By Maybelle Patterson
SILVER SPRING, Md. –After being released from prison, it can be hard to know where you stand in the outside world. But when every law seems to work against a successful reassimilation into society, you get the sense it’s somewhere on the wrong side.
Across the country, people out on parole or extended supervision – otherwise known as being “on paper”- are discriminated against in many aspects of everyday life, including searching for employment and voting.
Though formerly incarcerated people aren’t banned outright from working, the jobs they get are usually low paying, with long hours and no benefits.
This is due, in large part, to the regulations around job licensing in the U.S. which makes it hard for people with criminal records to get jobs requiring occupational licenses.
As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, licensing boards in states like Rhode Island can refuse to grant occupational licenses because of a crime that was committed years or even decades ago.
In an effort to prepare them for the outside world, many prisons train inmates for jobs such as plumbers and electricians. Unfortunately, most of these jobs require licenses.
This makes for a harsh cycle wherein prisoners are released onto the streets equipped with a worthless education, rendering them unable to find jobs, housing, and fresh food. Many turn to drugs and alcohol, eventually landing right back in prison.
This cycle also disproportionately affects people of color, according to a 2012 report by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology.
While the overall population of black inmates is lower than that of white inmates, African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, and should statistically have a much lower incarceration rate. Currently, black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, according to a 2013 report from the Vera Institute of Justice.
In addition, African Americans are less likely to have the societal and monetary support needed to get back on their feet. According to a 2017 report by the FBI, are more likely to be arrested for murder, rape, and robbery, which lead to higher jail times and greater amounts of stigma.
In an effort to help formerly incarcerated people assimilate into society, some counties such as Montgomery County have adopted “ban the box” bills, which would ban the question on many job interviews asking if the applicant has been incarcerated before.
Critics like farmer Marc Grossman, who works with Our House, an organization that focuses on reintegrating formerly incarcerated youth to society, say this bill doesn’t do anything to help the released prisoners.
“It’s meaningless,” Grossman says. “Everyone does background checks now. It’s a feel good progressive measure without any consequences.”
Others are less skeptical. An employee of the Pre-Release and Re-entry Services division of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation remarked that it was true that the ban the box bill wouldn’t help formerly incarcerated people get jobs, but it also wasn’t supposed to.
The bill will let people get their foot in the door, the employee said.
The state of Maryland is currently considering adopting their own “ban the box” bill.
Aside from the workforce, formerly incarcerated people also have a hard time re-entering their community, since most states don’t allow them to vote.
Politicians are also unlikely to accept released prisoners as part of their constituency and to push issues that matter to them.
It hurts the entire community when representatives don’t listen to formerly incarcerated people’s concerns, says Peggy West, Southeast Wisconsin coordinator for EX-incarcerated People Organizing, or EXPO.
West says that formerly incarcerated people offer a unique perspective about the criminal justice system, and that when people leave jail, they often become even more involved in their communities.
Even so, in states such as Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa, felons are disqualified from voting for life, excepting personal pardons.
Jane Henderson, executive director of Communities United, notes that even when formerly incarcerated people do gain the right to vote, they may still lack education on the voting process and have a feeling of disenfranchisement.
“I’ve always said that passing the law was going to be easier than engaging that whole new electorate, because people feel it doesn’t matter,” says Henderson. “Changing that perspective, and making people feel like they have power is really an important part of transforming communities.”
While Maryland isn’t on the forefront of criminal justice reform, it isn’t lagging behind either- since 2007, Marylanders who have completed their entire sentence (including parole and extended supervision) can vote, and even those on paper received suffrage in 2015.
Maryland also boasts re-entry homes that guide ex-convicts back into their old lives.
An employee from the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation said that re-entry services are crucial.
“[They] lower crime rate, they help convicts pay victims restitution,” says the employee. The services can also help the families of those incarcerated, since re-entry programs help inmates support their families.
Both Montgomery County Pre-Release Center and Our House have a large focus on helping inmates to realize what traits led to them committing crimes, and changing these traits.
An employee at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center said there were many times where inmates would come in after dropping out of high school and going to jail, but through hard work and perseverance, would pass a training program, earn their GED, and leave the Center– never to be arrested again.