Ex-Prisoners Confessed What Surprised Them The Most When They Re-Entered Society

You can’t truly understand what it’s like to be freed from prison unless you’ve done the time. But for those of us who haven’t been behind bars, we can still get a taste of the shock of finally being outside. In August 2019 a Reddit thread asked former inmates to share their biggest surprises upon re-entering the world – and these are some of the most bizarre and thought-provoking answers.

40. Changing towns and landscapes

For a couple of ex-prisoners, the way the outside world had changed left them reeling. Their hometowns were dotted with new buildings and developments that they were only just seeing with their own eyes. And, of course, there was some gentrification. Redditor SuburbanBehemoth recalled being shocked about how an “old dive bar” had been turned into “a fairly popular restaurant and bar.”

39. Choice overload

Reddit user Luna_Sea_ explained, “The day I got out, my uncle took me to Walmart to get everything I needed. I went off by myself to get the things on my list. First I went to the lotion aisle. I was looking at all the lotion and became so overwhelmed by all the choices… [Inside], I had no choices and was given what I needed. Having all these options overwhelmed me.”

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38. Nature

In one of the most moving accounts from the Reddit thread, ex-prisoner MrDev16 revealed, “When I got out, the biggest shock was the beautiful sights and colors. I forgot how gorgeous nature was. It put the thought into my mind that I never want to go back, because there is no beauty in prison. The beauty is on the outside.”

37. Changes in technology

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Tech also moved on as folks were in prison – making life on the outside that much trickier to deal with. Reddit user 4dollarz wrote, “I did six years. My biggest shock was finding out [that] you can’t do much of anything without a smartphone. Companies don’t even do paper [job] applications anymore.”

36. Being able to go wherever you please

On the thread, Redditor 2LitreBugattiBieber recalled an interaction with a friend who’d spent a couple of years inside. They explained, “I asked him, ‘What is the biggest thing that stands out to you now that you’re free?’ He simply said, ‘The fact that I’m here with you, but I can physically walk over there to that field 500 meters away without anybody or any walls stopping me.’”

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35. Losing your identity

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One moving comment recounted the tale of a man who had been released after having been incarcerated for half a century. Upon finding freedom, however, the former prisoner had noticed that he’d lost track of all his identification – including his birth certificate. Relaying the guy’s story, StorerPoet commented, “He said, ‘It’s like I don’t even exist anymore.’”

34. Living without fear

Prisons can be pretty scary places, as anyone who’s been behind bars will know. And so when Menu_Discord asked a friend how they felt about life on the outside, they replied, “It’s so weird to not have to give anyone my stuff. I don’t have to hide anything or worry about the consequences if it gets found.”

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33. Solo showers

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For many commenters on the Reddit thread, using showers by themselves had taken some readjustment. SonicTheEdgelord wrote, “[You forget] what it feels like to shower completely alone and without flip flops on.” Another person spoke of the strangeness of being able to adjust the water for extra heat or coolness.

32. Taking a bath

There are no bathtubs in prison, and many inmates apparently miss that feeling of being submerged in water. Jameson2800 revealed how they’d coped with finally regaining that pleasure, writing, “For me, the biggest shock was how good just laying in a bath of warm water felt. After years of hurried showers under the watchful eye of a guard, the privacy and comfort a bath gave was intense.”

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31. Changing families

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One response told the story of a man who had spent 16 years in prison. When he had gone away, his daughter had still been a child; by the time he got out, however, she was an adult with a baby of her own. And, touchingly, the woman had decided to keep her pregnancy a secret – meaning her dad hadn’t known that he was a grandfather until his release. Relaying the tale, Enna_Nailo said, “A few months later, he still couldn’t talk about the new baby without crying happy tears.”

30. People getting in touch after a long time

Writing on behalf of a friend who’d spent time in prison, Bodega177013 said, “He was surprised at who got in contact with him after getting out. While he was [inside], only a handful of people kept tabs on him, visited or called. But as soon as he got out, all these people he hadn’t heard from started congratulating him… He didn’t want any of that and thought all of it felt so disingenuous.”

