“The system isn’t broken, its working as it was designed.”
It was a busy afternoon of telephone calls and incessant interruptions from staff. My desk phone rings and I hastily answered the call from an unknown male voice. He greeted me, “Hey Miss Attorney Teri,” in a sheepish voice.
This was not a collect call from a prison. This was not the voice of any familiar client that I had ever represented.
The caller gave his name and explained he got my number from one of my clients whom he met in a federal prison; my client suggested that he call me once he got out.
The caller told me that he no longer had any known living family members, and said he had no idea who to call after disembarking from his one-way bus ride that the federal prison so graciously provided when he was released.
Now, at age 56 and free after serving a lengthy 28-year prison sentence for selling cocaine, the caller simply wanted to know, in one unbroken statement, “how do I get a birth certificate, and a job?”
My telephone caller, like hundreds of thousands, served time in prison for literally decades. Now after serving every day in confinement as required by law, he is released from prison to a world he knows nothing about. The doors of the prison swing open. Now what?
The majority of you are worlds apart from my telephone caller who emerged from prison just hours ago. My telephone caller is a stark reminder that once released from prison, former inmates must immediately navigate the very basics of life: Transportation, employment, food, shelter.
Even though prisons may be equipped with items from computers to textbooks on subjects from auto repair to food service management, no amount of books can adequately prepare a caged human for the modern day world.
In most cases, his parents and grandparents have died. Girlfriends and spouses have moved on. Or, perhaps he’s burned bridges as a repeat offender and relatives now ostracize him. In some cases he’s advanced in both age and health. In most cases he, like my telephone caller, is simply released and alone.
Yes, one can easily surmise that these are simply the consequences that convicted felons must face. Don’t do the crime, right? But such self-serving responses provide no direction for the issue we must face when multitudes of inmates leave a prison cell after decades to the unknown.
The year was 1996: President Bill Clinton announced, as a part of the continuing war on drugs, that a criminal offender would be excluded from public housing. And we are already familiar with other federal and state statutes that specifically address convicted felons, including the loss of the right to vote in elections, disqualification to serve as trial jurors, inability to receive student loans, and ineligibility from public assistance.
This means that while we are busy pushing convicted felons to the outer fringes of society to avoid them, we are creating a new class of people who are re-entering society with very little chance to survive.
And if he fails….
At the time of this writing, nearly two-thirds of former inmates are unemployed after five years of being released. Nearly 42% of those released from prison will commit another crime.
Obviously the consequences of a criminal conviction can be severe. Everyone understands that part. However, systematic incarceration creates a lifetime of poverty and crime for generations to come. Author Michelle Alexander describes this vicious cycle well in her book, The New Jim Crow. I simply call it, intended consequences of mass incarceration in America.