The War on "Felons" Well Executed

February 1, 2016

 

Never looking back, or too far in front of me.

The present is a gift. And I just wanna be.

—Common, from Be

 

In a typical year, the federal government releases about 700,000 individuals once convicted of felonies back into society. We, as a nation, have paid about $40,000 per year per person. The total on that yearly invoice comes to about $28,000,000,000. I, for one, cannot count that high. I honestly had to ask Google to pronounce that number for me. As a nation, we spend slightly less than Mark Zuckerberg’s current total net worth on incarceration every single year. And what do we get for our money?

 

This year, as noted by Matt Ford in The Atlantic, we will release an additional 6,000 prisoners. The criminal justice reform movement successfully convinced the federal government that it was unnecessarily housing 6,000 human beings who were United States citizens. Most of these 6,000 should have been released individually at some point during the last year rather than in one mass exodus. Even after the sentencing commission had been convinced, there were concerns. There were the expected fears, some unnecessary political point scoring, and a bit of bureaucratic red tape, but some legitimate concerns were raised. Recidivism was one of those.

 

Recidivism. It is one of those words—collectively, socially, and individually—we think we understand. But we don’t. Not really. Recidivism is to prisoners what relapse is to addicts.

 

Would you require that all addicts be mandated by law to not have access to housing or be allowed to use food stamps? Would you deny a recovering addict a job the day he's out of rehab on the grounds that he used to use drugs?  I think as a society we’ve stated the answer to these to be “yes”—we’ve criminalized addiction wherever possible anyway, trying to turn the Venn diagram of Addicts and Felons into as much of a circle as possible. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s the status quo. We’re only just now trying to turn it around thanks to marijuana legalization efforts and white suburban heroin epidemics.

 

Further, would you support a regime that damned its addicts to regularly scheduled relapses? Or a country whose government all but mandated that addicts fall off the wagon, a country where almost seventy-five percent of addicts are effectively forced to relapse because the law denies them employment, housing, and education, even going so far as denying them the right to vote? 

 

If I asked this question in a crowded town hall, I would expect an angry chorus of no's. But I have not done that. I am merely extrapolating from the heated responses I got from my friends and from a random sampling of table neighbors and passersby that I drafted into my lunchtime conversation. I conduct this kind of informal survey all the time. I like to know what people think, what they think they think, and what they're willing to say they think.

 

There was an undercurrent of scorn mixed in with the agitation and outright shock coloring all of the negative replies I received. Noses wrinkled up, faces contracted, and eyelids lowered. People glowered as they vociferously said no. It was as if I had asked, "Would you care to cook this baby and eat it, sir?"

The comparison, of course, being their common thought of “What kind of barbarian do you think I am?” And perhaps “Exactly what kind of barbarian are you for even conceiving such a thing? I am not so sure I want to be counted in the same genus much less the same civilization as you.”

 

But try something else. Rephrase the question. Better yet, study the public’s responses to the actual law, to what is going on, to reality. Ask yourself this question. But before you do, replace addict with felon and relapse with recidivism.

 

Here, I will do it for you:

 

Would you require that all released prisoners be mandated by law to not have access to housing and not be allowed to obtain food stamps? Would you deny a recently released prisoner a job on the grounds that he once committed a crime, regardless of how much time has passed or without considering one’s talents, education, or abilities? 

 

Would you support a regime that doomed its released prisoners to recidivism? Or a country whose government effectively forced released prisoners return to crime, a country where almost seventy-five percent of released prisoners are forced to recidivate because the law denies them employment, housing, and education, even going so far as to deny them the right to vote? 

  

Why do we tolerate the existence of a system arranged in precisely that way? No one can seem to explain it to me. I have read quite a bit of the literature trying to find out, even the dreck put out by presidential candidates and their stand-ins.

 

The war on drugs and mass incarceration gets all the headlines as does, to a certain extent, the fallout from the collateral damage of the war on drugs. But what about the government’s misguided War on Felons? To belabor a literary device, The War in Iraq is to the War on Drugs what the War in Afghanistan is to the War against Felons.

 

Like the War in Afghanistan, the War against "Felons" is undeclared. The effects, though, are tangible, disastrous, and bordering on evil.

