Part III: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

In this, my thrilling and final series conclusion, I will explore problems that ex-cons face, as well as articulate a path that I see moving forward.  

After people get out of prison, society never truly stops punishing them for their crimes.  In many states you can’t vote or sit on a jury.  Ex-cons are often not eligible for food stamps or public housing.  Finally, it will be hard to attend college, and, of course, to get jobs–discrimination against ex-cons is seen as entirely appropriate.

Of course, ex-cons need jobs desperately.  In addition to often being low-income and ineligible for various forms of assistance, many ex-cons leave prison with debt from accumulating child payments, court fees, probation fines, legal fees, etc.  Steady employment, ironically, is also a condition of parole — a catch 22.  To avoid violating parole, prisoners have to take very low paying jobs even if it does not make sense (e.g., they have to take a 30 minute taxi-ride to work everyday that costs $40 where they make $55 a day at minimum wage).  Unfortunately, within 3 years, 70% of realeased prisoners are rearreested and half are sent back to prison.  Many of them have not commited new crimes, but have instead merely violated parole in one way or another.

So why doesn’t the explosion in our prison population, the prison rape issue, and these other injustices get so little attention? Why is society not interested i?  One obvioius reason is that the victims usually have no voice: they are poor and they cannot vote, which means they can’t back campaigns financially or vote in them.  Another reason, and this was news to me, is that the supreme court has ruled that the first amendment does not prevent prison authorities from barring the press.

Perhaps more importantly there are, in my personal opinion,  five significant cultural dynamics at work that make the American penal system deeply dysfunctional:

  1. America prefers to punish than rehab; we do not feel that others deserve forgiveness or protection once they have failed us to a certain extent–they are now “criminals.”  (Three personal encounters of American passionate punitiveness: inner-city residents I worked with in Buffalo would very often fervently prefer to punish those they thought were responsible for the decline of their neighborhood rather than take steps to arrest that decline, even if punishing others directly contributed to neighborhood decline.  Secondly, in my work in housing court, I saw how Judges might love to throw homeowners and slumlords in jail for violating housing codes, but throwing a slum lord in jail is the only way to ensure that his/her property will not be fixed.  Finally, after I rescued that guy on the subway, I was dumbfounded by how often I was asked if I would have still risked my life if knowing the guy was drunk; as if being drunk and doing something dumb meant that you did not deserve to live.)
  2. The second cultural factor that makes our prison system worse comes from American Christianity.  Too often the church has equated state justice as God’s justice and forgiveness and rehabilitation with weakness.  Fortunately this is solvable.  I would argue that true Christianity is about forgiveness.  There is a debate here that can be won.
  3. Thirdly, while Americans love the entrepenurial spirit and those who take risks when it comes to business, while Americans love taking risks with their health and eating whatever they want, Americans won’t accept risk when it comes to safety.  Americans are willing to keep another million people a year in prison if they think it lowers the chance of their daughter getting raped even .3%.  (I remember moving back to America from Taiwan, and I was amazed at the vast apparatus involved each morning in the task of transporting children to school–those same kids are packing capri-sun, jello, PB&J on white bread, and string cheese for lunch.)
  4. Americans, because we are rich, can afford to indulge our love of segregating ourselves.  The old, the young, the mentally ill, the disabled, the “low-lifes,” the dying, and even the dead, will be curtained off and put out of view as long as we can afford it.
  5. There is little money, passion, or organizational support around protecting men from getting raped.

So what can we do?   Christopher Glazek identifies 7 tasks.

  1. Put up with increased risk in our daily lives by letting people out of prisons.  (Pooling risk, he claims, is the liberal insight.)  I agree, but this is relatively minor.    
  2. Parole needs to be less strict.  Agree.  
  3. He asserts that “we must be ready to sacrifice the trational progressive agenda on the altar of criminal justice” and he offers an example of the death penalty.  For the last three decades, about 30 people a year have been executed.  This, he claims, is a tiny injustice compared to the millions of prisoners and communities that suffer from our penal system generally.  Therefore, “Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate for a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward.”  Probably wise to an extent.  
  4. Stop wasting time on gun control; it helps little.  I’m not sure.  
  5. Legalize narcotics.  I agree strongly.  
  6. Lower standards for life sentences.  Agree.  (Interestingly, unlike rape, homicide has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime–you can only murder your wife once, suggesting that death row inmates may pose less of a security risk than other categories of offenders.)
  7. Lower standards for prison sentences across the board.  Agree.

These suggestions are mostly good, but I think he widely misses the mark.  These policies are fine, but our first policy aims must be that which has a catalytic effect and increases energy around a host of policy goals.  Here is my list:

  1. I would suggest that the most important task before us is fully reinstating criminals after they have paid their debt to society.  In other words, all discrimination against ex-cons must be illegal.  Specifically, they must be allowed to vote and get jobs.  This would grease the skids for all prison reform by giving the victims more power.  Also, a true 2nd chance would hopefully descrease recidivism rates and allow “ex-cons” to reinvent themselves and gain self-respect.   )This might sound goofy, but I tend think we should have civil reconciliation ceremonies after which ex-cons are declared full citizens again.  These events should be as celebrated as weddings.)
  2. We need the disinfectant of light; the press must have access.
  3. We need to count crimes against criminals as actual crimes, in the data and in our own heads.
  4. This means we need to address the cultural factors that might be mutable.  The goal of prisons must be rehabilitation instead of punishment and we need to push back on all forms of Christianity that advocates for harsher sentencing.

