Ex-Prisoners Confessed What Surprised Them The Most When They Re-Entered Society

No one will truly understand what it’s like returning to society after a long stint in jail unless they’ve done it. So, when in August 2019 a Reddit thread asked former inmates to share their biggest shocks upon entering the outside world after getting out, the responses were pretty eye-opening. Here, we’ve compiled 40 of the most surprising, bizarre and thought-provoking answers.

40. Changing towns and landscapes

For many of the ex-prisoners, the way the outside world had changed during their incarceration came as a shock. This included changes to their hometowns and landscapes, with the addition of new buildings and developments. However, the topic extended to themes of gentrification, with commenter SuburbanBehemoth being shocked on how an “old dive bar” had been turned into “a fairly popular restaurant and bar.”

39. Choice overload

Explaining this one, user Luna_Sea_ wrote, “The day I got out my uncle took me to Walmart to get everything I needed. I went off by myself to get the things on my list. First I went to the lotion aisle. I was looking at all the lotion and became so overwhelmed by all the choices… In [jail] I had no choices and was given what I needed. Having all these options overwhelmed me.”

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38. Nature

In one of the most moving accounts, ex-prisoner MrDev16 revealed, “When I got out the biggest shock was the beautiful sites and colors. I forgot how gorgeous nature was. It put the thought into my mind that I never want to go back, because there is no beauty in prison, the beauty is on the outside.”

37. Changes in technology

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It seems that no matter when people did time, the advances that were made during this came as a shock. Reddit user 4dollarz revealed, “I did six years. My biggest shock was finding out you can’t do much of anything without a smartphone. Companies don’t even do paper [job] applications anymore.”

36. Being able to go wherever you please

Reddit user 2LitreBugattiBieber revealed an interaction they’d had with a friend who’d spent two or three years inside. They wrote, “I asked him ‘what is the biggest thing that stands out to you now that you’re free?’ He simply said, ‘The fact that I’m here with you but I can physically walk over there to that field 500 metres away without anybody or any walls stopping me.’”

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35. Losing their identity

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One moving comment told the tale of a man who was released after spending 50 years in jail. By the time he was released, he’d seemingly lost track of all of his identification documents, including his birth certificate. Relaying the guy’s story, StorerPoet commented, “He said, ‘It’s like I don’t even exist anymore.’”

34. Living without fear

It’s probably fair to say that prisons can be scary places to find yourself in. With this in mind, when Menu_Discord asked his friend what their biggest shock was following their release they replied, “It’s so weird to not have to give anyone my stuff. I don’t have to hide anything or worry about the consequences if it gets found.”

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33. Solo showers

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For many commenters on Reddit, showers were the thing that changed the most on the outside world. User SonicTheEdgelord wrote, “[You forget] what it feels like to shower completely alone and without flip flops on.” In a similar vein, another spoke of the strangeness of being able to control the water temperature themselves.

32. Taking a bath

There are no bathtubs in jail, and apparently the feeling of being submerged in water is something many prisoners long for. With that in mind, Jameson2800 revealed, “For me, the biggest shock was how good just laying in a bath of warm water felt. After years of hurried showers under the watchful eye of a guard, the privacy and comfort a bath gave was intense.”

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31. Changing families

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One post told the story of a man who spent 16 years in prison. When he went away, his daughter was still a child. But by the time he got out, she was an adult with a baby of her own. She decided to keep her pregnancy a secret so that her dad didn’t know he was a grandfather until his release. Relaying his story, Enna_Nailo said, “a few months later, he still couldn’t talk about the new baby without crying happy tears.”

30. People getting in touch after a long time

Writing on behalf of a friend who’d spent time in jail, Bodega177013 said, “He was surprised at who got in contact with him after getting out. While he was in[side] only a handful of people kept tabs on him, visited or called. But as soon as he got out all these people he hadn’t heard from started congratulating him… He didn’t want any of that and thought all of it felt so disingenuous.”

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29. Cars

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For emekennede, one of the strangest things about being released from jail was riding in automobiles. They explained, “I got car sick for years after.” Meanwhile, genusbender said of one formerly incarcerated man he’d come across, “He was particularly impressed by cars. He had not seen cars in person in years.”

