The Prisoner Brand Problem

With 2.3 million people in American prisons today, it’s time to normalize the criminal record.

Many of us already know the galling facts: The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country on earth. If current trends continue, one in three black men born today can expect to be imprisoned during their lifetimes, according to the NAACP. And once in prison, the vicious cycle begins: in some cities or states incarceration makes it nearly impossible to find a job upon release, meaning that 50 percent or more of those people who are imprisoned and let out end up right back where they started: behind bars. The massive $70 billion U.S. corrections system, it seems, fails even to correct.

As the Department of Justice holds “National Reentry Week” April 24 – 30, it’s important to look at the root causes of recidivism. The problems are many and complex. The corrections system usually doesn’t provide educational or skills-based learning to prisoners, meaning that upon release, they are no better off than they were upon entry.

But it goes deeper than skills alone. Ex-prisoners have a brand problem. Employers often shy from hiring the formerly incarcerated due to the sigma attached to prison. However, with 2.3 million people in American prisons today, it’s time to normalize the criminal record. Most of these incarcerated people will ultimately reenter society. It is vital to support them upon release to reduce crime overall, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety.

“Employment is the most direct way to reduce the recidivism rate,” says Anthony “Tony” Lowery, Director of Policy & Advocacy at Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based group dedicated to helping ex-inmates find jobs. The connection between work and crime, he says, isn’t really all that complicated. When someone is arrested and imprisoned, they are removed from productive society and given little to no access to job training. Then, upon release, prison is stigmatized, making it difficult to find work that pays a living wage.

Participants in the Safer Foundation’s jobs program are 30-50 percent less likely to recommit crimes and get arrested again. The program’s services are in high demand from former inmates.

During Columbia University’s Dinkins’ Forum this year, Former Philadelphia Mayor and SIPA professor Michael Nutter said his city began holding massive job fairs solely for ex-inmates, or as he calls them: “returning citizens.” More than 3,000 returning citizens showed up for the initial job fair, many of them walking away with jobs on the spot, he said. Some understand that they’re getting a second chance, he said—and so become some of the best, hard-working employees.

“If you’ve never really worked…possibly didn’t graduate from high school, previous criminal record, bad group that you hang out with—you spend some quality time with us 6 months, 11 months, whatever the time is, and then you’re released with no ID, no job, no skills, no economic opportunity, same bad neighborhood you came from. Why would we think anything different would happen in that scenario?” Nutter asked.

And that’s a good question. If someone receives no help from society and no aid from the corrections system, how can we expect better outcomes? Particularly, what Nutter is referring to requires an understanding of the humanity behind the crime. A drug dealer isn’t just a drug dealer. He or she may also be a parent, student, or someone living in poverty. It’s a stark reframing of prisoners from wrongdoers to potentially productive members of society.

Small steps, such as rebranding “ex-cons” or “felons” as “returning citizens” go a long way toward normalizing an unfortunate experience or mistake. The words we use matter. Initiatives like Ban the Box bar employers from asking about a criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. Last week’s historic announcement that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe would restore voting rights to felons matters a great deal—it acknowledges that the formerly incarcerated are, indeed, citizens with rights. Policies must go a step further, helping Americans realize that this problem is so widespread that they encounter returning citizens every day—on the subway, on the street, in the Laundromat or coffee shop—without even knowing it. And they are often no less safe for doing so.

“We somehow reduce people to perhaps their worst act or their mistake, and that becomes the defining measure of their humanity,” said Nicholas Turner, President of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York City-based research organization dedicated to making justice systems fairer at the Dinkins Forum. “I think that we have very little appreciation for what I’ll call human dignity.”

A belief in human dignity may be the most important driver in creating the best policies to help the formerly incarcerated find work and stop the revolving door of recidivism. As Attorney General Loretta Lynch said: “We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

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