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29. Cars

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For emekennede, one of the strangest things about being released was riding in a vehicle. They explained, “I got car sick for years after.” Redditor genusbender also said of one formerly incarcerated man they’d come across, “He was particularly impressed by cars. He had not seen cars in person in years.”

28. Shopping

After spending time in prison, even the most mundane of settings can seem completely alien. Recalling a trip to Walmart on their first day of freedom, Haitnguyen7 wrote, “I had an unreasonable fear the exit would close or I would get lost, so I kept glancing towards the exit every 20 steps or so. I didn’t think of using a shopping cart, so my hands were full of clothes.”

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27. People’s acceptance

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In one touching comment, waitress Coco_puffs90 spoke of an older man with whom she’d had a friendly encounter. And she had known that he was an ex-prisoner after he used a JPay card – typically given to someone upon their release from a correctional facility. The man told her, however, “This is the first place I stopped after I got released. I was afraid you were going to treat me differently after you saw my card. I haven’t been in public in 20 years.”

26. Not needing permission

Revealing their biggest shock upon returning to the outside world, dontniceguyatme wrote, “That I didn’t have to ask to use a bathroom.” Just “how many dangerous things people have around them at all times” came as a surprise, too. And the Reddit user added, “I slid my knife away from me and under a napkin at a restaurant so I didn’t get in trouble.”

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25. That some things hadn’t changed

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Purplestuff11 revealed on the Reddit thread, “I remember asking a coworker of mine [about his greatest shock on the outside]. He said first… that no one had taken his car. It [had] sat for six years unmoved in the street. Tires held air and [the] battery was dead, but [it] started with a push.”

24. Automated gadgets

You’re probably used to technology ruling many aspects of everyday life, but not everyone is so up to date. User crinklycuts revealed, “My uncle was in prison for 24 years and was released three years ago. He said what shocked him the most was how automated things were. Automated doors, self-checkouts [and] using your face/fingerprint to unlock a phone.”

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23. Needing light or noise to sleep

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You’d assume that following a long stint in prison, an ex-con would long for a quiet night’s rest. But that wasn’t the case for Luna_Sea_, who wrote, “The first night, I tried sleeping in a dark bedroom but couldn’t do it. My dad slept on the living room couch with a TV on, so I slept on the other couch. I needed to sleep around people and noise for a while until I got used to being alone again.”

22. Having to relearn old skills

Relaying his father’s story, jay-the-fish-lol said, “My dad was in prison for life until he was found not guilty after 20 years. First thing he was surprised about was driving. He couldn’t drive or ride a bike. He had to learn both again. It’s quite funny to see a 50+ guy falling off a bike after one of his sons let go for the ‘first’ time.”

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21. Questioning reality

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For some ex-prisoners, the world had changed so much that they had struggled to process the things around them. FirmAngus wrote, “Self-checkout stands at stores and wireless headphones were definitely one of those ‘this can’t be real’ moments. I questioned reality. Like when you cannot explain an instance and it scares you. Trying to cope with ‘Did that really happen?’ That’s how it felt.”

20. Having no routine

In prison, there aren’t many choices to make. With that in mind, kaffie27 revealed, “A guy I worked with had done 25 years. [He] said he struggled to adjust to doing whatever he wanted and missed the daily routines. They couldn’t get greasy fast food, so his diet was better. Because of that, his skin didn’t age much, and his face was unwrinkled and supple. He was 45 but looked 25.”

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19. Dating

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In their response, redroseygirl31 revealed how a friend had struggled with finding love after being “in prison from age 16 to 32.” They added, “He said [that] the biggest hurdle to overcome was trying to learn how to date and have healthy relationships without going through the process of dating during adolescence and early adulthood.”

18. Members of the opposite sex

Before ex-prisoners even consider dating, though, they must first become reacquainted with being around members of the opposite sex. Describing an interaction with one of their prison pen-pals, TheCleaner75 recalled how the inmate had written, “I haven’t even seen a woman up close since I came to prison. If I ever get out, I am not going to know how to act around them.”

