Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sentence Doesn't End with Release

In my last post, I commented on how the pre-sentence process oftentimes feels like the punishment more than the actual prison time. In this post, I focus on the post-incarceration period.

Most people think that the only aspect of a defendant's sentence is the time they spend in prison, as if it is just a "lost" moment in his life and the pre- and post-incarceration time is just like normal. I hope I was able to make it clear in the last post that even before a person begins their prison sentence, they have already been "through the ringer," so to speak. Well, once an inmate's incarceration is over, he oftentimes finds out that life outside of prison is no piece of cake either.

USA Today ran a story last week: Ex-cons' sentences don't always end with release.

It discussed the myriad ways in which a former inmate is thwarted by various laws in his efforts to reintegrate into society, in effect creating a new underclass of ex-cons, and whether this really is in the best interest not only of the ex-con but of society. If you continue to make it difficult, if not impossible, for someone to re-assimilate, then they will be tempted to take the same kind of shortcuts that got them into trouble to start with.

One of the problems that I have alluded to earlier is that the conditions of supervised release make it impossible for former inmates to help their friends in prison because they are forbidden from associating with them. There is an assumption here that former inmates are corrupting influences and only non-felons can help former inmates re-integrate, as if a single mistake somehow disqualifies an individual from assisting others in the "rehabilitation" process. This is particularly true with white collar crimes in which most defendants have lived generally law abiding, tax-paying, productive lives before making one bad choice that they are unlikely to repeat.

In fact, some of the staff of FedCure.org (see here and here) were forbidden from even working on inmate rights and rehabilitation issues because they were ex-cons and many of the people they were trying to help were current prisoners. These efforts violated the probation condition prohibiting "associations" with other felons. They were forced to resign from the organization until their probationary status was completed. How absurd is that?

Many ex-cons run into barriers that effectively make them second-class citizens. For example,

- I have two children from a previous marriage. My current wife has been unable to have children. At one point we explored adoption. Now, in North Carolina, it would be impossible.... felons are forbidden from adopting. In Alabama, a misdemeanor drug conviction means a ban on adoption.

- In 12 states, felons are ineligible to receive food stamps

- In 2 states (now that Florida has changed their law), felons cannot vote.... ever. (Virginia, Kentucky)

- Felons cannot travel to Canada, England, or Australia (unless exception is granted by those countries' consulates)

- Punishments triggered by a marijuana sentence include restrictions on professional licenses, ineligibility for many jobs, loss of financial aid for education, housing and food, driver's license suspension, bars on adoption and bans on voting and jury service. In some states, the sanctions last for life.

There are more but you get the point. These limitations apply to non-violent first-time offenders for whom crime is not a way of life but an isolated mistake.

[UPDATE: Today (7/30/07) I found a website called The Four C's: The Collateral Consequences of Criminal Charges that addresses some of these issues.]

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I ordinarily would have the reaction of "tough cookies" to anyone complaining about having a hard time upon release. But since I have gotten a deeper understanding from reading every post on your blog, having a dear friend currently serving time in a federal camp, and reading the many posts on PrisonTalk.com, I have ceratinly changed my stance. Thank you. You have done a great service in helping me understand what my friend may be experiencing.

Bill Bailey said...

I think most people are like you which is one of the reasons I created the blog.

It is easy to support the "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime" philosophy in the abstract; it is a lot harder when it hits close to home and you see the way the system really works, especially for non-violent first offenders.

carolyn said...

I think most people feel a lot like the person who said if you can't do the time don't do the crime, until it happens to someone they love or care about. Then, and only then, do they start looking at what really happens and how the justice system picks and choses how it uses the sentencing thing. There really is a double standard in our country and I think there always will be. No one condones crime and yes, there should be punishment but some of what these inmates go through is far from just punishment.Rehabilitation? Hmmmmmmmm maybe in some areas but not all are able to get to a facility that actually has anyting but being locked up. I once heard some one say he was in a correctional facility and was there to be corrected.