After 25 years in Prison

Darcy Morrison

ONE YEAR, IN HIGH SCHOOL, DARCY DIDN’T COME BACK. I thought she had moved or switched schools. I had no idea, at the time, that she was serving a life sentence in the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility.

Last year, New Mexico passed the Second Chance Bill, affording the possibilityof parole, after 15 years served, to those who committed offenses before they were 18. Darcy, who had already served 25 years, was recently released.

When talking to or about convicted criminals, the tendency is to focus on their crimes as the primary part of their person. With Darcy’s release, it seemed a good time to talk about her experience since returning to society. You know, switching the focus to her future instead of her past, right? It turns out, Darcy doesn’t see those two things as distinct — and doesn’t want to talk about one without the other.

How do you want us to list your title? Former prisoner? Formerly incarcerated?

There is a term that a lot of reentry groups use that, honestly, I think is hilarious – returning citizen. I’m irreverent about it. I feel like it’s overly euphemistic. That’s how I feel because, you know, I’m a felon. You can call it whatever you want. It’s not going to change it. You know how the queer community has taken the word queer back and made it their own, even though a lot of people in the past used it, or the word gay, as an insult, as a method of judgment? I think that a lot of people see felon in the same way, as a negative, and I don’t really see it that way. I see it as it is what it is. I mean, it’s a huge portion of my life, it’s part of what makes me me.

I think by calling me a returning citizen, it’s minimizing the effect that being a felon has on my life. I mean, I encounter some people who, when they get out of prison, they’re like, I don’t want to ever think about that place again. I don’t even want to deal with it. It’s in the past. It’s not my life.

But the fact of the matter is that I’m 49 and have spent over half of my life in prison. I was very young when I went in, I grew up there. Now, I grew up pretty good, I like to think, but there were a lot of influences in there that I had to deal with on a daily basis that made me who I am. And I like who I am. I like who I’ve become. But I can’t ignore the fact or forget about the fact that I spent that long time in prison. It’s very much a part of how I see the world.

So, the flip side is how the world sees you.

That is the question, and I think it depends on who I’m talking to. So far, I approach people the same way I approached people in prison. I’m just a naturally positive person. I smile, I am friendly and most of the time people respond that way back to me.

Most people don’t see me as this chick who just got out of prison four months ago. You know, they see me as just somebody that they’re meeting in the street. Really, the only people who know about my conviction are those that I choose to tell. And you know, I’ve been searching for employment, so I’ve been having the conversation a lot in job interviews. I made the decision to put it in my resume because I believe that some of the work experience that I had with the prison programming and the jobs that I held there were beneficial. And believe it or not, with the exception of one interviewer, I have had nothing but positive responses.

People are interested that I was in prison. They’re like, Wow, what’s it like? Is it really as bad as they say? Yes!

You were in prison for murder. In thinking about this interview, it occurred to me the family of your victim could read this and be very unhappy about it.

In all honesty, that’s why I’ve mostly avoided any kind of media. I don’t want to reopen that wound for them. This is hard. Still, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them.

A lot of the choices that I’ve made in how I did my time and the choice of careers I’m looking into, I think, what would be the best use of my talents as far as making a difference for someone in a positive way? I mean, I know there’s absolutely no way that I will ever be able to make up for what I did. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

What was the adjustment going into prison?

Prison is built on routine. Same thing every day. It is designed to make you forget how much time has passed because every day is the same. Same room, same clothes, same food, same people. Everything is the same.

Nobody wants to be there and nobody wants to be doing that. So, there’s a lot of acting out. There’s a lot of manipulation. Even when people like each other, even when they get along, it’s like, you have too much inside and you have to let it out somehow. You always knew when the holidays were coming too, because everybody’s stressed out because they’re missing their families, their kids and stuff, and nobody can do anything about it. The level of violence in prison usually goes way up around the holidays.

Getting out came rather suddenly for you.

Yes. The Second Chance Bill gave us the opportunity to go to the parole board earlier. It’s for juvenile offenders who received a life sentence for a crime committed while they were younger than 18.

My charge was first degree felony murder, eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 15 years. I was eligible because I had served 25 years.

Do you think that the parole board is objective?

I do. They asked some very hard questions. At the same time, they are open to your efforts, and I went to them with everything that I had done in my 25 years.

So, they believe in the rehabilitation.

Yeah, that was one of the reasons why they’ve been working to try to hear as many people as they can, because there are 80 juvenile lifers in the state of New Mexico.

When did you find out you were being released?