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17. How rude people can be

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Some of the comments on the Reddit thread may actually come as a shock to folks who have never been on the wrong side of the law. For example, CausticMedeim explained that they had been surprised about “how absolutely rude everyone is” on the outside world. In prison, by contrast, “most people either avoid strangers or are polite enough – partially because you don’t know what they’re capable of, and it’s easier to not start something.”

16. Good food

One commenter recalled meeting a man who’d been locked up for 11 years. Upon his release, though, he had become obsessed with food. The Reddit user revealed, “He ate so much that he put on five stone almost immediately. Afterward, he showed everybody pictures of him before, and he literally looked like a different guy.”

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15. The smell

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According to one ex-prisoner, re-entering society was a real assault on the senses. MarvelousJohnson wrote, “First thing I noticed was the smell. Cement and steel have a distinct smell. It’s stale. When you walk outside for the first time, the smell of everything around you is overwhelming.”

14. Rich foods

It seems that prison meals must be on the bland side, as MarvelousJohnson was also overwhelmed by junk food after being released. They said, “I could only handle two bites even though I was starving. I guess you get acclimated to the food inside, and those two bites felt so heavy I couldn’t handle anymore.”

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13. Handling money

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While prisoners can spend a few dollars on commissary items, their access to cash is limited. And Redditor tinkinoutsidedabox explained that, for them, “money in general” was a hurdle upon release. They added, “You have no idea how to handle money. That takes a little time to get used to.”

12. The change in cell phone habits

Reddit user bawzzz wrote about a video they’d seen that followed a guy finishing up his 20-year prison stretch. And after his release, the ex-con had apparently been “dumbfounded” at how attached people were to their phones. The commenter added, “He thought they were all mindless spy agents. He was also baffled at the fact that everyone just walks with their heads down looking at their phones without looking up.”

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11. Trees

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In one poignant response, maxxamillion04 shared the experience of one of their former college teaching assistants. They wrote, “When he got out, he said the strongest immediate impression he got was from trees. He said [that] they were so huge and looming, and he always felt like they were leaning toward him like they were about to fall over.”

10. Fear of failure

One commenter on the Reddit thread also spoke openly about the stigma that comes with being an ex-prisoner. Joeyholein1 wrote that they had struggled to deal with “the shock of freedom and being terrified of not being able to make something of yourself because you have the label of being a felon. [There’s also] the fear of going back, because you are set up for failure from the beginning.”

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9. Being fascinated by mundane stuff

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Commenting on the experience of being freed from prison, Oxymorphinranger wrote, “All I can see is that it’s unlike any other experience in life. People who have never been locked up will never experience the feeling of walking out of the gate after such a long time. Literally everything is amazing.”

8. Fear of the outside world

Even before an inmate is released from prison, the mere idea of the outside world can be scary. Redditor anngrn recalled overhearing two secure hospital unit inmates talking about the news one day, writing, “One guy said, ‘Wow, it’s scary out there.’ The other guy said, ‘Yeah, when I parole, I’m going to lock myself at home all day.’”

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7. Strangers talking to you

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In prison, it’s not unusual for inmates to keep out of the way of folks they don’t know. And ShnyMnstr – who seemingly claimed to have served 14 years behind bars – remarked on how odd it was “having strangers talk to you” on the outside. Elsewhere, a user named GeerHedRacing recalled how they’d mistakenly replied to a person they’d thought was talking to them – only to realize that they were using a wireless headset on their phone.

6. Music

Some of the things that shock former inmates are easy for us to overlook. And while Bigcat7373 only spent five months away from the outside world in rehab, they were still deprived of one omnipresent aspect of life. They wrote, “For me, it was music. It was easily the thing I missed the most. I would go down to the basement and help the guys working laundry down there just because they had a radio. I’ll never take it for granted again.”

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5. Not rushing food

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After Avamouse’s dad finished six and a half years in prison, some things were apparently “hard” to get used to again. Giving one example, the Redditor wrote, “He couldn’t eat at a normal pace. He finished our first Thanksgiving meal in, like, eight minutes. No talking, no passing rolls. Shut up, eat, leave.”

