Transitioning from Life in Prison to Life in Society: Zach's Wisdom
After 22 years in prison, Zachary Moore walked out of the gates of San Quentin State Prison as a free man. He walked along the rugged shoreline just outside the gates of one of the most notorious prisons in the world and commented “Everything is so vibrant: colors, sights, and smells. I am seeing colors I haven’t seen in many years, which is overwhelming. In prison, you only get three colors: green, tan, and blue. To be able to experience such unconfined immensity is overwhelming.”
Zach was 15-years-old when he committed his crime. Charged with murder and tried as an adult, he thought his life was going to end in prison. “I believed I was never going home, time felt infinite. Now, my understanding of time is a little more finite. I need to make better decisions for myself and those around me with the limited time I have.”
Living with the belief you will never walk past the prison walls is a difficult pill to swallow. However, this is the truth for many who are currently incarcerated. Zach acquired his method to psychologically cope with this reality: “In 2000, I began attending Buddhist services and learned to meditate. I’ve always struggled with anxiety; my mind goes 100 miles an hour. Meditation helped slow that process down. To take a breath and meditate during moments of struggle is quite grounding. It forces me to contemplate that moment, to recognize it’s okay to feel what I’m feeling and it will soon pass.”
While imprisonment is a deeply traumatic experience for most, the transition from incarceration to freedom can be even more emotionally demanding. Only a few months after his release, Zach realized that, like prison, society has its own set of rules. “On the inside, we don’t have to deal with our emotions as much; it’s about the facade you show. However, the moment you walk out those gates, everything hits harder. It’s different without someone in your cell 24 hours a day who can see your struggle. Like colors, emotions are more vibrant. Being joyful is something you’re unable to do in prison. It’s deemed inappropriate, people are offended by smiling. Being able to express happiness is empowering. That being said, we’re still in a prison of our own mind’s making. No matter what world we’re in, there are always rules and barriers that are necessary to abide by, some of which don’t exist in prison. These boundaries aren’t always visible, they also manifest emotionally. Is it appropriate to share my story with someone else? Is it safe to tell someone I was incarcerated? These thoughts alone act as a prison for myself.”
Zach recounts the mental constraints he encounters outside: “A significant challenge was understanding what my role in life is, I spent hours fruitlessly planning for the unknown.
Finding a balance between setting goals and taking action is difficult; everything changes. Inside prison, there are minimal moving parts in a person’s life, but in society, they are countless. Another challenge is maintaining the confidence that I can do this, it’s intimidating being out here given that I grew up inside prison. Things like requesting help from a clerk or a waiter can be scary. I am constantly aware of every interaction out of fear I get violated for parole.”
While working as a software engineer for The Last Mile (TLM), Zach experienced the demanding process of job-searching. Fortunately, his hard work paid off, he currently interns at a well-known tech company in San Francisco. Reflecting on what relieved the pressure of job-searching, Zach says: “The easiest part of job searching is going into the interview and being myself. Preparing for board includes centering myself, allowing me to be content with the results, whatever they may be. The tough part is inspiring the interviewer to take a chance on you, even skilled people without a criminal background struggle to find a job. Remember, it is tough for everyone. I believe my life story isn’t something that should hinder me, I actively try to tell my own story. I found ways to show the interviewer how my incarceration empowered me; through the college degree I obtained and the resilience it instilled in me. I changed my life inside.”
Job-searching is a daunting and extensive process, especially for someone formerly incarcerated. This process could be made more accessible for formerly incarcerated individuals by “having a network of people already set up, willing to give interviews is beneficial. I’m not saying to have jobs ready, rather supplying 10 or 15 employers interested in hiring. It would help streamline our transition. Even if it doesn’t result in a position, at least we received the practice and connection. The opportunity to practice a technical interview is vital.”
Communities heavily influence the values and actions of an individual, and within San Quentin, Zach was able to find the community that helped him shape a new outlook on life. “Humans are social creatures; our societies are built on community, but that’s where we’re failing. Most problems we face in society are because of our lack of a positive support system. Before being incarcerated, our communities were negative, broken, drug-addicted, and gang-filled. Building a community inside, with men who are socially conscious, sober, and eager to make a positive impact, allowed us to better ourselves within the space we created. Without that space, we resort to our old patterns and our old prisons. The community inside and outside of prison affirmed the decision I made to change my life. I am confident in myself and my path. Even if I were to fail, I remember it is temporary. I know my community is there to support me and enables me to hold space for them, which is one of the greatest things I’ve been allowed to experience.”
TLM helped advance Zach’s transitional journey and foster a supportive community. While in prison, TLM was a community that transcended the race dimension, he says: “Being able to work with other ethnicities was something new, it isn’t the norm in prison. On our first day, everyone came together and concluded that while in class, we leave all the politics behind. We broke up into teams, undertook projects together; it felt like a legitimate job. I loved it. Looking through my work and realizing “I built this” gave me immense satisfaction and humility, although burdened with the belief I would never leave prison. The best part of the TLM community is the opportunity to develop substantial personal connections. When TLM offered me a position upon my release, they specifically told me to start when I was ready. I never felt rushed or indebted to TLM, which means a lot to me. I view TLM as my home; it’s my landing pad.”
In early 2019, Zach left The Last Mile to take a position as an engineering intern at Checkr “the only background check company using artificial intelligence and machine learning to make hiring more inclusive and more efficient”. By fall of ‘19 he was hired as a full-time software engineer. The Hustle reported in an article featuring Zach that “Checkr is one of a growing number of tech companies in Silicon Valley that has embraced the formerly incarcerated: 6% of its employees are “fair chance talent,” or people with prior criminal backgrounds.”
As Zach embarks on a new journey as a software engineer, he reflects on how coding has changed him: “Coding engages the resilience that I have inside me. It is impossible to be 100% successful at everything, failure exists everywhere. Coding sheds a light on that. You’re doing almost everything wrong the first time, which is a humbling experience. You’re expected to fail, embrace it, and work through it. Believe in the process.”
Like Zach, many will walk a similar path. Keeping in mind this transitional journey is not an easy one, we must ask ourselves: How can we support the formerly incarcerated community? How can we develop a smoother transition? How can we rightly provide them the freedom that they deserve? While many companies are slowly choosing to prioritize diversity and inclusion, starting by looking past criminal records; there is more to be done. Sharing Zach’s story signals the beginning of addressing the challenging process towards systemic change within our criminal justice system.