How will America, which espouses the virtues of forgiveness and freedom, successfully deal with the thousands of people who leave its prisons every year? As the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States has a unique responsibility to chart a different, more humane course towards incarceration. Fifty years after the historic March on Washington helped usher the end of legally sanctioned discrimination, the formerly incarcerated remain stripped of basic rights. In many states they can’t vote, live in public housing or receive public assistance. And so they end up recycled in and out of some of America’s most deplorable institutions.
In the same way that Mississippi or Alabama were vital battlefronts in the struggle for civil rights a half century ago, California, with the country’s largest prison population, is ground zero for what many see as the major social and political issue of today. Like other states in the 1980s and 1990s, liberal California wanted to get tough on crime. In particular, state lawmakers wanted to rid society of the drug dealers and users most often found in the communities of color such as South Los Angeles and East Oakland. A scared citizenry supported laws that put children in adult jails for years – while preventing released prisoners from getting childcare assistance. California got so good at putting and keeping people in jail that the number of state prisons exploded from 10 to 33 within a decade. And even those became overcrowded.
People who speak on behalf of the formerly incarcerated are often greeted with hesitation and skepticism. Even liberals and progressives have a hard time finding sympathy for those who have been convicted of crimes. This is understandable when considering the impact on a family or community when someone is killed, raped or robbed. The lack of compassion for the formerly incarcerated becomes even more explainable when you watch television shows such as Lockup or Oz, which perpetuate the most extreme images of people living behind bars. Footage of tattooed, muscle-bound men or women telling stories of prison fights or assaults does not elicit a lot of sympathy from the broader society – even though some parolees have reintegrated well enough that they are simply known as the neighbor down the street or the co-worker at the office.
Yet one reality that seemed lost to voters and lawmakers, 20 and 30 years ago, was that many of the people locked away would eventually be released to society. Once free, they are often denied the right to employment, housing, professional licenses and so many other tools needed to stay out of prison. Of course, issues as big as incarceration policy have become huge political fights: Prison guard and law enforcement lobby groups use their powerful voices in Sacramento and city halls across the state to fight against any attempts to reduce the number of people behind bars.
Even now, as the state is being forced by federal judges to reduce its prison population, various interest groups are working hard to block California’s plan to shift thousands of inmates to local jails and community programs. With billions of dollars in salaries and contracts at stake, breaking the addiction to incarceration will prove difficult — just as it was difficult for many to break their allegiance to Jim Crow laws.
However, the successful reintegration of the formerly incarcerated is no longer optional. It’s a must. Our state and the nation as a whole can no longer spend billions to keep prisons overcrowded. That means legislators must eliminate any law that keeps this group from getting access to housing and public assistance. We must support and pass such laws as Assembly Bill 218 (Dickinson) that will address hiring discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.
Failure to embrace these types of policies will compromise any long-term economic recovery and keep California and the United States bound to failed practices. It is time to break free from our addiction to incarceration.