Recently, a group of governors, faith-based leaders, and other experts were assembled to find ways of helping the nation’s inmate population turn their lives around, get a second chance, and successfully re-enter society. The idea behind the move is to make our communities safer and to provide opportunities for those men and women as they return to life outside of prison walls.

Since approximately two-thirds of the more than 650,000 ex-offenders released from prison every year are rearrested within three years after their release, the committee’s task will not be easy.

It’s often been said that the jails and prisons in the U.S. operate on a revolving door system, with many of the same prisoners returning to incarceration time after time after time. Sadly, that’s a mostly true statement.

With nearly 2.5 million people crammed into U.S. prison and jail facilities, or on probation or parole—3,789,800 on probation and 870,500 on parole (2015 stats), well, that equals to approximately 1 out of every 37 people in the U.S. is currently under some sort of supervised correctional status.

Yes, America can proudly boast (note the sarcasm) that we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s a pretty staggering number considering the U.S. accounts for only 5% of the world’s population. Those numbers don’t mean much, you say? Well, let’s approach from another angle … our wallets. Each year the U.S. spends between 74 and 80 billion dollars on incarceration. That’s BILLION dollars.

Sure, most citizens don’t want to be bothered with felons and other law-breakers. You know, out of sight/out of mind. But it’s not quite that simple. You see, Isaac Newton had the right idea when he mused, “What goes up must come down,” because the same applies to prisons, jails, and inmates—what goes in must come out. That’s right, most people sentenced to jail or prison must be released at some point, and those former prisoners are generally released back into their former communities.

What happens to former prisoners when they do finally make it back to their old neighborhoods? That’s a question most people don’t consider because the ex-con’s troubles don’t pertain to “most people.” Unfortunately, though, an inmate’s troubles affects everyone. Remember the 80 billion dollars it costs to incarcerate and supervise those millions of prisoners? Well, U.S. taxpayers are responsible for paying that whopping bill.

Doesn’t it make sense that we should try to address the problem instead of throwing good money on top of bad? Obviously, incarceration isn’t always the correct answer to every case, because many offenders just keep coming back after they’ve “paid” their debt to society.

Let’s address recidivism and why I think it occurs so often. First, I have many years of experience working in both corrections and in law enforcement, which means I’ve seen the system in action, from all sides. I’ve also owned a business where I employed a few former inmates, men who’d received prison sentences resulting from my investigations. Ironic, huh? Yes, I honestly believe in second chances.

What do former prisoners face upon their release? (these may vary depending on location)

  1. 1. They must, on a regular basis, check in with a probation or parole officer.
  2. 2. They must have an established residence.
  3. 3. Drug and sex offenders must register with the local police, advising officials where they’ll be residing and working.
  4. 4. They must maintain employment (in some areas this is a discretionary requirement imposed by the court).
  5. They’re required to complete a monthly report detailing their earnings, address changes, if any, employers name (probation officer will visit the job site and home), drug offenders must submit to urine testing, all must submit vehicle information, record of purchases (many probationers may not possess credit or debit cards), and they’re encouraged to further their education.

The above sounds reasonable until you consider the vast majority of employers absolutely will not hire felons, and, in most instances, drug offenders are not eligible for student loans or other such perks we all enjoy. In fact, many felons are legally banned from working in certain professions, such as:

  • airport security screener
  • armored car crew member
  • bank teller
  • child care provider
  • delivery driver
  • health care positions with direct patient contact
  • public safety officer
  • residential installers
  • apartment or condo maintenance
  • jobs that require handling money
  • barber
  • Realtor
  • First responder
  • Teacher
  • Psychologist
  • Attorney
  • Some felons are not eligible to obtain business licenses
  • liquor store clerks
  • restaurants that serve alcohol
  • health care – nurses, dental assistants, etc.
  • nursing homes

*Keep in mind that rules and laws may vary from one area to another.