4. The freedom

While prisoners may crave experiencing life on the outside, the ability to finally do whatever they please can be overwhelming. BigFerd revealed, “Freedom was my toughest obstacle. Freedom of choice, freedom of movement… Having had my life so neatly regimented and defined, I actually thrived. Take that all away, and I got lost within myself.”

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3. The vivid colors of everyday life

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More than one commenter spoke about how colorful the outside world had felt compared to prison. Redditor zoinkzies recalled her brother’s first trip to the grocery store after his release, writing, “He’s walking back to the car with this stunned look on his face. And finally, as he gets to us, he goes, ‘I felt like I was on an acid trip. I haven’t seen that many colors in so long. I need to sit down.’”

2. The feel of carpet

Prisons are mostly dull, sterile places that don’t exactly overstimulate the senses. And with that in mind, even the most ordinary of experiences can provide a thrill for the formerly incarcerated. SonicTheEdgelord revealed, “You forget about the details of things, like the way carpet feels on the bottoms of your feet.”

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1. Life moving on without them

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SonicTheEdgelord also provided one of the saddest comments on the Reddit thread. Speaking of their friends and family getting on with their lives while they were locked up, they wrote, “While you’re stuck in a constant loop of the same day every day, the rest of the world moves on without you. When you get home, you feel left behind.”

Life behind bars can be harrowing, too, and no one knows that more acutely than Nick Dunn. Deprived of freedom, affection and regular meals, he spent a nightmarish period in an Indian prison without ever having committed any offense. But Dunn learned a few lessons while incarcerated, and now he’s willing to share them.

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It has been several years since Dunn last tasted freedom. Held captive in a packed prison cell in India, each day he faces the threat of violence and a constant struggle to source food. With the weight shedding from his body, the former British soldier is trapped in a living nightmare. And the real kicker is that he’s totally innocent of any crime.

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But Dunn isn’t alone; five of his fellow countrymen were also taken into custody at the same time as him. These people had all been employed as security guards aboard a ship called the MV Seaman Guard Ohio. However, they weren’t the only people sailing on the vessel.

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The six Brits were actually part of a much larger crew working on board the ship when they were arrested in 2013. Also imprisoned at the time were 14 people from Estonia, 12 from India and three from Ukraine. But how was it that so many innocent people ended up in prison?

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The six British men were hired to guard the ship from potential Somali pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean. And with their previous experience as soldiers, they were perhaps the ideal people for the job. But they likely never considered that their greatest enemy would actually prove to be the Indian legal system.

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In Nick Dunn’s case specifically, he had been in some tough spots before. After all, the native of Ashington, England, was once a member of the Parachute Regiment in the British Army. This line of work had taken him around the world to countries like Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such experiences, you might imagine, would mean that he’d developed a calm composure in stressful situations.

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But all of Dunn’s past challenges likely paled in comparison to what awaited as he boarded the MV Seaman Guard Ohio. According to the BBC, he arrived on the ship in October 2013 somewhere along the coast of Sri Lanka. And Dunn was about to embark on a journey that would change his life forever.

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Six days after Dunn had set foot on the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, the vessel was being docked into the port of Tuticorin by the Indian authorities. Then, on October 18 all of the people who’d been aboard were incarcerated.

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Speaking about his ordeal to Pathfinder magazine in April 2018, Dunn recalled, “We docked and suddenly it was chaos. There [were] so many people everywhere. Police, maritime organizations, even the media. Everyone and their dog tried to board our vessel. At one point, a barrier went up to stop people coming on board or we would have capsized.”

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Dunn and his colleagues were subsequently charged with possessing unlicensed guns. But the men claimed that they had obtained the appropriate licenses from the U.K. government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – something which the Indian authorities later confirmed. Nevertheless, at this stage the men were sent to prison in the city of Chennai.

