Reclamation Part 2: Redefining Redemption

Forgiveness is an unfortunately difficult and arduous process, requiring both reflection and deliberate actions. Often times, however, if we ourselves do not have emotional stake involved, conscious forgiveness is not considered. Rather, we yield apathy or spout contempt for a situation we think we understand, without having been a part of it. How often do we find ourselves ordering condemnation of politicians, actors and actresses, and the radical, as if we are the final arbiters of morality? The same dichotomy – claiming to be evangelical messengers of grace and liberty, while callously stripping humans of their lives and well-being – has become just as ingrained in the public conscious regarding criminal justice as bars on cells.

"In the land of opportunity, one mustn't look far to realize this opportunity is not extended far beyond those who are considered unworthy."

Each generation, more progressive than the last, pioneers and champions a new movement for equal rights and social justice. However, every time we launch forward, the same group of people are left behind to drown in the wake – prisoners. For all of the monumental progress our country has made in equity and inclusivism, in order to maintain the dependency our culture has developed on the myth of meritocracy, we cannot expand these rights to all people. While it may no longer be socially acceptable to be culturally and institutionally exclusive of people solely on the grounds of race and sex, exclusion, now in the form of merit and individualism, must continue to exist, lest we abandon our dedication to maintaining the “social order.” How do we go about redefining redemption?

In the land of opportunity, one mustn't look far to realize this opportunity is not extended far beyond those who are considered unworthy. Within this caste of individuals, convicted felons are viewed as amongst the most untouchable, incapable of any redemptive action. Many, evoking their own morality, would consider this a harsh narrative – that the life that awaits a released criminal lies in his or her own autonomy – re-offending is solely rooted in the reality he or she chose for him or herself. Don’t do the time if you can’t do the crime, as it were. However, an evaluation of the extrinsic variables would offer an opposing concept. According to the Department of Justice, the average felony sentence to incarceration length was three years in 2006. This statistic is significant because it shows that incarceration is not actually consuming the majority of time for most felons, as well as that many will be released with a significant amount of life left to traverse. With so much time, what is behind the high rates of recidivism and suicide? The answer can be found within our institutionalized condemnation.

We have made life deliberately hard for released convicts. Beyond losing rights such as voting, the two largest institutional barriers are employment and housing, both of which deserve dedicated analysis. It may come as no surprise that it is nearly impossible for felons, particularly felons convicted of violent crimes, to find any meaningful employment, often because they are cited as liabilities or poor for company appearance. If one opposes the notion that recidivism is purely of one’s own autonomy, what would he or she offer in response to this obstacle? Perhaps he or she would suggest a minimum-wage job is good enough. A simple assessment of housing may offer a convincing counterargument. While many know felons are ineligible for public housing, government assistance, and loans, many fail to consider the full picture of low-wage, unskilled jobs, the cost of existing, and a conviction – a death sentence. . According to the 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness,

“The majority of persons leaving prison have no savings, limited educational attainment and literacy skills, few or no job prospects, and no access to immediate unemployment benefits (Petersilia, 2000). Among those released from prison who are employed, the majority work in unskilled and low-wage jobs that are inadequate for meeting high housing costs, particularly in the urban areas where most prisoners live upon release (Western, 2002). Even among those exiting incarceration who do have skills and experience that would render them employable, having a criminal history poses a substantial barrier to employment, a barrier that is particularly daunting when accompanied by racial discrimination (Pager, 2003). Furthermore, employment opportunities become more restricted when criminal backgrounds, particularly a history of a felony conviction, bar people from being employed in a number of sectors.”

For the convicted, the ability to acquire any employment or housing is nearly impossible. We have determined this, American citizens at a purposefully implemented disadvantage, as fair – nothing that merit can truly overcome. As the same report sated,

"Many areas, especially urban areas, are witnessing increasingly tight rental markets, with limited numbers of units available for low-income households, particularly in neighborhoods accessible by public transportation. In such a market, individuals with criminal records are at a distinct disadvantage, having to compete with families and others who do not have criminal records and are thus deemed to be more desirable tenants.”

" the case of the convicted, the quantifiable payment of years of a prison term is but a facade."

As self-designated arbiters, we determine what is permissible, as well as what reparations must be paid for the impermissible. Ideally, once these societal debts have been paid, all is forgiven. However, in the case of the convicted, the quantifiable payment of years of a prison term is but a facade.

The true debt lies in the reality of a lifetime deprived acceptable human treatment. If convicted of a felony, individuals risk losing basic constitutional rights such as voting, as well as becoming ineligible for public housing and social benefits such as food stamps, federal and state grants, and nearly all others. This level of deprivation, coupled with near-impossibility of being able to acquire meaningful or substantive employment, yields a reality in which humans are subject to the denial of basic human rights and perpetuated suffering. Is it therefore surprising that felons have a 77% recidivism rate within a five-year period? Imagine if you, dear reader, were arrested and convicted of a violent felony. You spend up to the next quarter of your life paying your court-ordered debt to society. Upon your release, you quickly find you are unable acquire meaningful or long-term employment until some minimum-wage employer takes pity on you, under strict conditions. Without any state nor federal aid, as well as exclusion from public housing, you quickly realize you will not be able to afford quality housing, food, or other necessities. Stuck alienated from society, a job with questionable longevity, and deprived of anything meaningful or positive, what options are you left with?

"We must redefine redemption as something all are inherently capable of achieving, and all inherently deserving of."

Though we are a culture which preaches forgiveness and grace, our failure and inability to recognize redemption within all individuals has bread a culture of indifference. Our contempt for human life has yielded the world’s largest incarcerated population, a staggeringly high suicide rate, (which is still climbing) and an ability to view the convicted as humans, without the possibility of redemption. A paradigm shift is desperately needed, one wherein the rights and liberties of the convicted are universally restored. One where the mental health of prisoners is seriously addressed. One where we shift away from punishment back to corrections and forgiveness. The transition of convicted individuals back into society must be reassessed and redesigned. We must redefine redemption as something all are inherently capable of achieving, and all inherently deserving of.

“Reclamation” is a multi-part series which examines methods and concepts to illustrate and emphasize the forgotten and ignored perspectives of the individuals in the correctional system, as well examine methods of positive and meaningful change