Category: Reentry

Jan 25 2014

Darius, Mo, and Me…

I first wrote about a young man named Darius in a post titled “The Orphans of the Mass Incarceration Epidemic” in April 2011. Here’s how I introduced him:

I received an e-mail from a young man who was a stranger to me about a month ago. I haven’t written about it until today because I have been trying to address some issues that arose from the communication.

The young man is 14 years old and he came across this blog by doing a Google search about boys with incarcerated fathers. He wrote to tell me his story. I have his permission to share some of it with you. I promised that I wouldn’t quote directly from the first e-mail that I received from him. I want to honor the trust that he has bestowed. I will call him Darius.

So Darius found me through the internet using a computer at his public library. When he reached out to me, he was a freshman in high school and he was struggling. Since his first email, in March 2011, we’ve become good friends. Last weekend, Darius called to tell me that his father will be released from prison in February.

In my first post, I explained Darius’s reason(s) for writing to me:

Darius reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he feels alone even though his grandmother is doing her best by him. He wanted me to know that he never talks to any of his friends about his father. He doesn’t talk to anyone about his father. He is unable to visit his father regularly because he is incarcerated over 100 miles from where Darius lives. His grandmother has no means of transportation. Even if she did, she works as a nurse’s aide and has very inflexible hours. Darius confided in me that he is struggling a great deal right now. He wrote that he feels like he might “explode.” He doesn’t understand why he feels so angry all of the time. He said that he doesn’t want to cause any “trouble” for his grandmother. I can understand that.

I have a friend, Maurice, who lives in the same city as Darius. Mo stepped up to become a friend and mentor to him. Over the years, I’ve provided a couple of updates about Darius like when he was accepted into a technology apprenticeship program in 2011 or when he graduated from 10th grade (with honors) in 2012.

Darius is a senior in high school now. He has applied (with help from Mo) to several colleges. He is going to be an engineer. As I type the words, I am bursting with pride, gratitude and most especially with love. It’s been nearly 3 years since Darius first reached out to me, a stranger. We have yet to meet in person. Our communication has been online and by phone. But as I watch from a distance, I am in awe of the man that Darius is becoming. I hope that he knows this.

When we spoke last weekend, I heard a mix of anticipation and apprehension in Darius’s voice as he shared the news about his father’s release. He feels guilty for his conflicted emotions. “Shouldn’t I be 100% happy, MK?” he asked. My response was no. I fully understand his apprehension after all he was 10 years old when his father was locked up and he will be 18 in June. His father’s drug addiction was the driving force of his young life. Why wouldn’t he be worried about what might happen when his dad returns to the same troubled neighborhood?

And Darius is not the same person that he was at 10 years old. I imagine that his father has changed too in almost 8 years behind bars. It’s hard to know how they will get along. Darius also worries about leaving his grandmother behind when he goes to college. How will she adapt to her son’s return from prison? he wonders. These questions are unresolved and it creates uncertainty which breeds anxiety. This is the messiness of incarceration that plays out mostly out of view.

I’ve been thinking about chance and fate. That a 14 year old would use the internet to reach out for support and find it, feels miraculous to me. I am so thankful that the stars aligned so that Mo could step into his role as Darius’s friend, mentor, cheerleader and surrogate father. Last Father’s Day, Darius gave Mo a card. I don’t know what it said but Mo was overwhelmed. We need each other so much. I am reminded of this truth daily.

This is a love letter of sorts. A long time ago, I fell in love with a man who has stayed dear to me even though we are no longer in love. And to see this man, who has no biological children, father a stranger’s child brings tears. This is a love letter for the black men who step up and who are brave enough to be vulnerable in a society that punishes this. This is a love letter to a young man who is determined to earn enough money to move his grandmother out of their neighborhood and who stepped into the void to reach out for help when he was only just a boy. This is my love letter to Darius and to Mo. Thank you both for letting me hold on to the dream of happy endings.

Jan 14 2014

Cece McDonald is Out of Prison But Not Really ‘Free’

Yesterday was a good day.

Cece McDonald was released from prison after being unjustly incarcerated for 19 months. Adding insult to injury, she was locked up in a men’s prison despite being a woman. Many people rejoiced including Cece herself who was obviously thrilled to be out of prison.

Cece with Laverne Cox leaving prison

Cece with Laverne Cox leaving prison

I noticed a number of people on social media remarking that Cece was “free.” I thought of my friend Marcus who several years ago reprimanded me for applying this term to him. We were eating lunch about a month after he was released from serving five years in prison. I said, “So, how does it feel to be free?” He looked at me in his soul-searching way and replied: “I wasn’t free when I went in and I sure as shit ain’t free now.” I felt as though I had been punched in the gut because I of course knew this to be true. Since that conversation, I have tried to avoid using the term “free” when I talk about formerly incarcerated people.

