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Ex-offenders: America's Untouchables

Ex-offenders: America’s Untouchables

While I was researching another topic, I came across this eye opener. Ex–offenders are the untouchables of our American society. You have completed your sentence, but you are forever branded a felon. This American caste is not only defined by the loss of the right to vote and the right to serve on a jury, but this caste is chained to a lower economic status– unemployable. Kathleen Murray in her blog, “Out and Employed,” describes the many obstacles facing the millions of Americans who are part of this caste. The idea for this thought provoking blog arose while listening to a radio interview with Michelle Alexander.

Out and Employed

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, attorney and former Supreme Court clerk.  She was being interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More program about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste.  We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know.  But this particular term  is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately.  An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a while back put it even more bluntly:

“I think we as humans need an untouchable class.  Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that your branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Alexander argues that blacks are still disproportionately represented in this new lower caste, hence the link  to notorious Jim Crow laws.  She backs up her assertions with plenty of statistics, including:

  • The War on Drugs, which caused the prison explosion has been primarily waged in poor neighborhoods of color. Yes, drugs are there, she says, but they’re also in white suburban neighborhoods, as well.  But despite this, in some states 80 to 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison are African Americans.
  • If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

I would agree with Alexander to a point.  Certainly more African Americans are affected by the criminal justice system.  But the caste system she’s referring to also impacts a substantial number of low income, under-educated whites.  The groups I teach in Northern Virginia have never had an African American majority.  But it’s a good bet that the most of these students, whatever their race, are usually from a lower rung on the class ladder, which guarantees them poorer legal representation and less access to some of the “breaks” often afforded higher class lawbreakers.

That said, I think Alexander and the people I’ve spoken to are right when they say that felons are the new untouchables.  As Alexander points out, offenders are:

“…trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind…..are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Note:  Alexander and others who advocate for criminal justice reform aren’t saying that those who break the law don’t deserve to be punished.  But it’s a question of scale.  Right now having a criminal record punishes all offenders in perpetuity, often regardless of the circumstances of the individual crime.   Employers who routinely screen out anyone with a record, for example, effectively treat a felony as a scarlet letter.

Alexander thinks nothing short of a social movement will change this situation.  In ex-offender forums I often hear people talking about getting groups together and going to Washington, D.C., but so far there’s been no significant organized action.

How about you?  Do you think offenders are the new lower caste?  If so, what do you think it will take to change this?

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13 Responses to Ex-offenders: America’s Untouchables

  1. Shelly Stow November 12, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    Basically agree; there is one point that wants correcting simply for accuracy’s sake. In many states, once a sentence is served, even for a sexual offense, voting rights are restored. Each state is different. I know there are one or two that provide the venue for voting while in prison, and on the other end of the spectrum, a few do not allow it for anyone with a criminal record, but for most, voting is restored once the sentence is completed. I don’t know about jury service; still have research to do on that.

    • PrisonPath November 12, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

      Hi Shelly,

      You are correct. If you check our info-graphs regarding felon’s voting rights in our home page slider, the graphs shows that the right to vote varies from state to state. However in many states as graphed, you cannot vote until you complete parole and/or probation which can last many years depending upon the sentence.

  2. Javan Higgins November 13, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    One of the things that is incredible about this observation is that it is just being made. Ask any formerly incarcerated person and you will find a story or two about not being able to find employment, not to mention meaningful employment in most communities.The discussion has to shift to why, and whats to be done about it. Does the population need to organise, boycott, or litigate. Does there need to be an executive order restoring the vote in federal elections, or does the public need to scream about ineffective correctional programming and the waste of taxpayer dollars? The problem is as multi-layered as it is insidious. It is disingenious to imply thats it’s a new finding instead of one whos time is past due to confront. Hopefully, discussing it will expand and expose the discourse.

    • PrisonPath November 13, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      Hi Javan,

      That is one of the interesting points of the article. For many, they do not realize or care about the many problems facing ex-offenders. I am also hopeful that more recognition and discussion of the plight of America’s untouchables will lead to short term and long term solutions. You made a very good point–the problems are multi-layered.

