people is to just put it down. I think technology has made people more like spectators, rather than doing things for themselves. Kids aren’t outside playing games; instead, they’re inside on their phones. The same is true for adults. Anything you want, it’s brought to you. You don’t walk down the street to the store. So, you’re not getting exercise. To me, that’s a hindrance on us as a society.”
And then there’s the fact that there’s a cost for everything. In prison, there was always the glare of lights, for example. But in his sister’s house, she’s careful to turn the lights out. “I keep forgetting there are light and water bills now,” Pete notes.
At the same time, there are some aspects of prison Pete misses — his friends. “It sort of crushes my spirit to leave them behind, because these are the same guys I sort of went to ‘war’ with, ate every day with. Once, three of us talked about how some guys go home and then act like they forget those of us still in prison. That’s something I think about a lot. I survived hell with them. I can’t just forget. When I’m out here, I want to do everything in my power to bring some of them home.”
Making a mark
One thing Pete knows he can do to help his friends when they get their own chance at early release is to be a model to whom they can point. “I wasn’t an angel in prison; I got in trouble. Look, it’s almost impossible not to. Violence is the norm in prison. Even the officers are like their own gang. In fact, they’re the most violent gang. But if, despite all that, I am a good, productive citizen, I can be an example.”
What is Pete finding to be the most helpful in getting off to a stable start? He says he is very thankful for what he considers one of the best re-entry support systems in the country. “What makes DC so special is that the government here puts faith in returning citizens. You’ve got guys who’ve been incarcerated who are now working for the government. But what I most appreciate is the guys who’ve been in my situation before and are ready to help me succeed. Without them, it would be a little too overwhelming.”
What’s next for Pete? “I want to find some way to stem the violence in DC, to talk to the youths so they understand the implications of the things they’re doing; literally, they will end up in a cemetery or in prison. And in prison, they will be labeled as predators when they’re really not. They are kids who grew up in a bad environment.”
He is also excited about continuing to advocate for people in the DC jail with Neighbors for Justice, and to work with Rob Barton on More Than Our Crimes to expose people to the stories of individuals like him. In fact, what Pete says makes him feel the most hopeful is to see the guys who came home from prison before him, doing all the activities they dreamed about inside.
“They’re in the jobs all over the city. They are ‘poster men’ showing that we can do this. We’ve got to get in front of the policy makers and tell these stories. Sure, we made mistakes and we paid for it. But we are so much more than our worst crimes.”
Pete has been offered a job serving as a “Credible Messenger “ for the District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. (Just what does that entail? Credible messengers are individuals with relevant life experience whose mission is to help D.C. youth re-examine their attitudes about violence and avoid it in their own lives.) But he needs a car to fill that role. Help him buy one by donating via this fundraiser!