Ex-convict: We need to end the stigma against felons

Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

.- As Pope Francis and U.S. bishops insist upon helping ex-convicts re-enter society, advocates are pointing to a litany of obstacles – over 40,000 legal regulations – for such re-entry that need to be addressed.

“That's what we want...(to give) attention to,” Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy with Prison Fellowship, told CNA, “the important principle of closure.”

“You ask somebody that has done something wrong to square their debt. They do that, that's the right thing for that person,” he said of punishments for crime. “We should want that person to move forward up and away from their old life, and we're doing too much to prevent that in America today.”

DeRoche spoke at a “Second Chance Month” press conference at the National Press Club on March 30, joined by other advocates for criminal justice reform from organizations like the NAACP, Heritage Foundation, ACLU, and Americans for Prosperity.

Prison Fellowship, an outreach to prisoners and their families, has declared April 2017 to be “Second Chance” month. A senate resolution introduced by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) calls for the same.

“With 95 percent of inmates set to be released one day and two-thirds of released inmates back behind bars within five years, too many Americans are caught up in a cycle of crime,” Portman said.

“I hope that we all can join together on a bipartisan basis during Second Chance Month and all year round to support those who are returning from prison and want a fair shot at living an honest and productive life.”

Pope Francis, in November, asked countries to consider clemency for “eligible” prisoners during the Year of Mercy. He asked for criminal justice “which isn't just punitive, but open to hope and the re-insertion of the offender into society.”

The Pope's visit to a Philadelphia, Pa. correctional facility in 2015 was inspiring, DeRoche admitted, and serves as an example for all Americans. “It was wonderful to see that Pope Francis went directly into a prison,” he said.

“Prison Fellowship believes that every American should take the opportunity…to visit a prison,” he said at the National Press Club, emphasizing that especially “elected leaders” should visit prisons.

“And many people who aren't aware of how involved the Christian church is [in prison ministry], they often ask 'why?'” DeRoche said. “And I say 'well it's one of the only things that Jesus actually commanded people to do.'”

Why are advocates pushing specifically for a “second chance” initiative? Former inmates face far too many barriers to living a normal life once they re-enter society, one former prisoner says, and such restrictions may well enhance their risks of re-entering prison.

Casey Irwin, who was convicted for bank fraud and drug-related offenses, now owns a million-dollar business. Yet for a while after her time spent in multiple prisons, she struggled to find her way in society.  

“I made poor choices,” Irwin said at the National Press Club. “I’m still a normal human being, and I need a place to eat, and I need a place to sleep, and I need a place to work. And so all those things have been difficult to obtain.”

“I can get a job, but it wasn’t going to pay me any money, and I wasn't going to ever move up. So I think that's a barrier for everybody,” Irwin told CNA of her efforts to find a job that would pay well and offer her career advancement opportunities.

She still faces “many barriers” including in housing and employment, she said, noting that the societal stigma against someone with a criminal record is quite real when she applied for housing or for jobs after she had served her prison sentence and, in her words, paid her “debt” to society.

Just “the way people look at you” when they hear about a criminal record, she explained, “you tell people you're a felon and they think you killed five people.”

“That's their automatic reaction,” she said, and societal change needs to happen through peoples' minds, not legislation. “That comes from peoples' mindsets being changed about 'criminal people.'”

“I sold drugs to supplement my income for my rent, because I was in a place I couldn't afford. And she [the landlord] knew it. I knew it. But I needed a place to stay, so I'm like 'I'll take it,' knowing that I couldn't pay for it,” Irwin said. She was caught selling drugs and sentenced to prison again.

“One of those things was like how do I get ahead without criminal behavior? How do I get ahead without trying to skirt the system?” she said. “And so I had to really push through that, and take a low-paying job, and just allow myself to develop, where a lot of people who are in that criminal mindset, they don't think like that because they want it now, and right now.”

Her first big break came when a friend she had worked with referred her for a management position at Kentucky Fried Chicken. She was offered to be manager of a franchise.

“I was so excited,” she recalled, noting she had an opportunity for success “without having to look over my shoulder.”

Yet ex-convicts face tens of thousands of obstacles and restrictions – over 46,000 “collateral consequences” at the federal, state, and local level across the U.S., John Malcolm, a legal expert with the Heritage Foundation, noted at last Thursday's event.

In a report he co-authored in March on “collateral consequences,” he noted how some states have hundreds of consequences for persons with criminal records including barriers to specific careers. Employment barriers make up most of the consequences, he noted – 60 to 70 percent, according to the American Bar Association.

And a dozen states “restrict voting rights even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole,” Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, noted at the event.

The disparity can fall sharply along racial lines, too, he added. “Black Americans of voting age are more than four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one out of every 13 black adults disenfranchised nationally.”

Tags: Catholic News, Prison reform