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As the British men – who became known as the Chennai Six – wilted away in prison, a glimmer of hope emerged in April 2014. That month, the charges being held against the men were defeated after it was conceded that the guns had been obtained legally and that they were being used for anti-piracy reasons. This positive development, however, ultimately came to nothing; the Indian authorities challenged this finding, and the prisoners were forced to remain in jail.

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Dunn’s recollections of this time were published in the News Post Leader in March 2020. As he put it, “There was a lot of uncertainty in that period. And the fact that the authorities lodged the appeal on day 88 out of the 90 they had available made it even more of a nightmare.”

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Meanwhile, legal representatives of the Chennai Six sought to resolve the issue and get them home. But the cogs of the legal system in India were moving incredibly slowly. In fact, days in court which should have been spent arguing the men’s cases were allegedly hampered by a prosecutor – and even a judge – not showing up.

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David Cameron was the British Prime Minister when the men were arrested. The PM and his cabinet were aware of the situation and apparently even brought it up to the Indian leader Narendra Modi. Yet, it seems, progress at the higher ends of government was minimal, and it was consequently left to the prisoners’ loved ones to campaign for their release.

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Dunn’s sister Lisa was extremely active in trying to secure her sibling’s release. And in 2016 – two years after they’d last met – she was permitted to travel to India to visit Dunn. The sibling recalled this moment to the ITV News Tyne Tees TV program shortly after she’d been to see him.

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As Lisa explained, “[Dunn] was so composed and calm; he really kept it together. He ate a massive piece of cake and we sang happy birthday – it was amazing. Seeing him after all this time was extremely emotional, but it’s given me fire in my belly. There’s no way he’s going to spend the next five years in prison. We are all focused and determined.”

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Lisa then discussed the ongoing campaign and the difficulties they faced. She went on, “We’re meeting with the lawyers at the prison this Thursday to build the case to fight the refused bail. This is giving all the British guys a focus. But it’s so hard communicating, getting letters in and out of the prison.”

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All the while, though, the Chennai Six remained wrongly incarcerated. But the campaign did bear some fruit. A petition signed by some 130,000 individuals demanding the Indian authorities grant the men bail was submitted to the British government. And this ultimately led to the prisoners being permitted to spend some time in more comfortable settings such as hostels and hotels.

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However, these moments of relative respite were short-lived, as the crew of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio were also held in terrible conditions in jail. At times, four of them would be in a single cell. But on other occasions, there could be as many as 20. And all of this was within a prison environment also housing rapists and murderers.

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From the very first day of their incarceration, the Chennai Six had targets on their backs, according to the BBC. Rocks were tossed at the men, and they were forced to move about in groups. This, it was hoped, would deter other prisoners from attacking them. But conflict could not always be avoided.

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As Dunn recalled in a book detailing his experiences, he and his British colleagues were attacked by a group wielding chairs and crutches while on their way to visit the prison doctor. He wrote in Surviving Hell, “Punches were thrown, prisoners were grappling with each other, and a number of bodies hit the ground. It was complete pandemonium all around, with bodies being thrown about and fists flying.”

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By the end of the brawl, however, the British men had ultimately come on top. After all, they were large former soldiers who’d been specially trained in security. Dunn explained in his book that the attackers “must have looked at this group of big blokes, and the damage we had caused and, suddenly, they weren’t so keen on a scrap.”

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But even though the Chennai Six had saved themselves from further attacks by the other inmates, they still struggled amid the conditions in the prison. The beds upon which the Brits slept consisted of flimsy mattresses on the ground, and their toilet was simply a pit. Dunn went on, “The conditions were bleak, basic and dirty. Every day was like Groundhog Day.”

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Any means of distraction from their grim reality was left to the men themselves. But they were quite resourceful in this respect, even utilizing things they found around the jail to create work-out equipment. For example, they took a metal rod and some heavy rocks and crafted lifting weights.

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Writing in Surviving Hell, Dunn remarked, “The guards would always dismantle our makeshift gym, but every time they did, we rebuilt it again. In the end, we pleaded with them to leave our equipment alone. Surely, we said, they could recognize we were setting a good example to other prisoners.”

