Returning citizens may have completed their prison sentence, but they are in fact still being punished long after. The revolving door policy that deprives millions of true freedom has been in the spotlight in recent years. But the mills grind slowly.
Desmond Meade is director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), an organization that fights for voting rights for returning citizens–prisoners who have completed their sentences. In 2018, Florida law was changed after Meade managed to enthuse more than a million Floridians to vote for the change in a referendum. The state didn’t concede, and two years later the 11th Circuit Court ruled that only those returning citizens who had paid their fines could have their voting rights restored. Cat and mouse: FRRC shifted their focus and has been raising money ever since with which the nonprofit pays as many fines for returning citizens as possible.
Voting rights are not the only rights that are permanently expired for reentering citizens. For example, Meade, who successfully completed a law degree, was legally barred from practicing his profession, could not buy or rent a home, was not allowed to serve on a jury or run for office in politics. “I was Central Floridian of the Year, Floridian of the Year, one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people and I am a MacArthur Genius. If a person like me can’t get his civil rights back, who can?” wonders Meade. Last October 13, the good news arrived. The clemency committee restored his civil rights–with the exception of the right to carry a gun.
Florida is no exception. All over the U.S., returning to society is a hell of a challenge. People who have been convicted face severe discrimination. The biggest challenges to a successful return to society are a job and housing. The check-box indicating that one has a criminal record often means the end of their chances. Housing associations and private landlords who refuse housing have the law on their side. The government requires social housing associations to have a restrictive and controlling policy on alcohol and drug use and criminal activities.
This makes it nearly impossible for returning citizens to obtain a subsidized home. Families who take someone in may immediately be evicted due to the same laws.
Although subsidies exist that may persuade employers to hire a reentering citizen, the unemployment rate for this group is 28%, five times higher than for the average population–and even higher than during the Great Recession of the 1930s. There is an additional disadvantage for some job seekers: the unemployment rate among African American women is 43.6%, among African American men 35.2%. The figures for white women and men are 23.2% and 18.4%, respectively.
This high unemployment is accompanied by a payment obligation that is not feasible for many. Those who have been convicted are often required to pay a contribution to the legal process and, in addition, it can be argued that a fee for their stay in prison is due upon release. Further, the probation department must be paid for. Drug tests must be paid for. Mandatory courses must be paid for. Travel expenses to those mandatory appointments must be paid. And sometimes there are rental costs of up to a few hundred Dollars a month when someone is dependent on a halfway house. Since welfare benefits are not a foregone conclusion for returning citizens, it is a legitimate questionhow someone is supposed to manage during that initial time.
The family jumps in where possible. But this does not come without consequences for themselves. Many families have struggled for years to pay the costs of incarceration. Wide-ranging research from 2014 shows that 48% of families were unable to pay such costs. This includes not just court costs but also visits and communication with their relative behind bars as well as their loved one’s living expenses. Not surprisingly, of the family members paying for these costs, 83% were women.
One would almost begin to think that the legal system is deliberately designed for failure. To further complicate reintegration into society, there are numerous technical violations of parole that lead a returning citizen directly toward the swing door. Research from 2017 indicates that nationwide at least 61,000 people are in prison every day, not because they committed a new crime, but because of a technical violation of their parole. Think of missing an appointment or failing a drug test. The conditions attached to parole are usually far-reaching and, of course, so is the electronic ankle bracelet that mostly comes with it.
Community supervision it’s called in a fancy way, but some see it being nearly the same as serving time. The practice is widely used nowadays. Currently, about 5 million people are under this form of supervision. Together with the more than 2 million incarcerated individuals, it comes down to 1 in 55 citizens being under judicial supervision. For comparison, in The Netherlands in 2020, about 6800 people were under parole supervision and some 10,000 were in prison. Converted, that comes down to 1 in 1054 citizens.
In 20 states more than half of new convictions are the result of technical violations. What to expect, when having a home and job is a condition for obtaining and maintaining your freedom and home and job are almost impossible to find for this group. What to expect, when it is forbidden to use any alcohol or drugs and one is not allowed to be with someone who interacts with someone who belongs to a gang. What to expect, when paying fees and fines is made a condition and one has no or an unstable income.
Invisible life sentences
Returning citizens may have completed their prison sentence, but they are in fact still being punished long after. If not because of the conditions attached to community supervision, then surely because of the stigma that the term ex-felon casts upon them. The chance of success is small. The chance of success without a supporting family is minimal. The revolving door policy that deprives millions of true freedom has been in the spotlight in recent years. But the mills grind slowly.
Change will have to come from organizations like Desmond Meade’s. Looking at the significant number of returning citizens starting a nonprofit and thereby supporting new returning citizens, at least a good start has been made in raising social awareness to these invisible life sentences.