But he is also scared, and I’m very nervous. But not in the way you might think: he knows, and I have been learning, that life after prison is very hard. The deck is stacked against those wanting to return from prison to an ordinary life.
Learning About Life In Prison
The reality of life in prison is far harsher than you can ever really imagine.
Over the two years of his incarceration my friend and I have had a regular and pretty intimate correspondence, and the things he’s told me about the reality of life in the prison system would likely turn your hair. I have learned much about the underground economy that flourishes within the prison; about the creative ways entrepreneurial prisoners find ways to make money; and about how the prison guards extract taxes. I’ve heard about what amount to “market shocks” imposed by the guards to destabilize the economy and allow then to extract an even larger tax. And I’ve read a lot about the social side of friendships, love affairs, rivalries, and bullying among inmates.
I’ve also read about the culture of inhumanity and contempt that pervades the system. My friend has been driven to places of despair, and at times to fear for his safety. He has learned on the front line how to deal with situations in which he felt his life might be at risk, and has had to consider how he would respond if the situation escalated. It has been a fascinating and really eye-opening conversation, at times moving to deeply alarming and really scary.
And now he is coming out.
For a convict, probation is much more than the opportunity to re-enter society; it is a time of great fear, challenge and risk.
Have you ever watched “The Shawshank Redemption”? It is a great movie, though in my mind not worthy of iMDB’s viewer ranking as the top movie of all time. One subplot in the movie I find particularly poignant is that of Brooksy.
Brooks Hatlen was sent to jail in 1905, and over almost 50 years it became his home and his life. Early on he rescued an injured crow; he named it Jake and it became his constant companion and friend.
Brooksy was a quiet, gentle man, and life as the librarian with his pet crow was all he knew. When he was paroled in 1954, he despaired, holding a knife at the throat of one of a fellow inmate since murder was the only way he knew to stay in prison. But he could not go through with the crime and was released. As he left, he let Jake go. Alone and confused, he struggled desperately to cope with a completely alien world until taking his own life.
I hope that two years is not a sufficient period of time, even in these days of rapid change, for someone to fall as hopelessly behind as Brooksy. While my friend has changed and software development, which is his livelihood, has also changed, I believe he is smart enough, resourceful enough, and innovative enough to transcend this. More important is how he will deal with the practical realities of a deck that is stacked against ex-cons.
You’ve probably read a little about this, and likely recognize that there are barriers for ex-cons, but until you’ve actually gotten involved and personalized the problem, I don’t think it’s possible to recognize how hard it is to live in this country once you have a record. So since we have the highest incarceration rate in the world – roughly 1% of our adult population! – I see this as a pressing problem about which each of us should know more and take more personally. And it is closer to home than you realize: if you don’t have a family member in some way under the thumb of the system, you surely have a friend or colleague who does. By way of example, let me tell you a story, and then talk about what my friend will be facing.
A Domestic Tale
Someone you know could relate a story of a friend or family member and their encounter with prison. They are awful, but they are everywhere.
The story comes from an accidental encounter. While picking up food from a restaurant for Second Helpings, I chatted with a lovely man who had experienced troubles with alcohol earlier in his life. We exchanged cards.
A couple of weeks later he called me and asked me if I could try to help a friend of his find somewhere to live.
His friend is a middle-aged woman who had a fight with her partner, a man far, far larger than her. He called the police. The end result of this were a series of measures that made the woman’s life very hard.
Not only did a restraining order prevent her from visiting the apartment which was in her name, but she now has to disclose her record to any prospective landlord and cannot find a place to live…meaning she is subsisting in hotel rooms. She is fortunate to have an understanding employer, so is able to generate income, but court-imposed weekly classes – at $25 each! – on Saturday mornings are both a financial and business challenge, since this is her prime income-generating time. And on top of this she is required to pay $60 per month for 6 months for her probation. And what do you think would happen if she were to lose her job and be unable to pay for her weekly classes and her probation fee? I have committed to try to help her find a place, though I have been delinquent in working on this and have it high on my priority list for this week.