 

What do you call a government policy, a set of laws, that requires society to deny housing, education, public benefits, and jobs to citizens released from prison, those who have already done the time, or those who have merely been convicted without having to spend time incarcerated? These unintended collateral consequences, which are not part of the sentence for the crime, make it far more difficult for returning citizens to reintegrate upon release, including juvenile offenders. Sherburne County Minnesota explores the issue of collateral consequences and how a criminal record follows youth into adulthood:

 

Locked Out, credited to Human Pictures (2015) and endorsed by Amy Fettig, prison reform giant and Senior Staff Counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, is focused on—in their words— “the systematic and state sanctioned disenfranchisement of people with criminal records [that] creates second-class citizens.”

 

A video warning—disguised as an education, wrapped in a poem, and presented as a film—seeks to explore the subject.  Only five minutes long, this powerful film starts with an underutilized George Bush quote:

 

 “America is the land of second chance—and when the gates of the prison open, the path should lead to a better life.”

 

These words were uttered by President Bush as part of his State of the Union address in January of 2004. 

 

Forgotten in the explosion of the twin towers and the grainy, all-encompassing silt that spread over New York City and the national consciousness, culminating in the likely never-to-end War on Terror, is President’s Bush’s attempt to address crime and recidivism. Five years before America’s solemn detour into the shadows, President George W. Bush’s greatest policy focus was homegrown terror—before we called it that. On the campaign trail, George Bush spoke of the homegrown terror of the repeated release of dangerous criminals into society and then locking of the majority of them back behind prison walls within three years. Bush exploited the public’s fear of crime and of criminals into a successful push for the Texas governorship and, ultimately, the presidency. Allegations of theft aside, this was what Al Gore just couldn’t overcome—the perception that he was soft on crime, and George W. Bush, Texas’s great executioner, was not.

 

Locked Out continues, absent of soundtrack, using a play on the James Bond silhouette motif to introduce our protagonist: a young black male, ostensibly recently released from prison. We hear the lyrics and voice of Erik Maldanado (better known in the world of poetry as the Advocate of Wordz), in the background, narrating in a beat-poet style, his voice just slightly louder than the clanking of the cell doors opening.

 

If lady justice was truly refined, 

Nonviolent offenders wouldn't spend decades confined off three petty crimes.

Three strikes, you’re outta time— 

BUT that is a story I’d rather not be mine.

 

Most of the film is shot in black and white, in stark contrast to the evocative colors at symbolically significant portions of the film. The main character Holden, filmed in black and white, stands in a black and white checkered floor’s hallway with his back toward a red door, which symbolizes his release from prison. Holden says these words:

 

And the light who gave me it shall see her son return, 

Wrap her arms around me while her cheek muscles burn

to the point the warmth melts away every ounce of concern. 

Until the quality housing and work responsibility act is learned,

Public housing agencies are authorized to deny housing to felons.

 

This is one of the most poignant moments in the film. Holden longs to reunite with the woman who gave birth to him, longs to see the light shine in her eyes, but a door slams shut on what should have been a happy reunion. Like most reintegrating individuals, Holden is not allowed to live in public housing.

 

Let’s face it. Most of the people in prison do not hail from privileged backgrounds. The disproportionate majority come from poor households, and being poor in America usually leads either to or from Public Housing and Public Assistance. The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 requires government officials and their designees to deny housing to just about anyone with a criminal record. If you have been just released from prison and are short of funds, the law denies you family support if you—like the majority of the newly released—have family who benefit from Public Housing. 

 

In Locked Out, the door slams closed on Holden’s mother’s happiness at his release. This is brutally yet brilliantly articulated by the films repeating refrain: No longer locked up. Just locked out. 

 

The next door that slams shut in this extended yet succinct metaphor is the door to employment. 

 

But I believe opportunity knocks for those who put in the work—

those with goals and drive, unafraid of their ego being hurt. 

Start from the bottom, plant my seeds in the dirt, 

a man willing to earn and prove every penny he’s worth.

 Then I’m told my conviction comes with restrictions 

on professional licenses and permissions 

to gain employment as a medical technician 

or in a law division,

no fire fighter missions.

In most cases, if that prison box is checked, your resume goes missing.

