Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hidden in not-so-plain sight

     Who goes to prison in our country and who goes free? Do we help integrate released prisoners back into society... or do we force them to spend the rest of their lives paying their debt?

   These were the hefty human questions considered at yesterday's “Bars, Barriers, or Justice?” expo and conference, held at the C. A. Melton Arts and Education Center in West Chester, PA. My husband Bob and I represented Amnesty International Group 342, accompanied by Ron Coburn, Bidisha, and Elzat from the AIUSA Philadelphia Group.

    I had the privilege of speaking on the morning panel with Patrick Hall of Campaign to Defeat the New Jim Crow and T.L. (short for Talila Lewis) from HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf)  
 And here’s a photo of the organizer of the day’s events, Bill Lockard of Deaf CAN!  

    OK, so you’ve probably read the statistics on incarceration. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Since the 1970’s, the US prison population has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million, and African-Americans and Latinos account for 58% of that total, although they make up only 25% of the general population. In addition, while White Americans use 5 times the amount of the drugs, African-Americans are sent to prison for drug-related offenses at 10 times the rate. 

    The highly acclaimed book The New Jim Crow by historian Michelle Alexander will give you a lot more information on the pipeline flowing from depressed, predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods to America's prisons and on the plight of felons who serve their time yet are never allowed to start over with a clean slate. They can never again vote...their status makes finding employment next to impossible...they are denied access to public housing and food stamps... and they leave prison with a mountain of debt for “room and board” as well as legal and administrative fees.  In other words, their sentences just go on and on.

       I also learned yesterday about the horrendous situation of a substratum of our bloated prison population: prisoners with disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Many are wrongfully charged with offenses because they cannot explain themselves adequately to law enforcement agents or cannot respond to orders due to their difficulty in communicating. Once convicted and imprisoned, they are cut off from their families, as TTY phone service is largely unavailable.  Many receive penalties –including time in solitary confinement (a.k.a. “the hole”)--  for violations that are not intentional but happen because of their disability.  For instance, failure to appear for roll call in the morning because they don’t hear the bell.

    Here’s actress Marlee Matlin counseling deaf persons on how best to respond if stopped by police on the highway:

     Members of RSOL (Reforming Sex Offender Laws) informed us about the excessively punitive regulations targeting sex offenders. While the vast majority never commit a second offense, they face lifelong unemployment and other hardships because of their status as “registrants,” with no hope of ever expunging their names from the list.

    Other organizations with educational tables at the event:
    We also heard from the mother of one of 6 inmates who peacefully protested a beating spree by guards only to be charged with rioting:  Justice for the Dallas 6 (That's Dallas, PA.). Then there was the heartbreaking story of the mother of a young woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, although she committed the act in self-defense: Free Charmain Campaign   AND    

   Attendees were cordially invited to do time sitting in a replica of "the hole." Just about the scariest Halloween Day prank I can think of.

   What I find most disturbing is that, as a nation, we have bought into the callous philosophy that it's OK just to throw human beings away. Toss them into the dumpster and forget about them. While we constantly assert that ours is a Christian society, we reject the Master’s teaching that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Lk 15:7).  Priding ourselves on being just and law-abiding, we really resemble those reproved by Jesus for “load[ing] people down with burdens they can hardly carry," while we "will not lift one finger to help them” (Lk 11:46). The  released prisoner is also our neighbor...but we don’t want him (or her) in our backyard. 

     The representative from The Pennsylvania Prison Society (founded by Benjamin Franklin and other Enlightenment humanitarians) shed a ray of light and hope on the discussion, reminding us that the tide is turning. Both Democratic and Republican legislators are beginning to coalesce around the issue of criminal justice reform. She urged us to track and support proposed legislation, such as PA Senate Bill 166, sponsored by Senator Stewart Greanleaf. If enacted, this law
would allow individuals who have served a sentence for nonviolent third and second degree misdemeanors to petition the court for expungement of their criminal records after at least seven years without a new offense.
“A low-level misdemeanor in one’s past is often a barrier when seeking employment, long after they have completed their sentence,” said Senator Greenleaf. “A number of states are expanding their expungement laws to reduce the period during which a minor criminal record can punish people.”
This legislation is expected to help counter high rates of recidivism, relieve an overburdened pardon system, and provide more opportunities for ex-offenders to join the workforce.
    However, as someone once said, no one ever lost an election by claiming to be tough on crime.  Concerned citizens must also oppose legislation that heaps more financial burdens on those incarcerated, such as PA House Bill 1089 entitled "In sentencing, further providing for collection of restitution, reparation, fees, costs, fines and penalties."  This proposed law would allow for the confiscation of money from a prisoner's trust fund to pay for fees and other items.

     Finally be sure to watch the VICE special report,  Fixing the System too. We watched it last evening. Because we just can't get enough of this stuff :-)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for working on this Barb. This is a major issue of our time. Reminds me of our foreign policy: what works better, to make individuals and nations hate and fear us, or to engage them in cooperative enterprises? We end up creating what we fear.


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