28. Shopping

After spending time in jail, even the most mundane of settings can seem completely alien. Recalling a trip to Walmart on their first day of freedom, Haitnguyen7 wrote, “I had an unreasonable fear the exit would close or I would get lost so I kept glancing towards the exit every 20 steps or so. I didn’t think of using a shopping cart so my hands were full of clothes.”

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27. People’s acceptance

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In one touching comment, waitress Coco_puffs90 spoke of an older man she’d had a friendly encounter with. She knew he was an ex-prisoner after he paid with a JPay card – which is given to people on their release from jail. The man then told her, “This is the first place I stopped after I got released. I was afraid you were going to treat me differently after you saw my card. I haven’t been in public in 20 years.”

26. Not needing permission

Citing their biggest shock after returning to the outside world, dontniceguyatme wrote, “That I didn’t have to ask to use a bathroom.” Another thing that surprised them was, “how many dangerous things people have around them at all times.” They revealed, “I slid my knife away from me and under a napkin at a restaurant so I didn’t get in trouble.”

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25. That some things hadn’t changed

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Purplestuff11 revealed, “I remember asking a coworker of mine [an ex prisoner]. He said first [things] was that no one had taken his car. It sat for six years unmoved in the street. Tires held air and [the] battery was dead but started with a push.”

24. Automated gadgets

For those who have been incarcerated for a long time, the differences in technology can be astonishing. User crinklycuts revealed, “My uncle was in prison for 24 years and was released three years ago. He said what shocked him the most was how automated things were. Automated doors, self-checkouts, using your face/fingerprint to unlock a phone.”

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23. Needing light or noise to sleep

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After a stint in jail, you might think that ex-prisoners would long for a quiet night’s sleep. But that wasn’t the case for Luna_Sea_ who wrote, “The first night I tried sleeping in a dark bedroom, but couldn’t do it. My dad slept on the living room couch with a TV on, so I slept on the other couch. I needed to sleep around people and noise for a while until I got used to being alone again.”

22. Delayed “firsts”

Relaying his father’s story, jay-the-fish-lol said, “My dad was in prison for life until he was found not guilty after 20 years. First thing he was surprised about was driving. He couldn’t drive or ride a bike. He had to learn both again. It’s quite funny to see a 50+ guy falling off a bike after one of his sons let go for the ‘first’ time.”

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21. Questioning reality

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For some ex-prisoners, the world had changed so much that they struggled to process ways of doing things. FirmAngus wrote, “Self-checkout stands at stores and wireless headphones were definitely one of those, this can’t be real moments. I questioned reality. Like when you cannot explain an instance and it scares you trying to cope with, did that really happen? That’s how it felt.”

20. Having no routine

In jail, the options of daily life are taken out of prisoners’ hands. With that in mind, kaffie27 revealed, “A guy I worked with had done 25 years. Said he struggled to adjust to doing whatever he wanted and missed the daily routines. They couldn’t get greasy fast food so his diet was better. Because of that, his skin didn’t age much and his face was unwrinkled and supple. He was 45 but looked 25.”

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19. Dating

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In her response, redroseygirl31 revealed how a friend of hers struggled with dating after being “in prison from age 16 to 32.” They explained, “He said the biggest hurdle to overcome was trying to learn how to date and have healthy relationships without going through the process of dating during adolescence and early adulthood.”

18. Members of the opposite sex

Before ex-prisoners even consider dating, they must first become reacquainted with being around members of the opposite sex. Describing an interaction with one of their prison pen-pals, TheCleaner75 recalled how one had told her, “I haven’t even seen a woman up close since I came to prison. If I ever get out, I am not going to know how to act around them.”

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17. How rude people can be

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Some of the comments on the Reddit feed were fairly surprising. CausticMedeim wrote about “how absolutely RUDE everyone is” on the outside world. By comparison, they wrote that inside of jail, “Most people either avoid strangers or are polite enough.” They added, “Partially because you don’t know what they’re capable of and it’s easier to not start something.”

16. Good food

One respondent, going by the name of ChingChongKingKong1, recalled meeting a man who’d been locked up for 11 years and had become obsessed with food upon his release. They revealed, “He ate so much that he put on five stone almost immediately. Afterward, he showed everybody pictures of him before and he literally looked like a different guy.”

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15. The smell

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According to one ex-prisoner, re-entering society was an assault on the senses. MarvelousJohnson wrote, “First thing I noticed was the smell. Cement and steel have a distinct smell, it’s stale. When you walk outside for the first time, the smell of everything around you is overwhelming.”

