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.

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.

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

Apr 27 2011

New Start, Right Start: A Youth-Created Film about Juvenile Expungement Reform

I am very involved in advocating for an automatic juvenile expungement bill here in Illinois. For those who are interested learning more about HB2841, you can visit the UN-marked Campaign blog.

I wanted to share a terrific short youth-created film that underscores the value and importance of clearing juvenile criminal records. It is impactful and powerful because the young people speak for themselves about this issue. This film was created in 2007 but is still as timely as ever. We will be creating a curriculum for youth and adults in our state to learn more about this issue and we look forward to making use of this film in that curriculum. Special thanks to the Community TV Network and Michael Chandler in particular for making this film readily available for all of our use. Take 10 minutes to watch this excellent film.

Mar 21 2011

Perpetual Punishment: Garnishing Prisoners’ Earnings and Lifetime Bans From Social Services

A few days ago, I wrote about how jail inmates in England historically had to pay for their own incarceration. Well here in Illinois in 2011, the Supreme Court is hearing a fascinating case that relates to this.

Kensley Hawkins has accumulated $11,000 over 20 years in prison from jobs that he has had while behnd bars. Now the State of Illinois would like to garnish those earnings to have Mr. Hawkins pay for the costs of his own incarceration. Mr. Hawkins has been making about $2 a day building furniture at Stateville Prison which amounts to about $75 a month.

From the Chicago Tribune:

In March 2005, nearly 23 years after he entered prison, the Corrections Department sued Hawkins in Will County. It demanded more than $455,000 that it has spent to house him from July 1, 1983, to March 17, 2005, or an average of about $57 a day.

Under Illinois law, prisoners are liable for their incarceration costs. Most offenders do not have the means to pay, but the department can begin collection proceedings against those who have sufficient assets. Hawkins’ lawyers said the threshold is $10,000 in assets. The state requires prisoners to file financial statements.

In the last eight years, the department has brought more than 200 suits against current and former inmates, Elman said. The department has tried to seize inheritances and awards from personal-injury cases, said James Chapman, a Chicago lawyer who has represented prisoners in such claims.

Hawkins has been told that he owes $455,203.14 to cover the costs of his imprisonment at Stateville Prison. I love the fact that they haven’t even bothered to round down the amount. We have to make sure to collect those 14 cents too. Mr. Hawkins has taken his case to court to stop the state from garnishing the $11,000 in his bank account.

According to the Tribune, “the issue of whether the state can repossess the meager wages paid to inmates will be determined by the Illinois Supreme Court, which will hold arguments in the Hawkins case Tuesday [last week]. It’s the first time the court will address the issue, which also has social justice and public policy ramifications for Illinois.”

States continue to exhibit a stunning lack of foresight by ensuring that once released prisoners will find themselves right back behind bars. Funds that are earned from prison labor should not be garnished, they should be kept in trust and returned to prisoners as they are released to give them a real shot at so-called re-entry. I just read over the weekend that the Michigan Republican Party has decided that perpetual punishment is needed for those convicted of a drug felony in their state. Apparently the Michigan legislature is considering a bill this Tuesday which would bar people with felony drug convictions from receiving food stamps or basic needs assistance for the rest of their lives. Once again, the brilliant minds of our political officials on full display…

Feb 22 2011

Call to Action: Support ‘Clear Up Juvenile Records’ IL HB 2841

I want all of you to know that I am passionately committed to the success and development of ALL young people. I believe that we need to invest ON THE FRONT END to ensure that all youth have an opportunity to thrive.

We know however that not all young people are provided with the resources to succeed and some end up caught up in the criminal legal system. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I write about this often.

by Billy Dee

Today, I am asking you to help support a bill that I am passionate about and that I am working very hard to see pass in our legislature in IL. It is called the ‘Clear Up Juvenile Records” act. Here is what we are asking for and I am asking that if you live in IL, you sign this petition to support our efforts:

We the undersigned, demand a simple and inexpensive expungement process to ensure juvenile records are cleared.

The current expungement process is so complicated and expensive that according to the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court, Chicago Police arrested 18,287 youth under 17 years old in 2009 and only 437 juvenile records were expunged. The majority of these arrests are for minor offenses.

The failure to automatically clear these arrest records and the difficult process to obtain an expungement holds back youth in their transition to college, in applying for the military, and in seeking employment.

Specifically, we demand:

1.) That no local law enforcement agencies can forward juvenile records to the State Police.

2.) That an individual can petition the court to expunge their juvenile record anytime, for any reason.

Example: A record will be able to be eligible to be expunged if a youth is arrested but the petition is dismissed OR if a petition is never filed

3.) That a juvenile record is automatically expunged if a person is 18 years old and has had two years without an arrest. Law enforcement agencies would be responsible for expunging these records.

4.) To explicitly state the Illinois Human Rights Act to include civil rights violation if employers ask about expunged juvenile records

We encourage Illinois legislators and policy makers to address this critical issue to ensure our youth can successfully move forward in life.

To learn more about juvenile expungement of criminal records, visit the UN-marked Campaign Blog.

Unfortunately, today (3/3/11) the House Jud II cmte voted against both HB 2841, the juvenile expungement reform bill, and against HB 85, the counsel for youth during interrogation for murder bill. Both votes were 2-5, with only Reps Connie Howard and Annazette Collins voting for the bills. Democratic Reps. Cunningham and McAsey both voted no on both bills. Republican reps Reboletti, Reis and Sacia also voted no on both bills. It is really important to get the word out to folks to let the legislators who opposed these bills know that folks are watching their votes and concerned that bills advancing rights for youth are not moving forward.