Cece will suffer the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and incarceration for years to come. This is what I call the ‘invisible shackles of the carceral state.’ Across the country, almost 6 million people are ineligible to vote in elections as a result of a criminal conviction. Cece who lives in Minnesota will be barred from voting until her “felony conviction record [is] discharged, expired, or completed.” This means that she will be disenfranchised for several years. She is one of the “lucky” ones who won’t be permanently barred from participating in a critical aspect of civic life.

Thankfully Cece has a supportive community of friends around her and has already found a place to live. However, most returning citizens find themselves scrambling to afford and rent apartments upon their release from prison. In many states, formerly incarcerated people are banned from public housing. Some find a place in halfway houses. Many more are made homeless.

In 2014, a criminal record is almost synonymous with permanent under and unemployment. In the current depressed economy, there are at least three applicants (usually more) for each open position. Employers have their pick of people to hire. Returning citizens are low on their list. Without a path to legal employment, many formerly incarcerated people turn to the informal economy to survive. This often leads them back to prison (PDF) within three years of their release.

In his searing memoir 7 Long Times, Piri Thomas writes poignantly about the psychological impact of his incarceration and his struggle to re-acclimate upon being released:

It took me a long time before I was able to get the prison cockroaches out of my head. I’d wake up at home from nightmares that I was back in prison hearing the horrors, the curses and screams, reliving the tensions, anger, and pain, my body drenched in cold sweat. It would take minutes for me to realize I was at home.

When I first came home, I couldn’t break the habit of waking up in the morning half-asleep, getting into my clothes and stumbling around my bedroom looking for the toilet bowl and wash bowl, then standing like a damn fool in front of my bedroom door waiting for the guard to spring the lock. While in prison, I had always fought against being institutionalized, but some of its habits had rubbed off on me a little too damn deep. Even now, twenty-four years later, I still have an occasional nightmare that I’m back in prison.

It’s not easy to “leave prison behind.” Many formerly incarcerated people battle depression and other mental health issues upon their release. Often without access to health insurance, many do not get counseling or any other support for their psychological struggles.

As a black transgender woman, Cece is at risk of violence every time she leaves the house as evidenced by the attack that led to her unjust imprisonment. In 2013, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs documented at least 14 homicides of transgender women. The numbers are almost certainly much higher. The heightened risk of violence is another kind of cage, curtailing one’s movements and impinging on any sense of safety.

So while we rightly celebrate the fact that Cece has been released from prison and wish her well, let’s not forget the injustice that she was ever incarcerated in the first place. Let’s also remember that she is still dogged by the ‘invisible shackles of the carceral state’ so it behooves us to reframe the idea of ‘freedom.’ Finally, let’s make sure to commit ourselves to fighting for the release of the thousands of other trans people who are currently still locked up in our prison nation. In a letter from prison, Cece wrote:

“The real issues are the ones that affect all prisoners. People should get involved in changing policies that keep people in prisons, like exclusion from employment, housing, public assistance…These are just a few things that will keep people out of prisons and lead to the dismantling of these facilities.” (cited by Vikki Law)

Cece gets it. I hope others will too.

Dec 15 2013

Ruptures & Repair: Mothers Coming Home From Prison (2 Short Films)

Earlier this week, I was privileged to listen to Ms. Helen Jenkins, Marissa Alexander‘s mother, provide a short update on how her daughter is doing now that she is out of jail on bond awaiting her March 2014 retrial. Ms. Jenkins said that it had taken some adjustment and that Marissa was still settling back into the lives of her children and family but that she was doing well. This was wonderful to hear. Marissa’s older children were 10 years old when she was first jailed and they are both now 13 and a half. Her baby who was only 9 days old when she went to jail is now 3 and a half. That’s a long time to be separated from your children.

There are 2.7 million minor children who have an incarcerated parent. Each of them has a story and so do their parents. I was moved by the following two short videos about how incarceration impacted the relationships between formerly incarcerated mothers and their children. Each film is under 10 minutes and I highly recommend watching them.

val new re-entry compress from New America Media on Vimeo.

Steeda and Malaysia: Re-Entry To Motherhood from New America Media on Vimeo.

Nov 30 2013

Musical Interlude…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted musical interludes but I learned about this song through a Twitter follower yesterday & wanted to share it. It’s called “Parole” by Immortal Technique.

Aug 27 2013

Guest Post: The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.

An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?

Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.

Read more »

Sep 08 2012

Aging in Prison Depicted in a Country Music Video…

I’ve written several times on this blog about the increase in the elderly who are in prison. This increase is related to longer sentences and a curbing of parole in several states. You can read some of my posts about this issue here, here, and here. Colorlines also created a terrific infographic that visually depicts the problem of an aging prison population.

