Freedom. Finally. Regardless of whether your incarceration was fair or not, now is the time to move forward. Get on with your life and make sure you have the tools necessary to take advantage of every opportunity possible. A criminal record, as we're sure just about everybody knows, will make getting a job and getting your life back together very difficult. People have already done it before you, no reason to reinvent this wheel.
First and foremost, make sure you have a place to stay. The 10 steps that follow are just about impossible without a roof over your head. Arrange for a room for at least the night. This can be with a friend, a family member, hostel, motel, or hotel. Anywhere that you can have your own bed, bathroom, and privacy. If you need help affording housing, look into Section 8. The government program's Housing Choice Voucher program, which will give you money for rent and utilities.
Got your place? Great. Now time for the 10 most important steps to do upon your release. We listed these in the order we think will be most helpful. Let us know what you think.
Celebrate. Once you know you have a safe place to sleep for the night, do something to celebrate. Even if it is just walking down the street, knowing that you can go wherever you want, whenever you want, savor this moment. Your mental health is going to be the most important thing to get over the initial hurdles you'll face with re-entry. We recommend finding the closest state or national park and just going for a walk. Breathe in the fresh air, listen to the animals, and just walk wherever you want.
Get your personal info together. Get your birth certificate, your social security card, a state ID card, a driver's license or learner's permit, a background check, and a credit report. Make sure everything is in order, all of the information is accurate, and copies are made. Your best bet is to scan and email copies of everything to yourself. If you don't have access to a scanner, ask a local copy shop (ie, FedEx Kinko's) to scan and email you copies. That way, you'll always be able to access this incredibly important information.
Get yourself a phone. If money is an issue, get a pre-paid cell phone plan that will give you a smartphone. This is key, because it will be your way to connect to the world, find a job, find stable housing, email people, and everything else you'll need to do to start living a normal life. The UN has found cell phones are key to getting out of poverty.
Apply for social services. Things like welfare, food stamps, housing assistance, and the rest are what the government is supposed to do for its citizens. Take advantage of these services, just like everyone else does. Don't ever be ashamed or embarrassed - these types of services are the safety net our tax dollars are collected to implement. Note that depending on your conviction, some of these items may be available to you while others may not. Be sure you understand the effect of your criminal record by asking any questions you have.
Get ready to apply for jobs. If you do not have a permanent address, ask a friend or family member if you can use their address for employment purposes. Once you have your permanent address, ask for help on /r/ExCons - there are volunteers that will work with you or at least direct you to someone who will. Also, get yourself an I-9 form to verify your eligibility to work. If you are applying for jobs that require you to be "bonded", contact the Federal Bonding Program first. Most private bonding agencies will refuse to provide services to people with criminal records that haven't yet established a history of trustworthiness.
Get a suit. Go to the Salvation Army or find organizations in your community that help people donate suits to those in need. Going to job interviews in a suit will be key. If you can find someone to tailor your suit or you can do it yourself, make sure you do it. That can be a key difference in terms of appearance. Also, back to the mental health aspect, looking at yourself in a mirror with a suit on will be one step towards making yourself feel free again.
Start applying for jobs. This is going to be hard. Very, very hard. Criminal records often disqualify you immediately. Even if you make it past round 1, it isn't a secret that someone without a record will probably get a better shot than you, a higher salary than you, and even better opportunities to advance than you. You will have to work harder than everyone else to convince an employer you're worth it. But if you do, and you get to work and show everyone at your new job how hard you work, you will have a chance to be promoted before everyone else. When all eyes are on you, take advantage. When you do something right, it will seem better than it actually is to people who have low expectations. Don't get down on yourself about it - take advantage of it. Plus, don't forget to go to our qualification form and see if you qualify to have your criminal record erased.
Open up a bank account. Make sure you do your research and open up an account without minimums or fees. Credit unions will often be your best bet. Find one that will be easy for you to access, but remember to start saving and budgeting! Your finances will not be stable at first, and the more money you can keep, the better off you will be in the long run. Mint.com is a popular site to manage your money.
Get BOTH a credit card and debit card. The debit card should come through your bank. The credit card will be tougher and also require discipline. Do NOT put yourself into a financial/debt spiral. The prison of debt has it's own issues, and no reason to add more trouble to your plate. There are a few companies that will work with people that have bad credit. Many of them will have insane interest rates and charge you an annual fee. Make sure you pay your balance EVERY MONTH and cancel your card the second you can qualify for a no-fee card. Remember: every time you apply for something that requires your credit to be checked, your score takes a ding. Use sites like Bankrate.com to find out what is the best card for you.
Create a Daily Routine. Now that the administrative stuff is out of the way, you need to make sure you utilize your time effectively. The best way is to create a to-do list every day. List 3 big tasks and 5 small tasks you want to complete that day. For instance, 1 big task would be to apply to 5 jobs. Another would be to spend 1 hour reading something educational. A small task would be to exercise for 30 minutes. Another would be to clean your bedroom. Things like this will help create a routine and provide you with a small step forward every day, so when you put your head on your pillow at night, you'll never feel you wasted your day.
With these 10 steps taken care of, everyone can succeed - record or not. Regardless of whether you have erased your record or not, there is nothing more important you can do right now than to contact your legislators and let them know that once someone has served their time, they've paid for their crime, and they shouldn't have their lives destroyed by having a record from their past.