William E. Arnold Jr.
William E. Arnold Jr. was released last year from a Tennessee state prison after his conviction was vacated. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

William E. Arnold Jr., 48, is a Memphis man who was serving a 25-year prison sentence when his conviction for aggravated sexual battery and child rape was vacated. He was released from Bledsoe County Correctional Complex last year on April 16. Arnold has applied for an official exoneration with the Tennessee Board of Parole; a step needed to receive state compensation for wrongful imprisonment. 

The Biden administration has also declared April to be Second Chance Month for formerly incarcerated individuals who are committed to “making meaningful contributions” to society. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked Arnold to reflect on his experience coming home from prison. 

I was planning a vacation when I learned my second chance at a new life had been shorted.

Months prior, I had been released from prison after nearly seven years of incarceration. My case was overturned, the sentence vacated and the charges dismissed. I am innocent. Yet when I attempted to sign up for an account with Airbnb, the short-term lodging service, I received an email saying that I had failed a background check due to my criminal record. 

If a weekend away could be blocked, a second chance at life is questionable at best.

“Some might think that being released is a gateway to a better life. That could not be further from the truth.”

Reentry is the official term for when individuals are released from federal and state prisons. That was more than 600,000 people in 2019, according to federal data. You may know us as returning citizens, a friendlier expression for people who are rejoining society after serving time. 

Some might think that being released is a gateway to a better life. That could not be further from the truth. I have been out of prison for just over a year and I am still struggling with employment and creating a new life for myself.

But the stigma of having been incarcerated sticks. Few companies will hire returning citizens; those that do are often for dead-end jobs with little to no chance of advancement in position or pay. 

It’s Second Chance Month and like so many returning citizens, I am still waiting on mine.

Reentering society is hard. The world is different and so are you.

Before prison, I was a productive member of society. I grew up in Whitehaven and would take public transportation across town to one of Memphis’ best public schools, White Station High School. I attended the University of Tennessee and then Tennessee State University for graduate school. I settled in Nashville and began working in diversity and inclusion efforts in higher education. 

William E. Arnold Jr. wearing an Alpha Phi Alpha sweater and holding an I Am A Man sign.
Arnold, before he was incarcerated, at the 2006 Alpha Phi Alpha Southern regional convention at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the National Civil Rights Museum and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. King was a member of the fraternity. Courtesy William E. Arnold Jr.

I checked all the boxes: I had multiple degrees, a career that I loved and an active social and civic life through alumni associations, health clubs and serving on boards of local organizations. I traveled, volunteered and had a solid, law-abiding middle-class life where I felt valued, needed and dignified.

After prison, I’ve lost so much of that. 

The conversations I have with people are different now. I am always being quizzed about being in prison. How did you survive? What are you going to do now? Do you have any hard feelings?

Prison is a place where you can be strip-searched at any time of day and have your cell torn to pieces by guards morning or night. There is no privacy. You become so used to being watched that you begin to scrutinize and doubt yourself. You wonder if you will ever be as sharp as you were.

The experience takes away your name, your energy and makes you distrustful. It takes away the hellos, congratulations and goodbyes that we save for births, weddings and funerals. You become a person void of feeling, disconnected from the warmth, empathy and safety of society. 

When inside, I longed to return to the free world and to be a part of it. But in the process of prison’s taking, it took a part of me.

Many incarcerated people will pay their debt to society, be released and return to no employment prospects and no loved ones. Some won’t even have a state ID or social security card.

And those are just some of the obvious barriers to reentry. Mental and emotional trauma, addiction and homelessness are the unfortunate realities for many returning citizens. And because mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic people, many returning citizens disadvantaged by this lack of opportunity look like me.

The digital divide further separates returning citizens from their second chance. Gone are job bulletin boards and newspaper ‘want’ ads. In their place are online forms, apps and job sites. It is another reminder for returning citizens that the world has passed us by in some way. 

And during job interviews, I still have to explain a six-year-and-nine-month gap on my resume.

William E. Arnold Jr.
Arnold poses for a portrait in Memphis just over a year after his release from prison. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Before I was incarcerated, I developed strategies that allowed more Tennesseans to gain access to higher education and the possibility of better jobs, better opportunities and ultimately a better life. I embraced the idea and the importance of including different people in the creation of policies and practices. My work required me to see the world differently and to teach others to do the same. 

I met all kinds of people in prison who had different rationales about how they ended up inside. No matter the story, each person I met was still someone’s son, brother, father or nephew and each man had a desire to come home and just be human. 

Returning citizens can be revolutionaries in the American workforce. I met men who couldn’t read a book but could make one. I met men who were self-taught artists, sculptors and leather workers. These people could do more with less and all they needed was a vision and some simple resources. They are truly unique people who can galvanize the working world. 

I believe in returning citizens, and as I look to the future I plan to advocate for and support this community. Now the question is, will you?

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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