The Washington Post Magazine

The Weeks After Getting Out

Scott Ortiz was just released from prison after serving 15 years. A photographer was there to meet him at the facility’s gate.

Scott Ortiz leaving Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York.
By

In late July, 58-year-old Scott Ortiz was released from New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility, and I met him outside the prison to start photographing the first few weeks of his transition home. Reentry has been a recurring subject throughout my photojournalism career, but this was the first time I was documenting an older adult upon release.

Ortiz is what I’d call a veterano of prison life: The South Bronx native has been in and out of prison since his early 20s. In 2006, he was sentenced to 15 years to life rather than the two- to four-year minimum for burglary. Ortiz is a former heroin addict who was diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis C; in sentencing him, the judge relied on judicial discretion and stated that, “if released, he may well return to the life of a street addict, thereby endangering the public health through the exchange or sharing of dirty needles.”

I know what it’s like to be an addict. Like Ortiz, I grew up in New York and became addicted to heroin as a teenager. And I was a juvenile offender, sent to Rikers Island twice for burglary. After my second release, I found photography. It saved me and allowed me to re-envision my life. I got clean at age 26. I’ve been a photojournalist for 34 years now, and I see my work as reflections of my experiences: generations of violence, adolescents in prison and families of the incarcerated. I know that just because you are an addict doesn’t mean you can’t change.

Upon his release, Ortiz was determined to do things differently this time. His reentry opened my eyes to services available to the formerly incarcerated with HIV, like housing and transportation. Ortiz was on a merry-go-round of social services and appointments, but his story was so much more than that. I witnessed the journey of a man working to overcome health issues while reuniting with his family and a changing city.

— Joseph Rodriguez, as told to Alexa McMahon


From the back seat of a car, Ortiz encounters a different South Bronx. He was overwhelmed by the changes in his neighborhood, the rushed pace and many people on cellphones. ( / )

Ortiz outside Paradise Transitional Housing, which provides short-term housing for single adults with HIV or AIDS. (Joseph Rodriguez/FTWP)
Scott Ortiz returns to his old block to see a family friend of 40 years, Rene Valentine. They have not seen each other since 2002.
Ortiz’s first meal after release at I-84 Diner in Fishkill, N.Y. Senior reentry specialist Thomas Ryer, right, from the Osborne Association, a New York nonprofit, picked him up from the prison gates and arranged emergency housing. Ortiz is a participant in the Osborne Association’s Elder Reentry Initiative, a program that prepares older adults for their return home and connects them to resources.
Ortiz gets a haircut at Marvin’s Barbershop.
TOP: Scott Ortiz returns to his old block to see a family friend of 40 years, Rene Valentine. They have not seen each other since 2002. BOTTOM LEFT: Ortiz’s first meal after release at I-84 Diner in Fishkill, N.Y. Senior reentry specialist Thomas Ryer, right, from the Osborne Association, a New York nonprofit, picked him up from the prison gates and arranged emergency housing. Ortiz is a participant in the Osborne Association’s Elder Reentry Initiative, a program that prepares older adults for their return home and connects them to resources. BOTTOM RIGHT: Ortiz gets a haircut at Marvin’s Barbershop.

Ortiz picks out a new suit at the Osborne Association. Many of those released from prison do not have the money to buy clothes. (Joseph Rodriguez/FTWP)
The day following his release, Ortiz enters an ambulance to take him to a hospital after a doctor at Osborne evaluated the severity of a urinary tract infection. He spent two days in the hospital.
During his hospital stay, Ortiz gets a surprise visit from his sister and older brother, whom he had not seen for decades.
Ortiz and other formerly incarcerated people attend a sober weekend class, discussing activities that don’t involve drugs or alcohol, which is part of El Rio, Osborne’s substance abuse program.
TOP: The day following his release, Ortiz enters an ambulance to take him to a hospital after a doctor at Osborne evaluated the severity of a urinary tract infection. He spent two days in the hospital. BOTTOM LEFT: During his hospital stay, Ortiz gets a surprise visit from his sister and older brother, whom he had not seen for decades. BOTTOM RIGHT: Ortiz and other formerly incarcerated people attend a sober weekend class, discussing activities that don’t involve drugs or alcohol, which is part of El Rio, Osborne’s substance abuse program.

Ortiz returns to Orchard Beach to pay his respects to his mother, Delen Leboy, who died of a stroke in 2009. He was unable to attend her funeral. His mother loved this beach so much that her ashes were spread in the water. “I will miss you, Madrecita,” Ortiz spoke to her spirit. “This is a different time. I am going to make you proud of me, because I know I am going to make it this time.” (Joseph Rodriguez/FTWP)

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the beach Scott Ortiz was visiting as Orchid Beach, instead of Orchard Beach. The story has been updated.

Joseph Rodriguez is a photojournalist, New York University professor and author of “Spanish Harlem,” “East Side Stories: Gang Life in East LA” and “Juvenile.” He spent time at Rikers Island for two separate burglary cases as a juvenile.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

Credits: Joseph Rodriguez

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