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).

Monday, March 31, 2008

The De-Stigmatization of Criminal History

This morning I had just finished my 7:30a workout when my trainer's next appointment arrived. He was not the normal 8:00a person but a substitute for a cancelled appointment. I have been working out here for 3 years and had never seen him before.

He saw me and questioned the meaning of my t-shirt (which I had acquired from the YMCA several years ago), which says:

I can go anywhere.
I can do anything.

Actually, that is what it used to say.

At some point during my prosecution, I thought a little editing was appropriate, given my new reality. I grabbed a magic market and scratched out the letters "any" from "anywhere" and "anything" and enscribed the word "no" next to them:

I can go any nowhere.
I can do any nothing.

This is the t-shirt I usually where when I work out.

As you can imagine, it invites questions, which is what happened this morning.

My trainer smiled when his new client asked what the meaning of my edits were.

I told him that last year I spent 3 months in federal prison. He asked what for. Then he asked where. "Was it a 'country club'"? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Then he talked about a friend who had spent 7 years in a federal prison in Pennsylvania for bank fraud and another friend who spent 3 days in a local county jail (much scarier!).

But what struck me most about the whole conversation was how utterly indifferent and casual he was about the whole thing as if what I had just told him about myself was a perfectly normal human experience. If anything, he was a little intrigued.

I get this a lot. There seems to be a lot of people out there who have had indirect (if not immediate) experiences with the criminal justice system and meeting someone else with a similar experience actually becomes a point of connection, not alienation.

Isn't that funny?

So many convicted criminals spend so much time and energy trying to hide their past, fearing the judgment of other people, when in fact..... NO ONE ELSE CARES!!!!

What alienates people is not another's past failure, but present self-pity and excessive shame. Everyone likes being around a person who has failed but picked himself up and moved on. Indeed many people will even admire such a person.

However, no one wants to be around someone stuck in the past, who can't move beyond their mistakes. Attitude is everything. If you have moved on, then so has everyone else. Most people have enough problems of their own to worry about your mistakes. (There is of course the occasional Pharisee who seems to have nothing better to do than build themselves up by tearing others down, but being a Pharisee takes more psychic time and energy than most can muster.)

Granted, if you keep making those mistakes over and over again, societal sympathy may begin to wear thin (re: John Daly). But for the average guy who got himself caught up in something a little bigger than he bargained for (which is the typical white collar scenario), that is not the issue.

So the moral of the story is that, in most cases, your criminal history is a non-issue for almost everyone else.... it has been de-stigmatized.

So take the scarlet letter off your chest and remember what Andy Dufresne said in Shawshank Redemption:

Get busy living or get busy dying.


Tea N. Crumpet said...

You are so lucky that you don't know me, Bill! I'd be reading this and be on your doorstep in my nightgown strumming my guitar and singing "Welcome back!" with my kids as back up! (We'd bring you muffins though!)

Tell us more about your Europe trip!

I think that with the population in prisons getting higher, we'd better get used to former inmates among us and treat them well.

I worked at Wal~Mart a few years ago and a lady came in with her husband and she was acting a little off-- not noticeable to normal eyes, but I had no idea why she was surprised by everything and the ATM at my stand was really complicated for her asking so many questions, but her husband was sweetly explaining it to her. As she looked Native (but I am NOT stereotyping,) I asked if she was from a village and she said no, then looked around (no one was behind her) and said that she just got out of prison. I walked around my station and asked if I could give her a hug (she started to cry.) I told her that I didn't know what she did or if she'd done what she'd been convicted of, but that I was so glad that she was back in the world. She had been in for a while and told me that everything had changed a lot. We had a few minutes to chat and she told me that even shopping at 11:30 at night was different and hard to get used to. I was actually excited for her and wished her well-- she and her husband came back a few times to my line to tell me how things were going.

Bill Bailey said...

My wife and I will be going to Santorini and Mykonos (Greek Islands) with her sister for 10 days. Then my wife and I will continue on to Spain for 10 days.

We went to Santorini two years ago and loved it. Maybe I will post some of my pictures on Picasa (Google's photo album service) and put a link here.