Lastly, and this may sound weird, but I think each of us needs to forgive “the other” for all the anonymous crimes that have been commited against us.  For example, I am still mad at the thief who stole a beautiful leather jacket in college.  I had bought it in Tuscany when I was 17, spending way too much money.  I think there is a part of me that assigns to known criminals all the frustration of unsolved crimes against me.

But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the real problem with our penal system is that you and I, and others too, care more about other things.  This is a political issue; it can only be mitigated through public will.  Certainly, there are many other important issues vying for our attention, but I hope that prison reform will be on your list of issues worth paying attention to going forward.

In other news, Alicia probably won’t get to Sri Lanka until late June!  Argh!  But I did make a friend today.  He is 18, a hotel receptionist and a massage therapist, and his name is Anwas.  He walked around with me today and we went to the History Museum together.  Also picture is a tuk tuk ( 3 wheeler Colombo taxi), and a beautiful pool in a restaurant I checked out.  Forgive the bad quality iPod pics.  

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

4 responses to “Part III: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

  • Jer Clifton

    Ben, I really enjoyed your comments. First off, I am VERY sympathetic to the idea that forcing employers to look past crime rates might have a negative affect on American business. However, like the minimum wage, if everyone has to play by the same rules, ie. not discriminate based on past crimes, then businesses would all be in the same boat and nobody would have an unfair price advantage. Of course, this would not hold true for international competition, but we compete with international labor well below the US minimum wage, so I think we would likely not suffer too much, but there would certainly be a cost involved.

    Perhaps there are ways around this—there could be a class of jobs that ex-cons could not get (security jobs, perhaps some jobs that work closely with money, etc.) and rules about them could be the same as hiring people of certain religious backgrounds. I’m not sure if we would want to crack open that door though. It goes against my principle of, “you have paid your debt and nobody has the right to punish you for it any longer.” So yeah, I don’t like it, but it might be a necessary step.

    Ben, it’s also hard for me to not keep in mind the people that I know personally who came out of prison, could not find work, and so did odd jobs (how does being an ex-con disqualify a laborer from being a good roofer?) under the table and also dealt drugs, that was his only option if he wanted to support their family. I would argue that the underground economy and the illegal drug trade also has a negative affect on American business in a whole bunch of ways—higher taxes, unfair competition, fewer laborers, etc.

    Thanks for your thoughts Ben.

    As for the chicken before the egg…there is that dynamic at work for sure. Thank you for helping me think deeply about these issues. I greatly appreciate the dialogue.

  • Ben

    Jer, You continue to add wrinkles to my brain! Thanks!
    OK, a couple thoughts. Basically, I’m struggling with a chicken and egg question here. Do criminals commit crimes again because they have not been rehabilitated or because society has not welcomed them back into the fold?
    1) What happens to employers who are no longer allowed to run background checks on people? How will businesses sift out known thieves before giving them keys to the warehouse? While I see the need to help ex-cons get jobs that pay well (and thereby reduce the temptation of crime), I wonder how this change would impact businesses. How will they factor increased liability / risk into their business plans? Will they hire fewer people? Will they hire more security? Will they raise price of their products? Will they cut benefits / pay for all employees in order to account for increased risk? One thing I can assure you of: businesses will always keep their primary focus on being profitable. The ***VAST*** majority of business owners are in business to make money rather than for the general benefit of society.

    2) As I read Christopher Glazek’s thoughts, I kept thinking, “lowering the definition of proper behaviour in society may lower our numbers of inmates, but will it actually improve society?” Which goal are we pursuing?

    Other thoughts:
    1) I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea of a “welcome back to society” celebration. I’m a very strong believer that formalizing our rites of passage helps each of us move into new seasons of life more thoroughly. Without those rites of passage we tend to keep one foot in the past and one in the future. My prime example is adolescence in America versus teenagers in many African societies that skip adolescence and immediately enter adulthood. If we could help society at large and ex-cons each recognize that the ex-con is now back in society, I would hope for a better re-connection for everyone and a lower rate of recidivism.

    Keep the challenges coming! I like these stretching exercises!

  • Imran Siddiqui

    Good stuff, Jer! I completely agree with the sentiment that the reason the recidivism rate is so high is because these people can’t integrate back into society. No one will accept that their sentence is served and give them a chance (or relatively few people will). So, what’s the alternative? They need to provide for themselves and crime will pay the bills. The creation of a subclass of ex-cons through denying them the right to vote, to hold their crimes against them even if it’s been 20 years later, it makes people believe that they are permanent outsiders and, thus, who cares about society? Let us always remember that Jean Valjean in Les Mis was an ex-con who changed through an act of utter forgiveness and let us try to emulate that.

    • Jer Clifton

      Thanks for your thoughts Imran! I think people do not understand, at least I did not understand until recently, how much they are a subclass, and how big a subclass they are: 2 million Americans in jail, 4.5 million on parole or probation, and 3 million ex-convicts, for a total of almost 10 million people.

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