I spent most of a recent Friday at a conference on returning citizens. The Washington National Cathedral organized it to develop an agenda for actions that would help them re-enter the community after their release from prison — and perhaps keep so many from having to make the journey back.
I’ve been trying to digest the insights and impressions I gained. There was a lot coming at us from a lot of different angles.
And all the while, I keep thinking about what my tablemate Cathy, a recently returned citizen, said to me before the conference began. “I will live with this for the rest of my life.”
The “this,” I think, was partly the reason she was incarcerated to begin with — a nonviolent offense that involved no personal gain. She feels the charge was unfair.
She’ll live her whole life with a sense of injustice — and payments to the government for restitution in excess of $1 million.
The bigger part of the “this” are other consequences. Her family disowned her. And the case manager at the halfway house she was transferred to did nothing to prepare for the time she’d be released, though she’d have no home to go to.
“I would have been on the streets,” she said, if an acquaintance hadn’t found her a space in a shelter — a fortunate, if temporary solution to a common form of neglect that often leaves returning citizens stranded.
Top of the “this” list, however, is the red flag employers see.
Cathy has substantial work experience and in-demand skills. She got hired, criminal record notwithstanding, shortly after her release. But the company let her go, without notice or explanation. She assumes because some higher-up learned of her record.
She’s had a number of interviews since. But they’ve netted nothing — and in some cases, ended as soon as she’s disclosed her criminal conviction. The human resources person just “shuts down,” she said.
Well, Cathy is very capable and very determined. And there are people looking out for her interests, including some of the leaders at the conference.
So I believe she’ll find work. But her experience in our criminal justice system has inalterably changed her life — and in some ways, her very self, I gather.
Some would say, well, this is justice. An impartial judge decided she’d done something wrong. She was punished for it. And if the punishment lasts beyond her time in prison, so does the wrong. She can’t go back in time and undo it.
Set aside the particularities of Cathy’s case, where the question of wrong seems at least debatable.
I can’t help feeling that the justice our system purportedly metes out is enormously wasteful, both in dollars and in human lives. And the judgments commonly made about people with criminal records make the waste worse.
More than one in four released from state prisons are back within three years, draining funds that could be used for other purposes, including services that could keep them from going back through the revolving door.
“If any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful in achieving their ostensible purpose …, we would shut them down tomorrow,” says Professor James Gilligan.
The indirect costs of our propensity to imprison are greater than what we pay to lock up people who pose no risk of harm to anyone — and then to marginalize both them and formerly dangerous returning citizens who’d like nothing better than to lead ordinary, law-abiding lives.
A data analysis by two of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ projects found, among other things, that:
- Former male inmates earned 40% less than they would have if not incarcerated — a loss of nearly $179,000 by the time they reached age 49.
- Those whose earnings put them in the bottom fifth were twice as likely to be there 20 years later as low-earners who hadn’t done time.
- They were thus earning less than $7,600 in 2006 — about 46% of the federal poverty line for a family of three.
We must also consider the collateral damage to those who’ve done nothing wrong at all. More than half the people behind bars in 2008 were parents of minor-age children — most of them fathers.
Two-thirds of them were in prison for non-violent crimes. More than half had been the primary breadwinners for their families.
So families become poorer and more unstable — not only while the parent is behind bars, but afterwards.
For these as well as other reasons, children whose parents have been incarcerated get into more trouble in school. One study found that 23% whose fathers had served time were suspended or expelled, as compared to only 4% whose fathers hadn’t.
Their “prospects for economic mobility become significantly dimmer,” the Pew authors say — a fine understatement. They may, in fact, as the American Civil Liberties Union says, be in the pipeline to prison.
These are all quantifiable costs — not only to the returned citizens and their families, but to our economy as a whole.
How do we measure the psychological damages to children whose parents are taken away — not only those that result in the kinds of behaviors that get them suspended, but anxiety, depression and the like?
The psychological damage to the parents themselves? “People are coming out traumatized because of what goes on inside,” said one of the returning citizens at the conference.
How do we measure the contributions people like Cathy might make if their job opportunities weren’t constrained by their records?
Or the loss to her godchild, whose parents have severed connections?