Coincidentally, today Minnesota’s twin daily newspapers ran stories on life after prison. One had a happy (or at least hopeful) ending; the other, not so much.
In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Andy Mannix covers the “Second Chances 5K”—a race for current and former inmates aimed at emphasizing that many people “still have something to offer society” after incarceration.
Ex-inmates face harsh social stigmas and discrimination in the economy when they’re released (not to mention court fees that often sink ex-prisoners in debt). While the alleged purpose of prison is to punish and rehabilitate people who have committed crimes, the punitive aspect of the system often extends long after a sentence has been served; while rehabilitation and reintroduction into society are often minimal at best.
This helps explain the second story. In the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Nick Ferraro writes about Wesley Scoggins, or the man formerly known as Joseph Thomas Hawkinson.
Hawkinson went to prison in 2009 for serious offenses: kidnapping, domestic assault, burglary and second-degree assault. There’s no arguing that he didn’t deserve punishment. But after four years, Hawkinson was released and appeared to be a changed man. Until he decided to go on the lam in 2014 “because he had cut his hand while laying carpet, was taking painkillers and knew he’d fail a drug test when he met with his parole officer.”
When he went on the run, did he revert to violent crime? No. Instead, he assumed a new identity, entered a committed relationship, and became a role model for his girlfriend’s child.
There are countless ex-prisoners like Hawkinson who leave prison ready to start over on the outside, but instead get caught up in unfair rules of the system (like the criminal use of painkillers).
Cases like Hawkinson’s demonstrate the glaring inadequacies in the U.S. criminal justice system. Yes, incarceration is sometimes the only good option for people who have committed violent crimes. But when their time has been paid, inmates should be released into a society ready to give them a fair shake instead of one eager to toss them back in prison.
What needs to change?
To prevent more instances like Hawkinson’s, some concrete changes must be enacted in how we deal with prisons and prisoners.
Dismantle the prison industrial complex.
The prevalent use of private prisons, even in its reduced state thanks to changes under the Obama administration, perpetuates a cycle of incarceration. Private prisons incentivize over-incarceration: more people locked up means more demand for prisons which means more profit. To fill these beds, people (disproportionately people of color) are arrested for nonviolent crimes that shouldn’t require incarceration, such as drug possession. Eradicating the demand for prisoners means fewer people in prison; and therefore fewer people to reintroduce into society after prison.
Stop incarcerating people for things that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place.
As I mentioned, people of color especially are arrested and sentenced to jail time for petty crimes—like possession of marijuana, which is legal in some states. The best solution is to decriminalize drug possession, but de-prioritizing drug possession as a target for law enforcement is a good start.
End institutional discrimination in hiring of the formerly incarcerated.
Whether a person has been convicted of a crime doesn’t necessarily tell an employer anything about how good an employee that person might be. But the stigma of incarceration means that employers often dismiss otherwise qualified candidates based on their criminal record. It is unfair to demand that ex-prisoners continue to serve their punishment in society even after their debts have been paid behind bars.
If you haven’t heard of it, read up on the Ban the Box campaign: a movement to remove the question of criminal history from job applications.
Consider your own biases towards ex-prisoners.
Incarceration affects an astounding number of people in this country. Chances are someone you know has been or is connected to someone who has served time. Make a conscious effort not to stereotype everyone who has been to prison. Being incarcerated is not the determining factor of a person’s innate goodness. If former prisoners are condemned to fight the stigma of incarceration upon release, we should at least try to make that fight less difficult on a personal level.