Even when a felon finds a job he is subject to a list of restrictions, including (this is only a partial list, and it may vary from area to area):

  • Agents /officers must be allowed to visit worksite and/or speak with a supervisor to discuss client’s performance, progress, and accountability
  • Cannot work in a position that serves alcohol
  • Cannot work with minors
  • Cannot work with vulnerable adults
  • Employment must be within or close to a supervision district so that agents may visit the worksite
  • Not allowed to use or have contact with devices that host a computer modem (i.e. any device that can access the Internet)
  • Cannot travel outside area or state (affects delivery drivers)

A few professions do hire convicted felons, but the list is short. And, this is still entirely up to the company. Some do not employ those who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Professions often available to convicted felons:

  • Warehouse work
  • Maintenance and janitorial positions
  • Food service (no alcohol)
  • Production and manufacturing
  • Assembly
  • Construction
  • Landscaping

In addition, many convicted felons are banned from living in publicly assisted housing (section 8).

So, you see, without a job, or with the limited occupations to choose from, and without housing and educational opportunities, it’s darn tough for a former prisoner to make it on the outside.

To top it all off, the convicted felons never actually “pay their debts to society.” The stigma of being a “convicted felon” hangs over their heads for life. This is especially true for those who were convicted of federal offenses. Some states allow convicted felons to vote in elections (others do not). Still, felons, even one-time first offenders convicted of minor, non-violent felonies lose their right to own firearms and other weapons, their right to vote, student loans, housing, etc. And these restrictions are for life.

Wouldn’t it make sense to give the non-violent offenders a second chance, by removing the “convicted felon” status after, say, 10 years of living a productive, crime-free life. At least then they’d could return to school, live in better neighborhoods (away from criminal activity), find a decent job that would help support their families and take better care of their children, who, by the way, also suffer by being forced to live in poor conditions.

Having a second chance and goals to work toward could be part of the solution to the “prison problem” in this country. Now, I’m not talking about hardcore career criminals and repeat offenders. Nor am I including violent offenders. Most of those thugs need to remain behind bars for as long as we can keep them there. And I certainly don’t believe that every inmate would take advantage of the opportunity if presented to them. But there would be many who would work hard to achieve the goal and finally be able to put the mistake behind them for good.

If this helped keep just a small portion of the recidivists out of prison, the results could be huge. Families could remain together, children would grow up with two parents in the home, employers might find top-notch employees, the former inmates could become better educated and productive members of society, and taxpayers would save approximately $30,000 per year per inmate. Not to mention that instead of costing taxpayers, the non-recidivist would become a taxPAYER.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter. What do you think? A second chance for some, or lock ’em up and forget about them? Remember, though, most of those who go in must come out at some point.

Of course, there is the issue of private prisons that maintain contracts with the government … contracts that promise a minimum number of inmates will be sent their way. We must also remember that the private prisons are a big, money-making industry with stockholders.

And then there’s the food industry that makes a bundle off the prisons. And the construction companies, the jobs for officers, stock brokers medical staff, administration, the vehicle contracts, the weapons contracts, dog food (canines), condiment sales

(I once sat next to a woman on a plane who was on her way to a huge nationwide prison food convention. She oversaw condiment sales to prisons and jails—packets of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, along with napkins, and sporks—a multi-million-dollar industry).

Let’s not forget the prison phone systems, where a collect call can go for fees as high as nearly $300 for just one hour of conversation. Think about it for a second. A call for a kid’s birthday, a mother is sick, etc. $300 for an hour of family time is a tough expense for most families.

A portion of that whopping phone bill goes back to the prison in exchange for a contract with the provider. Again, it is the family who shoulders this burden since inmates don’t earn anywhere near enough money to cover the expense, yet, officials encourage strong and regular family contact.

Anyway, you get the idea.

By the way, Corrections Corporations of America stock was, at the time of this post, at $22.74 per share, down from $34.70 back in April 2017. Still, the “people business” is certainly booming.

It is my wish/hope that the newly formed committee would put their heads together and realize that second chances could indeed have worthwhile effects. It’s worth a try to offer an opportunity at once again becoming a productive citizen instead of someone who has little or no likelihood of making it. No job, no housing, no attainable goals, and no self-worth do not offer the needed building blocks of a solid future outside of prison.

