By Tony Casson
“Now, however, it is time to forgive and comfort him. Otherwise he may be overcome by discouragement.” 2 Corinthians 2:7 NLT
“It is admirable to extend a hand to someone who has fallen and offer to help him up. The gesture lacks sincerity when made while standing on that person’s chest.” Tony Casson
I pointed out in an earlier article that over 730,000 men and women are released from prison each year. So what becomes of those who have finally crossed the fine line that separates the total dependency of the prison environment from the independence found in the freedom that has awaited them for 5, 10, 20 – or even more years?
Should society care? What about business? Should politicians care? Most importantly, should you care? The collective view of society seems to be that ex-felons should get no breaks; it is the problem of the individual; he or she got themselves into the situation they are now facing.
It should be obvious to all of us by now that it is in the best financial interest of many businesses and individuals to actually anticipate the failure of those leaving prison. Failure and a return to prison contribute to the pressure being kept on the entire system to expand, thus ensuring greater profits. At the very least, a high failure – or recidivism – rate guarantees that the prisons we do have remain full. These same businesses are all owned or run by the cronies of the politicians. Millions of dollars are lavished upon these men and women by lobbyists whose sole objective is to push this nation’s status as the number one jailer in the world even higher. This places all of them at distinct odds with the concept of aggressively working towards a solution to reducing the rate at which men and women fail at freedom and return to the life that they had been conditioned to; a life of control, security and monitoring.
On the other hand, you should care because the cost of this political cronyism and corporate greed is borne by you. You should care because individuals who have been welcomed back into society and assisted, supported and encouraged will pose far less of a danger to society as a whole. You should care because the money that is wasted on this intentionally cultivated cycle of failure is money that could be put to better, more productive use.
The uphill climb for someone recently released from prison is daunting to even the most resourceful and determined individuals. Many people leave prison with medical and dental problems that have been ignored for years. While health and dental care in prison may be “free,” any notion that anything but the most immediate critical cases are dealt with must be dispelled. Avoidance is priority number one and only those cases that cannot be ignored are addressed. And you can forget about preventative medicine. If it exists at all, it is only on paper. For many people, this means they are in immediate need of assistance when they exit prison. For many, not only are they broken spiritually and emotionally, but physically as well. This is odd when you consider that many of these problems that will now be fixed at the expense of various public programs could have been taken care of while they were in an environment that had a full medical staff that was already paid for.
Most individuals are released to some sort of supervision through a parole or probation department, many of which are stretched to their limits financially and physically. This dramatically hinders any ability to really spend time getting to know how best to help each individual successfully deal with the many obstacles presented as they try to reintegrate back into a life of productive freedom. Many who supervise those who are released merely move those they are responsible for through a prescribed regimen of drug programs and testing, group therapy and other costly and questionably productive steps. These may look good on paper but they do little to actually help with the simple of act of living – having food to eat, clothes to wear or a place to sleep that is warm and dry.
Participation in programs that are usually accompanied by some sort of out-of-pocket expense only adds to the difficulty of re-entry. Court ordered back child support, fines and restitution that have remained dormant through years – even decades – of incarceration suddenly come due. All of these things are viewed as important to an individual’s ability to demonstrate that he or she is a responsible citizen. However, educational skills which were most likely weak to begin with did not improve in prison and in many cases were diminished by the environment itself. Job skills they may have possessed also have lain dormant or even been rendered obsolete.
People leaving prison are given little in the way of clothing and are then expected to go out and secure employment, all the while lacking the ability to make a good first impression. They are provided with little in the way of direction or assistance and many of them feel lost, hopeless and defeated before they ever get a chance.
These are all things that stack the deck against many who do not want to go back to prison. But the degree of difficulty presented by even simple things like interacting professionally with a prospective employer are almost impossible for someone who has languished in prison for years doing little more than playing cards, watching TV and working out because that part of the system failed them.
So now, in many cases, individuals were failed as children, were failed in prison and are about to be failed again because of a system that is designed so that only the exceptional succeed.
Leaving prison, for many, is more about how quickly prison life has prepared them to fail and return as opposed to how it had prepared them to take control of their lives and live productively in order that they never return. For many people, the fact that bad behavior is punished with a loss of freedom is a lesson learned. But where the system fails is in making the return from prison overly difficult.
Since the system failed to make personal growth, education and improvement a priority while it had control over people’s lives 24/7, how then can we expect them to re-enter society and perform like someone who has never been to prison? The roadblocks, restrictions and court-ordered payments, fines and restitution can often combine to overwhelm and defeat many well-intentioned people.
I am not suggesting that financial obligations be forgiven completely. But people in the “free world” who make bad decisions can often find assistance in order that they may keep a roof over their heads, maintain transportation for employment and keep food on the table. So, too, assistance should be provided for someone who has made bad choices and wound up in prison. In most cases, the cost of a return to a life of criminal activity and prison is far greater to society than forgiveness or a moratorium on certain financial obligations that will not be paid at all if the person returns to prison.
Many other things stack the deck against a person leaving prison including the disdain with which felons are often viewed; finding a job and obtaining housing can be difficult; in many states a former felon’s right to vote may never be reinstated. The right to vote has been shown to help individuals become pro-social and engenders active and positive interaction in society. Most states are recognizing this fact and have taken positive steps. Others have not acted at all. And at least one – Iowa – has decided that regression is the best route to follow. Progress had been made and voting rights been restored to almost 100,000 ex-felons. When Terry Branstad regained the governor’s mansion in 2010, he revoked those rights and plunged Iowa back into the restoration and rehabilitation dark ages. Branstad’s ignorant, unforgiving approach to those who run afoul of the law clearly demonstrates that shameless disregard for humanity that I have written of. In another example of Branstad’s total lack of humanity (not to mention what appears to be an arrogant position of superiority over the U.S. Supreme Court) Branstad totally subverted the intent of a ruling that addressed those incarcerated as juveniles. The Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without possibility of parole. California Governor Jerry Brown responded, as did many others, by setting forth the rule that the offenders be eligible to be heard by the parole board after 15 years. Granted, this is a long time, but better than never. In his omniscient wisdom, Branstad set that same requirement at 68 years.
Branstad is a classic example of how this country gained its auspicious top spot as the world’s most prolific jailer and is a big part of the culture of incarceration that exists today. He, and other sanctimonious bullies just like him, have the audacity to try to convince the public that it is better to continue to beat up those who have beaten themselves down than it is to provide education, tools, skills and support.
According to the Pew Center on the States, the recidivism rate of those returning to prison after only 9 months of freedom is an astonishing and totally unacceptable 43%. In a three-year period, up to 67% will return to the very places that failed them.
Society can choose to ostracize, criticize and demoralize convicted felons. But it would behoove everyone concerned if, prior to selecting that route – the harmful, hateful and unproductive way of Governor Branstad – that society stop and ponder not only the inhumanity of that line of thinking, but the exorbitant ultimate cost.
There is no way to discuss adequately all of the obstacles that face those who have ostensibly “paid their debt to society”. The point that must not be lost is that as long as there are incentives to keeping human being locked up, there can be no incentive to teach and help them remain free. As long as that unholy alliance of political cronyism, corporate greed and a shameless disregard for humanity exists, America will continue its very un-American Culture of Incarceration.
I thank you and invite you back tomorrow for the final installment in this series, “The Worst Nightmare of All.”