 

This is one of the pillars on which the prison reform movement was able to build bedrock and, in turn, springboard to some success. Ban the Box initiatives all across the country point out one incredibly obvious fact. People who cannot find stable employment will find a lucrative substitute, and that lucrative substitute will almost always be at society’s expense. Literally. There will be crime, and more likely than not, there will be punishment. Society pays for both. It pays for the damage to communities and the lowered quality of life that crime causes, and it pays for the felon’s custody, care, and control while he is in prison. By allowing private corporations to make job applications disappear solely on the basis that the applicant once committed a misdeed, society is effectively subsidizing social self-harm. What is more interesting is that after a subtle nudge from the community, business owners get this—even if the government does not. “I’ve seen how a job makes all the difference,” says Derreck B. Johnson, founder and president of Home of Chicken and Waffles in Oakland. “When I give someone a chance and he becomes my best employee, I know that I’m doing right by my community” (NELP, 2015 p.1). 

 

While many people support the initiative including President Barack Obama, these laws have not been without controversy. Employers who oppose the ban claim that the box safeguards workplaces against the threat of ex-offenders whom could still pose a threat to the workplace; others remain skeptical, such Dan Rodericks of the Baltimore Sun who writes “Ban the box feels good but won’t achieve much”  I have to agree with Mr. Rodericks as any efforts to resolve housing issues, unemployment, access to higher education, entitlements, will often be swiftly undermined by the myriad of hidden federal and state policies, laws, sanctions, restrictions, and disqualifications that effectively create a lifelong loss of the basic rights associated with citizenship, preventing successful reintegration.

 

The Ban the Box initiative does not prohibit employers from inquiring into criminal history, it just prevents criminal history from being the sole criterion on which to exclude an applicant before a job interview or other inquiry into the applicant’s qualifications. Without these protections, the newly released are “No longer locked up. Just locked out.” Holden flinches when this door slams shut. For most men, the ability to earn and provide is at the core of their masculinity, the core of their identity. If I cannot earn, what am I?

 

This next narrator further explores the issue of legalized discrimination in employment in his video "How Can I Get A Job With a Felony on My Record?"  

 

 

Locked out from entry-level job opportunities but undeterred, Holden heads to college.   He meets with a similar, familiar, soul-crushing exclusion here as well.

 

I was warned the road could be bumpy after I was set free,

to knock you down when the winds treat me like debris. 

Follow my aspirations, go get myself a degree— 

history, science, literature, maybe trigonometry. 

Maybe employers would talk more if I mastered chalkboards,

but I’m banned from getting grants or a scholarship fund and shown the front door.

 

The following documentary, Passport To The Future, explores how criminal history screening on college applications is a counter-productive barrier to college admissions, and remains one of the most hidden and overlooked consequences to rebuilding the lives of thousands of formerly incarcerated college applicants.

 

 

 

So here is where the conundrum turns to paradox. I am unable to earn money to afford a place to live, so I try to go to school in order to get a job so that I can earn money to afford a place to live. But the school tells me that the government requires me to have money to get into school. I don’t have money. That’s exactly why I want to go to school—I am trying to earn money. But unlike with everyone else, though, the government is required by law not to help me, and I get no grants. If I want to learn, I have to pay with what little money I can earn. Which, of course, is none. So tell me, how does one pay for an education without being able to earn the money to pay for an education? How does one earn money to pay for an education without an education? Why does the government prohibit the newly released from accessing grants when giving individuals with a criminal record (particularly those with drug convictions) access to grant money takes no money from otherwise eligible citizens? I am not alone in questioning these sentiments. 

 

Just as with all the other counter-productive, self-harming, and socially corrosive policies, there is no good answer. The newly released are simply locked out. 

 

In her controversial book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012), legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues, “Once you’re labeled a criminal, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal” (p. 2-3). Alexander advances the theory that white male supremacy is reinforced through the use of the criminal justice system as a tool to obstruct the opportunities of blacks and the competition from them. Some would argue that if, in fact, the criminal justice system is a tool, perhaps one of the reasons it has been so effective is rooted in the deeply ingrained cultural belief that equal rights and equal treatment are forfeited once a person engages in criminal behavior. Once labeled a criminal, felon, convict, or any derivative thereof, society—through its use of laws, sanctions, restrictions, and disqualifications—allows that person’s social, economic, and political status to be reduced effectively to the status of former slaves. According to a report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, a person’s chance of being hired is reduced by fifteen to thirty percent if they have a history of incarceration, with minorities and the undereducated being affected most.