Jan 21 2011

Coming Home: A Poignant Scene of A Prisoner’s Return

I have written a couple of times already about a new documentary called the Interrupters by Steve James (who directed Hoop Dreams) and Alex Kotlowitz (who wrote ‘There Are No Children Here’) that will premiere later this month at Sundance.

Ninety-five percent or more of prisoners will be released at some point in the future. So prisoners get out eventually. Here is a clip from the Interrupters that I wanted to share specifically because it illustrates in under 2 minutes the inter-generational cycle of incarceration in the black community and the deep love that exists for many prisoners from their families. That abiding love is a part of the story about imprisonment that is too often unexamined and overlooked.

This clip highlights the hidden collateral costs of incarceration.

Jan 20 2011

Dumb Policies #3: More Barriers to Jail Visitation

There is a lot of lip service paid to “successful” re-entry for former prisoners.  One of the most important findings from recent research suggests that successful prisoner re-entry depends in large part on ensuring that inmates keep connections with family members and friends while they are incarcerated.

Well in D.C. some geniuses have decided to do their best to limit outside contact with inmates by proposing a plan to fingerprint visitors and check for warrants:

All visitors to the District’s jail soon will have their fingerprints scanned and checked against law enforcement databases for outstanding warrants.

The D.C. Department of Corrections is already using the “live scan” fingerprint technology on inmates when they enter and leave the jail, corrections officials said. The digital technology allows the department to take an image of an inmate’s fingerprint and check it against D.C. police databases to confirm the inmate’s identity.

Starting in March, the fingerprint-scanning technology will be put to use for all visitors, DOC spokeswoman Sylvia Lane said.

“Through a $134,000 grant from the [federal] Office of Justice Grants, we will be [using] the technology in our visitors control area to assist [D.C. police] in the identification of individuals with outstanding warrants,” Lane said in an e-mail to The Washington Examiner. If a match is made, DOC will detain the visitor and contact the police department and the visitor will be taken into custody.

The jail currently only requires that visitors present a valid identification, and names of visitors are not checked against outstanding warrants.

This new policy will continue to expand the reach of the prison industrial complex while also placing more barriers between inmates and the public. First, we already know that many prisoners do not get family or friend visits as it stands now. Our goal should be to encourage MORE such visits rather than putting up more barriers. Next, jails are already overcrowded. Why look to add to the masses of people already locked up by checking visitors for warrants?

Additionally, the company that has created and is selling the scanning technology has a whole new market to access. This illustrates why I believe that prison “industrial” complex is still the appropriate term to be using not-withstanding the fact that the term is not unproblematic. The money-making motive is always intertwined with incarceration.

Jan 09 2011

The ‘Myth’ of Reentry (Cont’d): An Ethnographic Account

I have gotten many very interesting responses to my post about Michael Vick and the ‘Myth’ of Reentry.

One of the questions raised by a commenter was about how the prison system has traditionally handled the issue of prisoner re-integration into society. I thought that this was an excellent question that deserves further investigation.

I came across this ethnographic description by Etheridge Knight of what happens once a prisoner is paroled in his essay “Inside These Walls” that I referenced yesterday.

Finally, when a man is paroled, he is given $15 in cash and a new suit of clothes (out of style) by the state. And most men leaving prison have nothing on which to rely until they can draw a paycheck. (During the years in prison he has earned an average of ten cents a day. A bar of soap costs twenty cents, in prison.)

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a man leaving prison is going to work on a blue-collar job, so the new suit of clothes is without utility. The fifteen dollars will hardly provide him with a place to stay — to say nothing of the personal necessities: work clothes, razor and toothbrush, etc. Because of all of this, a man who has a wife or relatives on whom he must rely us from the outset put into an embarrassing, self-demeaning position. A man who has no wife or close relatives is forced to seek out old friends, usually those in an environment which quickly shoves him back into criminal activities.

Small wonder then that 75 per cent of all ex-convicts return to crime. Men are put into prison for the protection of society, it is said, but is it being protected when 90 per cent of all the men in prison will at one time or another be released and when 75 per cent of them return to crime?

If this was the case in the mid-1960s, how could we update this description in 2011? I would be interested if any enterprising researchers could send along an update of Knight’s description for 2011. Pick the particular state that you want to focus on. Knight was writing about the situation in Indiana. So how much money are prisoners who are released today given (if any)? Are they provided with a change of clothes? How much does soap cost today?

Update: Special thanks to Oona for sending along this information about the current California system

[H]ere is what I know about the California Dept of Corrections (and Rehabilitation)

When released from a California State Prison, the man/woman released receives the following:
If they have served > 6 months: $200
If they have served < 6 months: $1.10 for each day served in custody.
Subtracted from this amount is the ~$40 charged for the clothes on their back (a grey sweatsuit), unless they are lucky enough to have family/friends or one of the few community programs provide them with "dress-outs", ie normal street clothing mailed to the institution and given to the inmate on day of release.

The released person is then either picked up at the gate, or dropped off at a local bus station. If, for example, the released person must travel from Marin County, CA to Los Angeles County, CA, there goes 1/2 of their gate money.

I welcome testimonies from others about how things work in your state…

Update 2: A dispatch from Nequam…

There’s basically 2 systems in Texas. If you’re being released from a state jail facility, you’re given no money from the state. You will be given clothing that somewhat fits you. If you have money in your commissary account, this is provided to you in the form of a check. If you have no one to pick you up, you are taken to the bus station. If you are not from the immediate area of your release, you will be provided with a bus ticket. If you are living prison, all is the same except that you are given $50 upon your release and another $50 when you first report to your parole officer. If you have no family to return to you’re basically dropped off on the streets.