  3. liz&larry November 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Yes…agreed on all points…Plus…I applied for help from S.S.I. to care for my wife and her mental illness after she came home…they say I make too much money on my retirement and turned us down…said I should be happy to care for her…well, yes I am…but what happened to all that money I paid into the system for years so other people could get help?

  4. William Jennings November 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    I agree with your assertions. I believe the caste system is alive and well and has become the new way to hold back a huge segment of the population.

    One area of particular concern to me are statutes which prohibit any person with a criminal conviction from participating as a candidate in an election.

    This trend of statutes prohibiting ex-offenders from elections is a good indicator of the breadth of convictions in the U.S.

    If large sections of the population were not ex-offenders then there would be no need for such statutes. If that same population was not rising to a position of power, there would be no need for such statutes. Further, the trend is a danger to the nation. When a political rival who has the power to indict, prosecute and convict also has the exclusive right to choose who may be put in a position of such authority the entire political system becomes imperiled.

    More ex-offenders have become educated, which poses a threat to those who have erroneously or over-zealously convicted others.

    The Williamson County, Texas Michael Morton case is a great example of what allegedly occurs.

    To cure the problem there needs to be an organized effort to first afford those who are ex-offenders an equal right to participate in elections.

    Second, but most important, I think the spiral of silence needs to be broken. To many people hide in the shadows because they are an ex-offender. This is the base of the problem. There are countless success stories about ex-offenders who are successful. If the stigma is removed, the power over the person disappears.

    • PrisonPath November 26, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

      Hi William,

      Your response to the article is very interesting. I had not thought about that aspect of the post conviction syndrome. An individual who has completed his sentence should not be barred from running for office. If the voters do not want that person to win because of his past conviction, then the voters have the choice not to vote for him or her.

  5. PrisonPath March 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    By Matt–I can only speak from my experience, as an ex-offender of almost 23 years, along with my experience in working with other ex-offenders. My felony shows up on a credit check, as well as other databases. I can Google myself, and there I am–showing that with the internet, no one has any secrets. Time does not matter. Not all felonies are created equal. Those who have felonies for drug convictions, may have an easier time being accepted back into society, than those who are labeled as, “sexual predators.” The reality is, each of us, needs an advocate: someone with credibility, who can speak to our progress, and to the naysayers. I used to think that with the passing of time; the longer one does not re-offend, the more credible one becomes. There is still a prevailing attitude out there, that all those who have committed sexual offenses, will eventually, re-offend. It is just a question of if they will re-offend. It is a question of time. (When) With that perspective, it is challenging to hold one’s head-up, while people point and whisper. I work with other ex-offenders, who have probation and parole officers, who lay out almost impossible conditions to be met, and then shout with glee, when they come to arrest, for the slightest infraction. There is little forgiveness, and few second chances. I am primarily speaking about those with sexual offenses.

  6. PrisonPath March 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    By Angie–Your story has touched my heart! I agree that people seem to pick and choose which felon they want to be associated with. Your story teaches not to be bias and treat everyone in a kind manner. I look forward to hearing more from you and how we can get others to see the importance of forgiveness!

  7. Angela Fravel May 10, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    I am a 33 yr old married woman with three daughters, I am also an “ex-offender”, and currently serving out my last 5 months on Adult probation..I had worked in nursing as a Certified Nursing Assistant for 13 yrs as we’ll as during those 13 yrs completed an education in Information Technology as well as Forensic Science Crime Scene Investigations.. Charged on January 14, 2011 and releases into work release, February 28, 2012..and since I had lost my employment June 25, 2013 due to company downsize I have not been successful at finding employment that will hire me..not even an office/industrial cleaning business for said factors due to my background check.. I had been recieving unemployment benefits till exhaustion about a month ago and now my loose my home of 10 yrs that we have worked so very hard for.. For what it’s is, YES I am hindered by my past mistake that I have paid my debt for already..an will continue to until something/someone makes a change..with that being said so will ALL “ex offender” and our economy will continue to deteriorate because of such discriminations..

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