 

Back in Locked Out, Holden tries other doors, all of them shut and locked to him. The frustration is evident on his face and in his movements. The more observant among us will have noticed that the people just past all the doors, safe inside, are in color. Holden is the only one in black and white. That’s because the people inside are full-fledged citizens. The people inside the doors, the people who have the ability to participate in society, whether they choose to or not, exist. Holden and the newly released do not. Holden is almost always shown in the margins of these frames. This part of the metaphor of the visual poetry is easy to decipher. We understand the word marginalized. 

 

A disheveled Holden tries one more door. This one is less for the viewer’s edification and more for emphasis. Most of us already know that the majority of felons aren’t allowed to vote, but most of us don’t know why they are disenfranchised and denied this crucial voice. Regardless, most of us are aware of it and tolerate if not condone it. We tolerate Holden and the rest of the 700,000-strong tidal wave of newly released each year no longer being locked up but being locked out. When questioned about this system directly, we profess to abhor it.  We reject it, and we scorn it. Yet we remain complicit. But the most interesting thing about this state of affairs is not our complicity in what is clearly a self-injurious and counterproductive state of affairs. Instead, the most interesting thing about the system, I think, is that it is legal.

 

In law, it is the fashion to ask “Cui bono?” Who profits? Where is the motive for this appalling crime, this torture? And make no mistake, it is torture. It is a torture committed knowingly and willfully. The entire time a person is imprisoned, the gold standard of rehabilitation is repeatedly held up to them. Aim for civic duty. In order to prevent your return to a place like this, be a “productive member of society.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that, how many times my energies were thus directed. And then upon release? These laws, these barriers, these locked doors.

 

Who profits? Who profits from this intentional deprivation of all the things that, taken in total, tend to prevent or lower crime in the first place? Who gains from depriving a citizen of all the things that allow them not just to participate, but to be. 

 

The listener, who might not look into the cultural context of the poem, might be quick to blame blacks for not taking responsibility for their lives and ignore the larger social and economic factors. Dr. King reminds us “it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And it’s even worse if you have a boot, and somebody’s standing on the boot, and they’re telling you to lift yourself by your own bootstraps” (King, 1967). It is counterproductive to expect the formerly incarcerated and those who were once convicted of breaking the law to become productive members of society while simultaneously restricting access and opportunities.

 

The film Locked Out offers us a first person point of view of being locked out of society—the video prompts us to feel while the poem encourages us to think. Together, these media combine to make the viewer feel and experience the plight of their fellow man in a way that facts and statistics can’t. The film allows the viewer to empathize with the protagonist. We are asked to stand in the person’s shoes and go through the experience with him. But the video doesn’t depict what we cannot know—that is, what goes on in the minds of others as they navigate through life confronting invidious discrimination and rejection.

 

"If you could stand in someone else's shoes, hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel, would you treat them differently?" (Cleveland Clinic, 2013). This question appears at end of a compelling video entitled Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care, and cuts directly to the heart of the matter—affirming another’s humanity and knowing that all humans are complex. If those who have broken the law must be held accountable for their actions, so too must society also be held accountable for how it treats citizens with a criminal history.

 

This project challenges the viewer to take a long hard look at how we humiliate, ‘otherize,’ ‘ostracize,’ and ‘marginalize’ people, both intentionally and subconsciously, on the basis of a criminal record. The overall message is that the idea that once a person who has previously broken the law has “paid their debt to society” they can make a fresh start and become productive members of society is a fallacy. In reality, the debt is never paid, and the punishment is infinite. Racial inequities, institutional and structural discrimination, oppression, and systemic prejudice in the twenty-first century remain pervasive, albeit subtle and more covert in form. There is no forgiveness, and there are no second chances in the eyes of society or in the eyes of the law despite all of the rhetoric. The stigma of a criminal record is permanent.

 

 

References

 

Human Pictures. (Producer). 2015, March.  Locked Out [Video file] Retrieved from: https://vimeo.com/121718382

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