To play Captain Obvious, it’s hard trying to find a job in this economy. Add to that fact that companies have increasingly shown disloyalty to their employees – a trend that noticeably come to the fore in the 90’s. And when work places tank (as they have for a friend of mine repeatedly and tend to do in urban communities with high turnover rates), it gets harder and harder to find more work, to stay afloat, to continue pushing. For finding work is basically a matter of proving one’s self, one’s mettle, one’s faithfulness, attentiveness, ethic, proclivity, , time and again.
Within three years of their release, about a third of US prisoners end up back in prison.
In recognizing these brutal numbers (how many of us have been arrested within the last three years?), we must confront ourselves with some facts that should lead us down a revelatory pathway.
Convicted criminals tend to come from poor communities with high-crime rates. For a moment, let’s forget that the real crime is the fact of poverty – the reality that we live in a world where most live in poverty and where poverty is becoming more and more what it was in pre-industrial times – a death trap. Let us also forget for a moment that the poor are held accountable and blamed for trying to survive or to live for moments like the wealthy (“What are they doing eating steak?” “Why do they get to ride around in cars?”), particularly in areas with high wealth disparity.
Let us look at the unmistakable and regrettable fact of post-convict life: For the poor, there is hardly such a thing as a post-convict life. Parolees return to the very communities in which they made their crimes (or wherein the crimes were committed which they allegedly took part of) and almost inevitably run into (if not directly in) the same circles, the same places, and the same predicaments that lured them into the criminal background in the first place. They, with their criminal records, are rarely trusted with the resources needed in order to survive. Jobs, already scarce in their communities, are denied to them on the basis of their past – a past which society has already punished them for beyond most of our imaginations.
A past, they are told, that justice needs to cleanse them of through incarceration, through denying them sunshine and community and family and freedom of movement. A past that they should be ashamed of, but which the punishment is to shame every step of their existence, to break every will and hope they have (sometimes, it seems, this “justice” works). The imprisoned must then find alternative methods of being, of doing, of communing, and then of getting by in the world.
We can say what we want to about “career criminals” and all that, and the Department of Corrections can talk about programs they use to reduce recidivism, but the pragmatics are that such programs are woefully underfunded and really could never be adequately funded or implemented. Not when the current prison population in the US makes up nearly one percent of the entire US population, and prisons are at 110% capacity (p 2. via).
What does it mean to be released? Not just released in the sense of how we release convicts in the US: out into the streets with the reputation of an untouchable, the baggage of several lifetimes worth of nightmares, and damage that they rarely are able to recover from. But to release them in earnest as a society that is earnest about freedom as we say we are would: expunged, free, capable, trained, prepared, fresh.
I mentioned the rate or re-arrest earlier to demonstrate something fundamentally important in this conversation of liberation, freedom, stigma: Those who have “done time” (as the kids call it) – and particularly those of color – tend to be viewed as “fitting the description” (as the cops call it). What would it mean to not be viewed at as a suspect every time something came up missing? What would it mean to not only have a free conscience and to feel good about yourself, but to know that the community isn’t watching your every step, certain that you will fail and hedging their bets against you?
What does it mean to be forgiven of all debts? What does it mean to be able to earn trust in a level – and safe – playing field*? What does it mean to walk as a person without burden, without baggage, without shackles? To be unfettered, to walk in the sun? To live free?
*As last time, I want to stress that this is meant within reason. A pederast cannot be trusted to work or be alone with children, but that should not preclude him from being welcome in communities, with necessary safeguards (and what those safeguards look like, I don’t necessarily know outside what is listed above there). A thief, likewise, shouldn’t be in charge of finances. Etc, etc.