Imagine walking around with a sign that said “adulterer,” “pathological liar,” or “tax evader” plastered to your forehead for all the world to see. Surely this badge of dishonor would cripple your ability to maintain any type of social life or otherwise outside of the confines of your home. In other words, walking around wearing a label that identified you by the worst thing you’ve ever done in life–regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve done it–would render you incapable of living a quality life. This would be your brand, your label by which the world would forever know you and judge you by. And this is exactly what we in prison will have to live with for the rest of our lives the day we emerge from prison and back into society.
Many who have found themselves in the criminal justice system by way of a felony conviction have and will continue to face the harsh reality that awaits us when we leave prison and seek to rebuild our lives. No doubt we will be denied many of life’s most basic essentials: housing, employment, federal financial aid for schooling, and food stamps. Yet, we are expected to reintegrate into a society that wants nothing to do with us? Because of our felony brand that will perpetually stigmatize us, we are precluded from voting in many states. Yet, we are expected to pay taxes and send our kids to schools in districts where we have no right to vote on those tax laws and school policies.
This reality is especially troubling when we often hear how America is the land of second chances and land of opportunity, discriminating against no one; that if you just work hard and play by the rules, you too can get ahead and build a life for yourself and your family. Apparently I didn’t read the fine print at the bottom of this credo that states, “If you have ever been convicted of a felony . . . don’t even bother–we don’t want you anymore!” Principles mean nothing if they are only true in the abstract.
I am of the belief that most inmates leave prison with every intention to do the right thing by working to create a productive life for themselves and the families. Who would look to violate the law and return to this dreaded place so soon after release, having just experienced the beauty of freedom after years of confinement? It defies all logic to say the very least. Instead, a more plausible explanation of the high recidivism rate we see in our country is due to the fact that when door after door has been slammed in our faces at every attempt to legitimately gain solid economic footing in our lives, many revert to what they know can yield immediate resources. Crime doesn’t pay in the sense of waging one’s freedom against it, but it can pay the bills in the short term. A principle of survival is that we will do what is necessary to meet our basic needs in the face of no alternative.
Although I am very passionate about this issue and have no qualms with pointing out the utter counterproductiveness and hypocrisy of the societal practice of discriminating against those who have been convicted of a felony, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the many cities and states that have “banned the box.” This means in many cities it is illegal for employers to include on the job application the infamous question we who reside in prison shutter to answer: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Indeed, banning this discriminatory tool will inevitably lead to more opportunity in the realm of employment for many of us, but this is but one arm of the system that works to make it nearly impossible for someone branded a felon to reintegrate in society in a meaningful way. Policies are great, but my optimism in the human spirit calls for something much greater: forgiveness.
Everyone reading this blog has done things they are not proud of and had to ask for someone’s forgiveness for. We are human and therefore fallible, prone to making mistakes. Obviously some are more costly than others, but all requiring forgiveness just the same. We are told our debt to society has been paid once our sentence is up, yet we continue to pay; that doesn’t make sense. When you pay off a credit card debt, you don’t continue to pay on that debt, do you? Until our collective conscience as a society understands that people are much more than the worst thing we’ve ever done and are inherently deserving of a second chance, we will continue to isolate, marginalize, and discriminate against a branded demographic of people.
Martin Lockett is serving a 17 1/2 year sentence for a tragic car accident. Martin has substantially turned his life around by completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, published his first book and is currently working on his Masters in Psychology. Martin plans to counsel at risk youth when he is released. He hopes his insight, thoughts and experiences from prison will help those who have a loved one incarcerated or someone facing prison time.
To read more about Martin, CLICK HERE
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