This woman is a hairdresser, and her story reminds me of my neighborhood hairdresser. I hadn’t seen one of my favorite stylists for several months, so I asked after her. I was told that she had similarly experienced a domestic dispute and as a result spent a night in jail and been fired. She’s been cutting my hair for years, and now can’t get a job.
The Dishonesty of the System
One of the greatest challenges with our justice system is we lie to ourselves about it.
So on to my friend.
As with so many ex-cons, he will have probation requirements and financial obligations, which will impose significant restrictions on his time and on his financial resources. He also has no financial resources to fall back on, no home, and no income, so since he will not have a job immediately, without friends and family to help it would be all too easy to be unable to make payment and fall into immediate violation of his probation…with obvious consequences. And since on every employment application he will have to check the box about having a criminal record – the “Do Not Employ Me” box – finding a livelihood will be hard.
It is doubly hard for him, since he will come out a registered sex offender and as such he must register a “compliant” place of residence with the sheriff’s office. A “compliant” residence is one which is at least 1,000 feet from any place where minors congregate, which includes schools, churches, parks, and swimming pools. Addresses I’ve offered up, including my home, have been rejected by the Parole Board. I’ve been looking around for somewhere to rent, but do you know how hard it is in a dense metropolitan area to find somewhere that is over 1,000 feet away from where children congregate? I thought that paying for him to stay at a motel was a stroke of genius, but then realized that most have swimming pools! The search continues with the clock ticking!
Most people recoil at the idea of sex offenses. Maybe you do: ten years ago I certainly did. But I’ve come to believe that the vast majority of sex offenders are not the monsters that we create in our minds, any more than the 1% of our population behind bars are a danger to society. I further believe that if we were each to take the time not just to educate ourselves, but more importantly to get to know an ex-con and try to help them our individual and collective perspective would shift. But whether or not you are willing to consider that possibility and invest the time, I find above all the inherent dishonesty of our system to be appalling.
My friend, like so many other prisoners who reach the term of their sentence, is being released back into a world which we tell ourselves offers them a fair chance. But does it really? If you look hard at the reality they face, can you continue to tell this to yourself?
Ex-cons must tell every prospective employer that they are have a criminal record, meaning the vast majority will immediately reject their application. They must find a place to live, when again the existence of a criminal record must be disclosed, resulting in rejection by most landlords (buying a home is not possible since it requires both money and income history).
Have you ever read books or watched movies about debtors prisons? We look back on those institutions with disdain as belonging to darker, more ignorant times, but they are not as far away as we think. Not only ex-cons who have no income and can’t find an affordable place to live are trapped by a system of probation and class fees. There are many convicted of minor offenses which for which they cannot be imprisoned, and which may not even have significant fines, but which have significant administrative fees and required attendance at long-term programs. It is far easier, in this system, for those without resources to slip through late payment into a chronic spiral of penalties and interest from which they can never recover, and which may eventually result in incarceration
What Can You Do?
Each of us has a civic responsibility to understand more about our criminal justice system which incarcerates 1% of our adult population and affects far more.
Here are a couple of suggestions of things you might do to learn more about our criminal justice system and the reality of life as an ex-con:
• Try to find a mission or program that works to rehabilitate ex-cons. I could help you, but I think it will be more effective if you do this out of a place of comfort. Talk within your faith community and if there is not one in there, your leaders should be able to connect you with one at another institution in your tradition;
• Connect with that organization and find out what work they do, what they encounter, and the challenges they see;
• Talk to a couple of ex-cons in their programs and learn from them what they are experiencing;
• And if you really want to learn, really get to know an ex-con and try to help them.
If you do this work, I don’t think it will take you long to realize that we have created a system in which it is incredibly hard for ex-cons to succeed. You will learn how easy it is for ex-cons to find themselves back in prison. And along the way, if you keep your eyes open, I think you will also see a culture of administrative fees levied in lieu of penalties which creates a debt-trap.
As you are learning, I think you’ll conclude that we are not offering ex-cons a fair chance, and that we either need to be more honest about our system or reform it.