14. Rich foods

It seems that prison food must be on the bland side, as MarvelousJohnson recalled his first taste of junk food after being released. He revealed, “I could only handle two bites even though I was starving. I guess you get acclimated to the food inside, and those two bites felt so heavy I couldn’t handle anymore.”

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13. Handling money

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While prisoners can spend some dollars on commissary items, their access to actual cash and what they can use it on is limited. As a result, tinkinoutsidedabox wrote that “money in general” was a hurdle upon release. They explained, “You have no idea how to handle money, that takes a little time to get used to.”

12. The change in cell phone habits

Reddit user bawzzz wrote about a video they’d watched that followed a guy getting out of jail after 20 years. They said the former prisoner was “dumbfounded” at how attached people were to their phones. They wrote, “He thought they were all mindless spy agents. He was also baffled at the fact that everyone just walks with their heads down looking at their phones without looking up.”

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11. Trees

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In one poignant post, maxxamillion04 shared the experience of an ex-felon teaching assistant they’d had in college. They wrote, “When he got out, he said the strongest immediate impression he got was from trees. He said they were so huge and looming, and he always felt like they were leaning toward him like they were about to fall over.”

10. Fear of failure

One commenter on the Reddit feed spoke openly about the stigma that came with being an ex-prisoner. Joeyholein1 wrote about, “The shock of freedom, and being terrified of not being able to make something of yourself because you have the label of being a felon. The fear of going back, because you are set up for failure from the beginning.”

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9. Being fascinated by mundane stuff

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Commenting on the experience of walking free from prison Oxymorphinranger said, “All I can see is that it’s unlike any other experience in life. People who have never been locked up will never experience the feeling of walking out of the gate after such a long time. Literally everything is amazing.”

8. Fear of the outside world

Even before an inmate is released from jail, the mere idea of the outside world can be scary. User anngrn recalled overhearing two secure hospital unit inmates talking about the news one day. They said, “One guy said, ‘Wow, it’s scary out there’. The other guy said, ‘Yeah, when I parole I’m going to lock myself at home all day.’”

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7. Strangers talking to you

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In jail, it’s not unusual for prisoners to keep out of the way of the inmates they don’t know. As a result, ShnyMnstr – who seemingly served 14 years inside – remarked on how odd it was “having strangers talk to you” on the outside. Elsewhere, a user named GeerHedRacing recalled how they’d mistakingly replied to a person they thought was talking to them, only to realize they were using a wireless headset on their phone.

6. Music

Some of the things former inmates seized upon would be easy for many to overlook. Bigcat7373 spent five months away from the outside world in rehab. And they wrote, “For me, it was music. It was easily the thing I missed the most. I would go down to the basement and help the guys working laundry down there just because they had a radio. I’ll never take it for granted again.”

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5. Not rushing food

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After he spent six and a half years in jail, Avamouse said that some things “were hard” for their dad back at home. Giving one example, they said, “He couldn’t eat at a normal pace. He finished our first thanksgiving meal in, like, eight minutes. No talking, no passing rolls. Shut up, eat, leave.”

4. The freedom

While they might crave it, the ability to do whatever they please can be overwhelming for some ex-prisoners. BigFerd revealed, “Freedom was my toughest obstacle. Freedom of choice, freedom of movement… Having had my life so neatly regimented and defined I actually thrived. Take that all away and I got lost within myself.”

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3. The vivid colors of everyday life

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More than one commenter spoke about how colorful the outside world felt compared to prison. Yes, zoinkzies recalled her brother’s first trip to the grocery store after his release. They wrote, “He’s walking back to the car with this stunned look on his face and finally as he gets to us he goes ‘I felt like I was on an acid trip I haven’t seen that many colors in so long, I need to sit down.’”

2. The feel of carpet

Prisons are mostly dull, sterile places that fail to really stimulate the senses. With that in mind, even the most ordinary of experiences can provide a sensory thrill for the formerly incarcerated. On that note, SonicTheEdgelord revealed, “You forget about the details of things. Like the way carpet feels on the bottoms of your feet.”

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1. Life moving on without them

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One of the saddest thoughts on the Reddit feed came from SonicTheEdgelord. Speaking of their friends and family getting on with their lives while they were locked up they wrote, “While you’re stuck in a constant loop of the same day every day, the rest of the world moves on without you. When you get home, you feel left behind.”

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