Now comes an amazingly moving music video by Brandi Carlile for a song titled “That Wasn’t Me” featuring Kris Kristofferson (who I just love). In the video, Kristofferson plays an elderly man who is paroled from prison and cannot find a way to fit into society. Please take a moment to watch the video. You won’t be sorry.

Jan 31 2012

“Jumping Through Hoops:” Barriers to Erasing Criminal Records…

I am currently working with a coalition of other groups in Illinois to pass a bill to reform the juvenile expungement process. Juvenile expungement is intended to provide people with juvenile criminal records with a chance to erase them. This is intended to make it more likely that they can qualify for financial aid, that they can apply and be hired for jobs, and that they can qualify for certain professional licenses (like nursing).

As part of our process to pass the bill, we have been meeting with various stakeholders including legislators and law enforcement representatives. For the most part, folks have been supportive of our common-sense reform measures. Our biggest opponent however is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office which refuses to adopt any sort of reasonable posture in negotiating with our coalition.

After our latest meeting with a group of stakeholders representing the legal system this morning, I am reflecting on the fact that many people are just downright hostile against young people. The assumption seems to be that if they aren’t getting their records expunged; it’s their fault. In the world that some of these people inhabit, fees are not an obstacle to expungement “because they can afford to pay.” Additionally, the system should remain as onerous as possible because they want youth to “jump through hoops” in order to clear their records. When it is pointed out that thousands of young people are arrested each year and their cases aren’t referred to court. The response remains the same. We don’t care if these are mere arrests (some of which are surely false arrests), we just want to make them “take responsibility” for their actions.

Given the reality that almost 30% of youth in the U.S. will be arrested by the age of 23, I can’t help but think that we will be reaching a tipping point soon. When the main people who were being adversely impacted by arrest records were youth of color, there was no urgency to reform the expungement process. However now that many more young white people find themselves caught in the net of increasing police control, I wonder how much more amenable the powers that be will be to expungement reform in the future.

It’s a sad but true fact that only when they see these as “their” kids too will they find a willingness to make the system more fair, just, and cost-effective. You can learn more about our efforts by visiting the UN-MARKED CAMPAIGN BLOG.

Jan 26 2012

Tracey Stevens Narrates Her Re-Entry Story…

I think that the re-entry industrial complex is a racket. Yet real people get out of prison and jail every single day and need to navigate hostile waters on the outside. One such person is Tracey Stevens who narrates her story. I think that her words are poignant and should compel us to REALLY focus on providing opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.

Oct 04 2011

Prison Education Reduces Recidivism…

According to a press release that I received yesterday:

“Jake Cronin, a policy analyst with the Institute of Public Policy in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, studied Missouri Department of Corrections data and found that inmates who earned their GED in Missouri prisons were significantly more likely to find a job after prison and less likely to recidivate than inmates who did not. Cronin found the biggest jump in reduced recidivism rates, more than 33 percent, when he looked at inmates who earned a GED and acquired a full-time job after their release.

“Employment proves to be the strongest predictor of not returning to prison that we found,” Cronin said. “Those who have a full-time job are much less likely to return to prison than similar inmates who are unemployed. Recidivism rates were nearly cut in half for former inmates with a full-time job compared to similar inmates who are unemployed. Inmates who take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them in prison are more likely to find a job than those who do not.”

Cronin says these reduced recidivism rates can save the state a substantial amount of money in reduced incarceration costs. He points to a similar study which found that educational programs that reduced recidivism rates saved the state of Maryland $24 million a year, which is twice the amount of money spent on the program. Cronin believes this shows that correctional facility educational programs are a good investment for the state of Missouri.

“If similar results occur in Missouri, which I would expect given the findings of this study, that would mean the state is currently saving more than $20 million a year in reduced incarceration costs as a result of correctional education programs,” Cronin said. “In this political environment, states across the country are looking for ways to save money. This is one program that, in the long run, saves the state money. It is a good investment; an investment that has a high rate of return.”

This is directly relevant to current prisoners. My pen pal Randy Miller who is incarcerated at Indiana State Prison is an advocate for prisoner education. Here is a letter to the editor that he wrote a couple of months ago about this topic:

Recent legislation passed by Indiana law makers eliminated the bachelor’s degree program from all Indiana State Prison beginning in the fall semester of 2011. The reason given by Governor Mitch Daniels and the state legislators for this action, is that it is unfair for tax payers to be burdened with the cost of covering educational expenses for convicted felons. This may be a valid argument, except that financially it is an outright lie.

The cost of college expenses in the 2010 school year for all Department of Correction inmates was $9.06 million, covered by the Obama grant program. Under new legislation, only $2 million will be allocated to the Department of Corrections to cover educational expenses for college. On the surface this appears to be a financially sound move and looks to save tax payers $7 million a year, but let’s look at what it really costs.