The day before I got out. The administration called me into a conference room and they were like, Congratulations! And I was like, what are you talking about? They said, You’re going home. You’ve been granted parole.

I just didn’t quite believe it. You know those things, when you’re a kid, you just wish so hard for something, and you wish and you wish and you wish and you wish and you wish and you wish. And then when you actually get it, you’re like, no, this is not real. That’s how I felt.

Then the next morning, they’re like, you need to go get your stuff.

And I’m like, you mean like NOW?

So, I got a cart to put all my stuff in and I’m trying to tell everybody bye and they’re like, stop hugging everybody and go get your stuff. And I’m like, no, you don’t understand. I grew up with these people. Give me five minutes. I’m leaving people behind who have been there for me for years, you know?

And your parents drove you home.

Well, we had to stop some places first. I had no hygiene supplies and the only clothes I had in the prison were sweats. I was so sick of sweatpants, now I have no sweatpants. I have a couple pairs of joggers that are pretty stylish. But I do not have any sweatpants.

We went to Target, and my parents were telling me that I was like a kid in a candy store because I was just walking around going, ooh, look at the colors. Everything is gray and white in prison. Everything.

My bedroom now is colorful, I call it the Rainbow Room. Oh, my bed is so soft. I don’t like to get up in the morning.

There’s joy in your days because you have all these new experiences?

This is something that I’ve noticed about those of us who went to prison as juveniles — now that we’re out, we’ve all got this childlike perspective on the world. In psychology they say that sometimes your maturity gets frozen at the age where you experience trauma. And I think that’s kind of what happened to us. We’ve gotten frozen at our teenage years when we got locked up, and now when we’re coming out, we still have that childlike perspective on stuff. We have that childlike joy and appreciation of things. Like, I can’t wait to go to Meow Wolf.

You’ll love it, it’s very colorful.

Oh, I love colors.

How is technology? You went to prison before smartphones existed.

I went to prison before Google. I went in when Amazon was still only selling books. I had no concept of how technology has become so ingrained in everything. I got a phone my second day out. I love texting.

Does the prison system work?

The primary purpose of prison should be rehabilitation. But I think the primary purpose of prison is punishment.

Being away from our families, from our support systems, from our friends, from the world around us, that’s punishment. You don’t have to add to that. You don’t have to create additional torment to rehabilitate somebody.

You got degrees while you were incarcerated?

I have two associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree. My goal is to start my master’s degree in social work. I would like to work with at-risk youth. I want to talk to the people who are where I was. And show them you don’t have to go that route, the world is wide open for you, no matter how down you think you are. If I can do it, so can they.

You want to help people.

A lot of times, what I encountered in the prison is they just needed somebody to believe in them. There was a lot of intelligence that wasn’t being used with education or anything just because they didn’t think they could do it.

I always tell people I’m a starfish saver. Have you heard that story?

This guy is walking along a beach and he looks over and sees this little boy who keeps bending over, throwing something out into the ocean. He keeps doing that. So finally the guy walks over to the kid, and he sees all of these starfish washed up on the beach. The little boy is throwing them back out into the ocean. The man asks, What are you doing? There’s millions of starfish here. You can’t possibly make a difference. The little boy reaches down, picks up a starfish, throws it back out in the ocean, and he says, I made a difference to that one. And that’s it. You know, when I think I’m not doing enough, I could make a difference to just one.

What other adjustments have you had to make?

Having control over the temperature of my room. That’s wonderful. I can open my window. I can stand out in the rain.

When I got home, one of the things my mom did that first night was take me out in the backyard. After the sun had gone down, she said, OK, look up. I saw the Milky Way for the first time in 25 years. Prisons are lit 24/7. You can’t see the stars.

And mirrors. In prison, the mirrors that we had are about the size of a piece of paper. And they’re basically metal. So they’re like circus mirrors. You know, they’re warped and you can’t see very well. So you’re trying to keep a concept of what you look like. For years. With just that to look at. When I came out of prison and I saw myself in a real mirror, I didn’t recognize myself.

Was that a hard moment?

It was. People thought that it was because I had gotten older. You know, gray hair and stuff. That’s not it. It’s that I had an idea of what I looked like when I went into prison. When I came out, I didn’t look like that person anymore. I was looking at myself in the mirror and it doesn’t look like me.

That’s not what I was expecting. And then, if you go a little deeper with that, it’s like, well, what else am I wrong about? You have to reevaluate everything that you think about yourself because you’re wrong about how you look.

You mistrust your judgment. Something as simple as a mirror turns out to be existential.

Yes. Exactly.


Photo SFM