 

4 replies
  1. lesedgerton
    lesedgerton says:

    Lee, I sometimes wonder why they don ‘t consult excons who have made a success of their lives after being released… I’m referring to myself, of course…

    When I made parole, I knew I was going to stay out. Why? Well, the period in which I did time was the period just before the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality took over politicians and media. I did two years of a 2-5 sentence in Pendleton, at the time when then-president Johnson declared it to be “the single worst prison in the U.S. (1966-68) And it was–I went through 8 riots during my bit not counting the riot I came in on.

    The reason I knew I’d make it was that I was taught a valuable trade during my time inside. I got to go to barber school. When I made parole, I had my pick of dozens of job offers. The first week out, on the bricks, I took home $500, which was good money in 1968. That was the least I made. At the end of my first year I was routinely making $7-800 a week. Within a couple of years, it was normal to make over $1,000 a week. I made more because within a year and a half of release I opened my own shop.

    The reason a barbering license was so valuable was that the simple truth was inmates were much better than civilians. The average civilian in barber school was in school about 9 months. They had relatively few people to work on, limiting their experience. Inside the walls, we all had at least two years in the school and many had much more. We also had much more practice as the prison rules were that every inmate had to get their hair cut every two weeks. We routinely saw 10-20 guys a day. They all got shaves and facials as well as they were free and represented a form of luxury to the inmate. The thing is, we had so much more experience than civilian students and barber shop owners knew it and they wanted our services. I had close to 50 shops offer me jobs before my release date and that was just in the two towns I had put down as my destination towns. At that time, I could go to any town in Indiana and visit say ten barber shops and know that I would run into ex-inmates in at least 6-7 of them. The public was largely unaware of this. Our rate of recidivism was over 87% (of those who stayed on the bricks). We also had outside organizations like P.A.C.E. who worked hard and long to help those of us who made parole or were released. Don’t know if those organizations even still exist.

    And, then, along came the “get tough on ’em” crowd. At the same time, the state barber board began to limit how many convict or ex-convict licenses were given out. The students coming out of civilian barber schools kept complaining they couldn’t get a job or if they did, they ended up in poor shops where there was little business. They just couldn’t take it that we were considered much more valuable.

    The second-most successful group coming out of Pendleton then were the guys who had gotten into the machine shop program. Their recidivism rate was over 60 % which was higher than the general average, but the reason it wasn’t as high as ours was that the machines they trained on in the joint were really outdated and didn’t compare much to the machines used on the street. That they had an idea of what a machinist did was a plus, so they got hired, just not at the same rate as graduating barbers. If Pendleton had just updated the machinery they trained on, their rates would have matched ours. None of the rest of the jobs inside did much to prepare parolees for the street. Kitchen workers could work as fry cooks in diners, that kind of thing.

    The point is, a sound program like the barber school actually prepared inmates for high-paying jobs on the outside and very few of us came back. The proof that such programs work was very visible, but then you’re talking about politicians and media and so they’re never going to pay attention to common sense… Or, even intelligence.

    So, they can have their meeting and all that, but I predict not much will come of it because I’m pretty sure they won’t address employment of job training, other than low-end job training.

    I have a lot to say about private prisons and how that concept really isn’t working at all, but will save that.

    Blue skies,
    Les Edgerton
    Inmate # 49028

  2. Christina Boufis
    Christina Boufis says:

    Thank you so much for your post and for bringing attention to this issue. My first mystery novel revolves around women inmates at a local jail where I worked for almost a decade. They are truly a forgotten population and have a more difficult time staying out of jail, particularly when their children are taken into CPS and they have lost everything.

  3. susanoleksiw
    susanoleksiw says:

    This is an excellent post. I’m totally opposed to private prisons, and I fully support programs that help former felons stay in the community. I worked in social services for over 20 years, and watched many men and women try to rebuild their lives. They can’t do it alone, nor should they. The arguments for prisons that revolve around how much money people are making distort the problem (and make me furious).

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