"Don't let my past, become your future."
“Prison is a wise man’s college or a fool’s playground”, says Eric Dowling. Eric spent a total of twenty-four years in a state penitentiary. “You can come out learning everything, or you can come home dumber than you were, before you went in.” Eric was charged as an adult at the age of sixteen for his first offense and was sentenced to ten to twenty-years in a state prison. He spent the first ten-years in prison and wasn’t released until the age of twenty-six. Eric found life outside of prison was more difficult then he could have imagined. The odds were stacked against him. Having a felony and no job experience made finding gainful employment almost impossible.
Most of America doesn’t realize how hard it is to reintegrate into the community after incarceration. These individuals are stripped of their civil liberties even after their debt to society has been paid. “It’s hard to get back on your feet. If you have a drug case; it's impossible to get into the healthcare field, because no one will hire you. You spend all those years in prison, but you are never really rehabilitated," says Eric. According to a study done by the Bureau of Justice and Statistics, results found that approximately 83.4 percent of state prisoners were rearrested within a nine-year period. The criminal justice system doesn’t do enough to assist those returning home from prison with opportunities to fully reintegrate into society. Returning citizens aren't provided with the transitional support or the essential resources needed to bridge the gap from dependence to independence. Many are sentenced as juveniles and then released into an environment that forces independence immediately. As a result, many find themselves reverting to their old habits; to provide for themselves and their loved ones.
At the time of his re-arrest, Eric had a 9-month old daughter and was doing his very best to provide for her. “I was more afraid of being out in the world without anything versus being in prison. I had a messed-up mentality, which caused me to take my freedom for granted.” It wasn’t until Eric was re-convicted and spent another fourteen-years in prison for a drug offense, that he realized the severity of his decisions. “I didn't realize the impact my decisions had on my family.” Eric says, life in prison wasn’t easy. Every man is for himself and you must learn to adapt. “Every day you wake up, you’re thanking God for another day. The prison industry messes with you psychologically.” Eric didn’t realize the long-term effects prison had on him until he was home. He found it hard even engaging with those he loved most because of the long-term effects of incarceration. “I have an issue with control; anytime I feel someone is trying to control me, I shutdown. I have a short tolerance for being around to many people. I’ve been around swarms of people for over twenty-years and find peace in my solitude.”
“It’s a lot of things that lead you to that life. I never had an older male role model that stressed the importance of going to school, or having a good work ethic. My father lived around the corner from me, but I didn’t start speaking to him until I was thirty-five, while incarcerated. My mother was the only father figure I had. The streets raised me! I was young, taking care of my little sister."
"There were a lot of things, I had to learn on my own.” Eric knows and understands the importance of having a positive role model in the community. “When you’re young, out here doing, what you’re doing. You don’t realize, you are ruining your whole life.” Eric uses his voice and experience to encourage the younger generation to trail a different path. “I don’t just tell them, don’t do what I did, I tell them why. I tell them “don’t let my past become your future!" Eric speaks candidly, “it’s hard encouraging them when they don’t see the other side. There aren’t many resources, opportunities or role models within the community, so often-times the view is one-sided." Many come from environments that are plagued with poverty, drugs, violence and lack of resources.
Sadly, many only learn of the complexity of the prison industry, once they have been sentenced. "In prison, they don’t prepare you for life on the outside," says Eric. “If you don’t have a strong support system, it will be extremely hard to keep your head above water. I'm thankful, I was blessed with a strong support system." Eric has several ideas that will help revolutionize prisoner reentry. Some of those include; the expungement of various felonies, removing child support penalties upon release, non-traditional employment opportunities and reducing the length of parole. “I did twenty-four-years in prison and I’m still on parole until 2027!” Prison for many has been a life sentence, with various opportunities and civil liberties still effected.
Eric shows us all that redemption is possible. Since his release several years ago, he has worked as a journeyman laborer. He is happily married and enjoys spending time with his daughter Ny, who will be graduating this June from high-school. Eric is a proud dad, and has been busy preparing his daughter for college this fall. “She will be studying nursing and I’m so very proud of her. I’ve waited for this moment, her whole life.” When asked, was it hard to restore the relationship? Eric says “I was honest with her about my past, my mistakes and answered any questions she had." Eric says his vulnerability, opened the dialogue and helped to build an unbreakable bond with his daughter.
"I was honest with her about my past, my mistakes and answered any questions she had."
Eric has recently been laid off due to Covid-19, but he isn’t letting that get him down. He is looking forward to getting into real-estate and entrepreneurship. He wants to use that platform to encourage other returning citizens to change their lives. “I lost a lot of time; I’ve never been in a position to do things for myself.” Eric has been given a second chance to redeem the time!
"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones."