While We Were Away is a new University of Michigan student-run podcast and part of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). The podcast tells the stories of formerly incarcerated people and their experiences coming home.
LSA senior Hannah French, producer and co-founder of the podcast, said While We Were Away began when she and classmates noticed a lack of resources and support for those re-entering society. She said the podcast aims to give a voice to former prisoners.
“When we learned how many few resources there were for people coming home, we realized that could be our area,” French said. “Inside prison is an oral culture, but outside, once you come home, there really aren’t people to tell your stories to anymore because it is such a difficult decision whether to even tell someone that kind of past.”
Kathryn Condon, University alum and co-founder of While We Were Away, said in an email she hopes the podcast will open people’s minds and create empathy for ex-convicts.
“I hope that others can listen to this and relate on some level,” Condon said. “Whether they have been to prison or not, and feel empathy for a really tough transition that men and women sort of silently face on their own most of the time.”
A woman interviewed for the podcast, who wished to remain anonymous due to privacy and safety concerns, was arrested at age 23 after falling in love with a Sicilian gangster. She spent 18 years in prison after being convicted of multiple crimes, including murder. In this article, she will be referred to as Billy.
When Billy was released from prison, much of her life had passed by. She was unsure what her next steps should be.
“Coming out in my 40s and in menopause, I was feeling like I was washed up,” Billy said. “What do you do at that age to start from the beginning?”
According to a study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that began in 2005 and followed 404,638 former prisoners from 30 states, within 5 years of release 76.6 percent of the ex-prisoners were rearrested.
Billy said she did not want to be another number. She wanted to start living a different life rather than resorting to old habits and, ultimately, winding back up in prison.
“I was really trying to get inside my inner self to find out who I was, and I didn’t want to turn around and be a statistic and be a revolving door,” Billy said.
Billy said she decided to be a storyteller on While We Were Away because she wished the podcast had existed to help her when she was released. She had a tough time mentally returning home, and hearing that other people like her were able to succeed would have given her hope.
“Because I think if somebody could have told me, and forgive me if I get emotional, how hard psychologically it was going to be to come home, I would have loved it,” Billy said. “I had no idea, and it took years before I could get myself together, psychologically, to be able to make it out here.”
Social Work student Megan Diebboll, an interviewer on the podcast, said the goal of the podcast is to not just provide former prisoners with support, but also to educate listeners and destigmatize ex-convicts.
“The podcast is an educational tool for people that may not even hear about these populations or think about it,” Diebboll said. “I think it is just a conversation that really needs to be started and continued.”
Billy said the stigma around formerly incarcerated people presents many challenges after being released. Billy claimed the lack of support and opportunities for the formerly incarcerated contribute to the United States’ high recidivism rate, and said that ex-convicts often feel like they have no choice other than to commit crimes again.
“To me, that’s horrible that we can’t get in the market of good-paying jobs because you have a felony,” Billy said. “If society doesn’t start realizing that if you don’t provide jobs for people when they come home, then they’re going to do the only thing they knew how to do before they went in there, and they’re going to survive.”
Billy now works as a social worker specializing in substance abuse problems.
French added that the podcast team is working on getting the podcast into prisons so current inmates can listen to it as well. She discussed how she wants the podcast to not only help former prisoners in the readjustment process but to inform policymakers for a larger societal impact.
“I hope to get out of it comfort for families of incarcerated members,” French said. “Maybe vicarious information for policymakers about the experience of re-entry, even just making other people comfortable speaking about incarceration and maybe try to reduce some of the stigmas of people who have gone through it.”
Billy said when she was released from prison she had forgotten how to do mundane tasks such as going to the grocery store. She discussed how the transition took significant readjusting, and she hopes While We Were Away will help create the support system she did not have during the process.
“It was a culture change, and so it was really hard coming home,” Billy said. “So, if these broadcasts can help other people to reintegrate back, especially if they don’t have anyone or there’s nobody there and it was their first time in and they’re coming out, I think it’s wonderful that somebody is doing this for them. Because not everybody in prison is bad. They were bad when they went in, but people do change.”