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In September 2017 Dunn’s sister Lisa decided to partake in a charity run to raise funds for legal fees. At this same time, Dunn himself ran a half-marathon in prison. In extremely hot weather conditions, the former soldier ran around the jail’s yard some 27 times.

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Dunn wasn’t alone on his prison run, however. Some of the other British prisoners joined him, while one of the others helped by getting their hands on a few oranges. These, of course, helped keep the runners’ energy levels up. This was itself an impressive feat, as food was a tough commodity to come by inside the jail.

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And as difficult as it was to stay nourished, it was just as hard to stay hygienic. To wash themselves, the prisoners used an aged pipe connected to a tap. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a step up from using a simple bucket of water. Dunn told the BBC, “We were forever trying to make up for losing the comforts we took for granted when we were back home.”

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Dunn continued, “We just did what we had to do to make our lives a bit easier with what we had available, which wasn’t a lot. You’ve got to keep on top of your hygiene. In that situation it’s so easy to fall ill because it’s just not a clean place.”

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Apparently, the Chennai Six got by in prison by exchanging things like cigarettes. This way, they could get their hands on food – or they would simply scavenge. Dunn told the BBC, “Every day in that cookhouse was a battle. We were coming to blows just to get hold of a pan, and we would have to kick off to make sure we had enough food to survive.”

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And as the men tried to survive in captivity, their loved ones worked to get them free. Lisa Dunn, for one, was vocal in trying to get the British government to help her brother. But the court appeal against the imprisonment continued to progress very slowly, and hope was possibly beginning to wane.

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As time dragged on, Dunn started to suspect that one of the prisoners would have to die before sufficient attention would be given to their case. Disturbingly, this almost proved to be exactly what happened. In the fall of 2017 the Ukrainian captain of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio became gravely sick.

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Dunn recalled in his book, “As I predicted, suddenly, the sluggish judicial system started to take notice of our case again. The death or serious illness of one of our number while we were in an Indian prison would be a serious embarrassment to the authorities.”

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Things, at long last, now started to move quickly. And in November 2017 the prisoners received the news that they’d been dreaming of for four whole years: the men were going to be released. Remembering the moment that he learned this, Dunn wrote, “My knees just crumpled. I was exploding inside.”

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The men were set free 24 hours later and made it back to the United Kingdom six days after that. As you might imagine, their loved ones were absolutely ecstatic by the return of the former soldiers. In fact, as Dunn passed through the airport in the English city of Newcastle upon Tyne, complete strangers also expressed their support.

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As Dunn recalled to Pathfinder, “Stepping off the flight in Newcastle, I stopped and I could smell crisp clean air, then I knew I was safely home. Newcastle Airport were fantastic. The staff were clapping their hands as I came off the flight. My family and friends were at the other side of security waiting for me. It was like winning the lottery ten times over.”

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After all those years of imprisonment, Dunn now had to learn how to live normally again. And this wasn’t without its challenges. There were ordinary aspects of life which he’d slipped out of touch with. According to the BBC, he actually had to seek his brother’s help in operating a washing machine.

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Dunn told the British broadcaster, “I remember putting my first load of washing in and having to ring my brother to ask him how to use the machine. After spending four years using a bucket and hands to wash your clothes, you forget these little things that you take for granted.”

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Speaking to Pathfinder about his return back to normal life, Dunn said, “Now I have been home over a year. It has been a transitional time… almost like leaving the army again. The world had changed over those four years and I am still trying to play catch up. My family have been amazing in helping me through it, I also have a psychologist helping me, too.”

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It might come as a surprise to learn that Dunn has actually continued his work as a security guard – but he does so in the U.K. rather than abroad. Despite the ordeal that he went through, he wants to continue on in the field and make use of his specialist training. After all, he survived for many years in extremely difficult circumstances, so he’s obviously cut out for stressful situations.

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At the time of writing, three years have passed since Dunn’s release, and he’s just trying to get on with things. The Ashington native told the BBC, “Things have changed in my life after going through what I went through. I take each day as it comes now. There are days when I can feel a bit down and out, but I know I’ve been through a lot worse.”

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