Out of Prison -- and Hungry

Aus Jarrar was released from an eleven-year prison sentence with $200. He's got an internship as a drug and alcohol counselor, but until he starts to earn a wage he's relying on charity food-- he doesn't qualify for food stamps.
Aous Jarrar was released from prison after an 11-year sentence with $200. He has an internship as a drug and alcohol counselor, but because he doesn't qualify for food stamps, he is relying on charity food. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Editor's note: For nearly two decades, people with drug-related felonies were banned for life from getting food stamps, but that’s all changing now. Starting April 15, thousands of former inmates will be eligible for food stamps and other public benefits.

Until then, how do you feed yourself when you get out of prison with no money and little help? As part of our health series Vital Signs, we hear from Aous Jarrar. He was recently released from prison after serving an 11-year sentence for bank robbery. Now, without food stamps, he’s one charity meal away from hunger. We caught up with him as he rushed around downtown Oakland looking for food.

By Aous Jarrar

Walking by that restaurant back there, I smelled some barbecue. Somebody’s really cooking. You know the funny thing? Since I got out, I’ve been really full maybe three times.

It was a shock to me the morning I woke up out here that my breakfast wasn’t ready. I was in prison for a total of 11 years. I took breakfast for granted.

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I’m Palestinian. I’m not a citizen so I don’t qualify for food stamps.

The prison system, they give us $200 to leave with. I had no clothes, and I have no food. So I had to make the choice: do I want look professional, so I can get a job? Or do I want to eat?

I got certified as a drug and alcohol counselor in prison. This is the career I’m pursuing. So I can’t look the way my clients look. I went to Salvation Army for clothes and bought milk and eggs.

I eat a lot of potatoes. When I first got to [transitional housing,] one of the guys said, “There’s always potatoes and onions here, so you don’t have to go hungry.”

I’m wearing grey slacks, dress shoes, black V-neck, with glasses on -- I look professional, like someone who has a million bucks in the bank. Little do they know, I got $7 in my pocket to last until the end of the month.

Jarrar at his transitional housing in West Oakland, eating fried potatoes and eggplant from a charity food table in the neighborhood.
Jarrar at his transitional housing in West Oakland, eating fried potatoes and eggplant from a neighborhood food bank. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

I volunteer for internship hours at Options, [a service center for former inmates,] from 8:30am to 4:00pm. I’m trying to get my full accreditation as a drug and alcohol counselor. But it puts me in this situation where I can’t even make it to the food bank because I’m at work. I’m at the office, so I can’t leave for two hours to grab food.

I fell in love with drug and alcohol counseling in prison. I’m out here, and this is what I really want to do. So if I struggle with it a little bit right now, volunteering and doing an internship, it will pay off in the long run.

Jeremy Raff reported this story