Mass Incarceration is the New Slavery: Part 2- Why Should Women Care About Criminals?
Last week we discussed the implications of the drug war. The true consequences of being a convicted felon are more than being sentenced to prison for a period. The weight of criminal stigma will remain with a person their entire lifetime. Realizing this is crucial because if we do not understand the detriment of being a criminal in the United States, we will not understand the severity of mass incarceration, and the battle many Americans face today.
Aren’t people in prison bad?
Most people incarcerated are poor and 68% do not have a high school diploma (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). It is estimated 40% of all crime is attributed to poverty, and 80% of all people in prison are low-income (Who Pays?, 2015). This does not mean people who go to prison are stupid, it means they are uneducated and likely unaware of broader issues in this country. For a person who does not have a way to get a job, they may be easily influenced by a local gang to get involved in drug manufacturing, distribution, trafficking, or use.
Take Erma Faye Stewart as an example. She was 1 of 27 people arrested in a large drug bust in Hearne, Texas. She was arrested based on a witness’ statement who was later deemed unreliable, but Stewart was still not released (Alexander, M., 2012). Instead she was assigned a public defender and jailed with a $70,000 bond despite no previous criminal convictions (Alexander, M., 2012). Stewart maintained her innocence, but after spending 30 days in jail away from her small children and being notified she would serve 5 to 99 years in prison for the offense, she took a plea bargain. She would serve 10 years of probation and pay a heavy fine (Alexander, M., 2012).
Had Stewart gone to prison the psychological side effects could have been detrimental. According to UCSC’s psyhocology director Craig Haney, “Prisons do not, in general, make people ‘crazy’.. for at least some people, prison can produce negative, long-lasting change” (Haney, C., 2001). Transitioning into prison life is difficult, and creates patterns of habit and thinking that make post-prison life bleak (Haney, 2001). Because prison is dangerous inmates become hyper-vigilant, distrusting, suspicious which can lead to distancing, alienation, and emotional flatness. Inmates become dependent on institutional structure and can become extremely uncomfortable with freedom when they are released, creating a cycle of recidivism.
Life as a Felon
For those who spend time in prison, there is a 67% chance they will be arrested within the next three years (BOJS, 2003). Part of this is due to stigma surrounding the word convict. Stigma, as defined by Erving Goffman in his classic book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity, is an attribute that discredits a person “from a whole and usual person to a tainted discounted one” (Goffman, E., 1963). People who belong to stigmatized groups (convicts, physically disabled people, immigrants) are likely to be devalued and experience social exclusion. Because of this discredit, people who have been to prison are considered less of a person, which effects their psychological well-being and physical health.
The heavy part of Stewart’s sentence is admitting guilt to felony charges, which of course, labeled her a felon for life. She lost access to public resources such as food stamps, financial aid for college, and public housing. Stewart and her small children became homeless.
This is common for felons across the country. Once you are convicted of felony charges, your life will never be the same. You have to tell all prospective employers about it, and they can legally refuse to hire you because of that history, which is no surprise because 67% people are unemployed or underemployed five years after their release from prison (Who Pays, 2015). You can be denied assistance from the food stamp program (Who Pays, 2015). Ten states can prevent a felon from voting ever again and 20 states bar convicts from voting until incarceration, parole and probation sentences are complete. The federal government can deny convicts financial aid for college (Federal Student Aid). Landlords can refuse to rent to you causing 79% of felons to be denied housing and if you are fortunate to afford a mortgage, the bank can give you a higher interest rate (Who Pays, 2015).
Once a person becomes a convicted felon, you cannot get better. You are disenfranchised. You are stuck, forever a criminal. All this because they were too poor to afford a good attorney. Because they were poor, did not understand the severity of the situation, and had limited options their life will never be the same.
If they did something wrong why should I care?
Most people make illegal mistakes in their lives and can explain it away. They were young, going through a hard time in life, or rebelling, and themselves the benefit of change. They were not arrested for their momentary lapse of good behavior and were not permanently labeled a bad person, so they were able to correct their behavior.
Think about the last time you did something illegal. Maybe you smoked marijuana once. According to a study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 24.6 million Americans smoked marijuana in the last month, and nearly half of the population has tried it in their lifetime (NIDA, 2015). Maybe you took something from Target without paying for it. More than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting in the last 10 years according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. Should you go to prison and be labeled a criminal forever?
No. You should not.
We have to change this revolving door of slavery. We have to care about the people society throws away.
Expand employment options and prevent refusal on the grounds of felony conviction. Stop blanket denials for government services such as housing, food, and student aid, and grant anti-discriminatory protection to convicts. STOP VOTING YES TO TOUGH ON CRIME LAWS. Advocate for drug rehabilitation programs instead of prison time.
Stop mass incarceration now.
Be mindful. Stay woke.
Alexander, M. (2012) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness.
Bureau of Justice Statistics (2003). Special Report. Accessed: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=814
Erma Faye Stewart and Regina Kelly. PBS. (2014). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/plea/four/stewart.html
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. (2015). Who Pays? Accessed: http://ellabakercenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/who-pays.pdf
Federal Student Aid. Accessed: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/eligibility/criminal-convictions#incarcerated
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity.
Haney, C. . (2001). University of California, Santa Cruz FROM PRISON TO HOME: THE EFFECT OF INCARCERATION AND REENTRY ON CHILDREN, FAMILIES, AND COMMUNITIES. The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment
NIDA. (2015, June 25). Nationwide Trends. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/nationwide-trends on 2017, July 20