The state of Indiana pays the Department of Corrections just under $58 per day, per inmate, or $21,170.00 per year. There are approximately 361 inmates eligible to receive a bachelor’s degree each year within the Department of Corrections. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree cuts two years off an inmates sentence, saving tax payers $42,340.00 per inmate. By eliminating this opportunity for an average of 361 inmates state wide per year, Governor Mitch Daniels and your state legislators have saved you the tax payer $7 million a year in educational expenses to inmates, and burdened you with $15,284,740.00 per year to house inmates who now cannot receive this time cut. These costs do not include the rising rate of recidivism bound to follow these cuts in education.

Governor Mitch Daniels wants to move to technical schooling to teach inmates a trade rather than a general education, even though these trades have been shown and proven to have little to no effect on lowering recidivism rates. As it stands today, the average recidivism rate in Indiana is at 63 percent. A bachelor’s degree cuts that rate to less than 8 percent! Under Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana has led the nation in prison population growth, with a prison population increase of more than 6 percent per year. Even California, a state who’s prison population dwarfs Indiana’s in comparison, cut it’s prison population by almost 3 percent.

It is time to change the way we think about the Department of Corrections. It is unfeasible to think you can warehouse inmates and ignore the problem, especially when more that 95 percent of those inmates will be re-entering society someday. The single most beneficial tool we have to lower crime rates, reduce recidivism and ensure the success of inmates re-entering society is education. There is absolutely no benefit for anyone in cutting educational funding to prisoners and eliminating the bachelor’s degree opportunity to inmates.

Randy Miller #154124
Indiana State Prison
August 6, 2011

Sep 14 2011

The New Scarlet Letter: Juvenile Criminal Records (Part 2)

We walked into 3510 S. Michigan Avenue (which is our Chicago Police Headquarters) at around 10:50 am this morning. We walked through metal detectors over to the central information kiosk. We were greeted by a police officer. We told him that we needed to get a copy of Mariah’s juvenile RAP sheet. He asked her if she had been arrested before her 17th birthday and for her name. He asked if she had a government issued ID and she gave him her state ID card. He then called someone and passed the phone over to Mariah. She was asked again for her name and also for her date of birth. She was then told to have a seat in the lobby.

We were the only two people sitting in a large lobby area. It was empty. Mariah leaned over to me and said: “It’s a police station but I don’t feel safe here.” She was nervous. I passed her the journal that I was writing in and told her to jot down her thoughts. I said that it sometimes helps to write down how one feels as a way to move past those feelings. With her permission, I will share her stream of consciousness musings with you.

I didn’t really have a bad experience but of course it wasn’t a good one. They all seem so uptight. This is taking too long or maybe time is going really slow. What is a rap sheet anyway? The elevator dings but it’s still not for me. I’m feeling uneasy seeing all the folders and guns. Shorts? it’s pretty cold for that. I wonder what they’re doing. I’m the only one here waiting for my file. My stomach is feeling weird. I wonder if that’s an FBI agent with the microphone in his ear. It isn’t very discreet. There’s a police officer/soldier. Interesting. So does the army have their own police but they all have guns? At least 20 min! What are they really doing. It takes longer to get my rap sheet than for the guy to get his gun registered. I just knew MK was gonna get up. And I just knew that police officer at the front desk was going to say something. I hope they don’t take longer on purpose.

Mariah is referring to me when she mentions that she “just knew MK was gonna get up.” After 30 minutes without service, I went back to the information desk to ask if they could call upstairs to see what the hold up was. He dialed and handed me the phone. I was promptly told by the person handling juvenile investigations: “When we’re ready, we’ll bring it down.” It took us 45 minutes from the time we arrived until we got the rap sheet. If you’ve never seen a juvenile rap sheet, here’s a copy below:

The disposition listed for Mariah is “Informal Adjustment (Released to Parent).” That’s right boys and girls, the supposed incident that has led Mariah to receive a letter saying that she cannot practice nursing involves an informal station adjustment that she received at 13 years old.

We weren’t done yet. We got into my car and drove over to juvenile court. Our goal there was to get the Clerk of the Court to write a letter stating that there was a negative record of court proceedings. When we arrived, Mariah explained what she needed. The young woman at the front desk was very pleasant and asked to see a government-issued ID. We sat and waited for about 20 minutes while the letter was being written. We were given juvenile expungement information packets and encouraged to have the record erased. I will have more more say about that process tomorrow. I will be accompanying Mariah back to court to talk with a pro-bono lawyer who will help her to file a petition to have her record expunged. Below is a copy of the letter that the Clerk of the Court provided:

All in all we spent 4.5 hours today getting the necessary paperwork to send a letter to the Department of Professional Regulation requesting that they proceed to reviewing Mariah’s application for licensure. Tomorrow, we will spend more hours beginning the costly and tedious process of expunging her juvenile “criminal” record. Stay tuned…