When Prisoners Go Home, Punishment Isn’t Over


Last month marked the release of more than 6,000 people from federal prison as a result of the Sentencing Commission's 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences Act. Thanks to this legislation, tens of thousands more people who are incarcerated could benefit from reductions in their terms over the next few years, and new drug-related sentences will be less than in recent decades.

And it came not a moment too soon: we are currently saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities.

While much of the media coverage will continue to traffic in the most damaging stereotypes and tropes imaginable about the formerly incarcerated, it's important to note that they'll be at odds with the vast majority of public opinion.

The documented truth is that most Americans support reducing the scope of our nation's carceral system and reforming drug policy. For example: 84% of American voters support non-prison alternatives such as drug treatment, community service, or probation for drug and other “victimless” offenses.

Majorities of many American groups believe too many people are in prison—64% of Democrats, 59% of African Americans, and 58% of Latinos. Majorities of Americans also would prefer that more money and effort go toward better education and job training, attacking the social and economic problems that underlie crime, instead of toward deterring crime with more prisons, police and judges—78% of Democrats, 77% of those aged 18-29, and 72% of college post graduates.

But strangely concealed in the narratives you'll be fed and the rigorous research you'll be pointed towards will be the devastation our absurd criminal justice policies have wrought on human lives.

Precious and powerfully vulnerable human lives.

What goes unmentioned is that for the formerly incarcerated and the communities from which they hail, punishment doesn't commence with incarceration and it doesn't abate upon release.

By now, it's widely uncontroversial among criminal justice reform advocates that the U.S. criminal justice system has become an expensive and ineffective knee-jerk response to behaviors that are, by a wide margin, the predictable outcome of social catastrophes.

Our combined tolerance for persistently high rates of unemployment and poverty as well as systems of second-class education and health care for some bears much of the blame. Institutions of punishment have long served as surrogates for access to community-based mental health and drug treatment, job training and placement, quality education, and affordable health care and follow-up.

By the time most people come into contact with the criminal justice system, they've already suffered years of undeserved punishment. That suffering is only compounded by incarceration and continues to snowball after release in the form of employment, housing and voting discrimination.

In a word, the liberty-stifling effects of the American criminal justice system go well beyond the detention of the human body and extend well into the community and lasts a lifetime.

Upon leaving prison in 2000, I was faced with the same bleak odds encountered by so many of our nation's formerly incarcerated. A severely limiting labor market was only the most glaring of the many hurdles that dotted my path to successful reentry. Determined to beat the odds, I set out on an earnest mission to obtain meaningful employment, achieve a decent standard of living, and further cultivate the voice I had begun to develop as an advocate during my incarceration.

Yet with brutal consistency, I was met with dozens of rejections in my quest for employment. I suffered no delusions about my chances in the job market, but the blows of rejection and continued punishment still landed with tremendous force. But in exceptional fashion, and regrettably so, I was soon offered a pathway out of the many cruelties of post-imprisonment life.

As I gained notoriety in the advocacy world my voice, once suffocated to a whisper, was growing to a resounding pitch. Not long ago, I failed to land a job moving boxes for $16,000 a year. I now run a bourgeoning non-profit with a $23 million budget and a staff of 212. All the while, I remember that my exceptional story, of which I'm reminded frequently, only serves to prove the wickedness of the rule. And it must be swallowed that that rule is a choice we've made.

The upshot is clear: we can absolutely do otherwise.

It's a decision I'm reminded of every time I reflect on my most difficult day in prison—the day of my exit. To be sure, I was excited to reacquaint myself with the texture of freedom, but was dispirited to be leaving behind some of America's best and brightest. In all cases, these voices that I felt so viscerally and substantively connected to spoke with an expertise and courage that I came to know as entirely the domain of those directly impacted by the criminal justice system.

It has been, in a word, the driving epiphany of my advocacy life.

And to them I say, never forfeit your right to dream. I came out of prison owing $100,000 in fines, fees, restitution and child support. Last month, I met with President Barack Obama to discuss the importance of transforming our criminal justice system.

I suffer no delusions—that trajectory isn't everyone's. The odds are long and decidedly stacked against anyone who's come into contact with the criminal justice system.

But Frederick Douglass's poignant wisdom still rings true: power concedes nothing without a demand.

Glenn E. Martin is founder and president of JustLeadership USA. His Twitter handle is @glennEmartin. He welcomes your comments.

Comments are closed.