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When I was in junior high school, New York City public transit fares switched from tokens to MetroCards. The Metropolitan Transit Authority rolled out ads on subways and buses describing how to swipe these strange new plastic rectangles, and our homeroom teachers explained the change from the old paper student bus and/or subway passes to the new student MetroCards that would work on either form of transportation. On the plus side, we would now be able to swipe ourselves through the turnstiles instead of trying to catch the attention of a distracted (or absent) token booth attendant in order to flash our paper passes and get buzzed in while our train rolled on without us. In addition, the plastic MetroCard survived an occasional trip through the washing machine much better than the old paper pass, which I would regularly have to present in a soggy mess to the school office in the hopes that they would have an extra one to last me through the month. On the minus side, the new MetroCards were limited to three swipes per school day, which meant we had to go beg at the school office to cover weekend extracurriculars or other trips.
Recently, while attending a meeting, I was reminded of this experience from nearly two decades ago, particularly that vivid feeling of dismay as I pulled my jeans from the dryer and felt that familiar lump in the back pocket. While discussing transition services, a woman who had previously been incarcerated mentioned that many people she knew had gone into prison while the city used tokens, and come out to MetroCards, which they had to newly learn how to use. Although that shift may seem small in the grand scheme of things, it struck me as an example of how completely time in jail or prison disrupts every single aspect of a person’s life. For a New Yorker, reminiscing about the old days of tokens and paper student transit passes is the same sort of nostalgia-inducing experience as reminiscing about when we had to go to the library to get books for school projects before the internet, plan get-togethers at least a day in advance before cell-phones, and, of course, walk twenty miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to even get to the local subway stop to take us to school. How strange it must be to go away from one world, only to reappear years later into an entirely different one without any sort of warning.
Back when I was a teacher, many of my students got arrested. One bright, kind, funny boy disappeared one winter, and arrived back in class months later, near the end of the year, just days before the science fair which I was organizing. Of course, he had no project; his partner had simply done it without him. I wondered how this child had benefited from missing an entire semester of school, from simply appearing at the end with an incomplete posterboard.
The term “reentry” implies that a person can somehow enter the same metaphorical room again, and go back to where they were before getting arrested. But the reality is that a person who has been incarcerated is newly entering a world that has moved on without him or her. That person is traveling into the future, to where the subway no longer takes tokens and the science fair is already happening.