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Exile on Main Street

Instead of a ladder, we have built a higher wall to keep the poor out of the middle class.

As mass incarceration grows, so too does the vast system of what are called "collateral consequences," which follow those convicted of felonies for the rest of their lives and brand them as permanent outcasts. (Image: Alone outside via Shutterstock)

With additional reporting by Lakshmi Gopal

For Five Mualimm-ak, it came as a surprise when a prison guard announced he would not be getting breakfast that morning. For 2,054 days, he had been sitting in solitary confinement, where he had been sent for a long series of nonviolent violations of prison rules. He had been spending his days in complete isolation and sensory deprivation, counting the bricks in the walls and watching insects make their way across the floors. Suddenly, that morning in 2010, the news came that after several of his convictions were overturned: He would be released on time served for illegal possession of a firearm.

The guards escorted Five to the gate at New York’s Upstate Correctional Center, near the Canadian border, uncuffed him, gave him $40 in cash and a ticket to New York City, and told him to get on the bus and go. Nine hours later, he was standing in the bustling Port Authority Bus Terminal. The crowds of people were a blur, the noise unbearable. He leaned against the wall, then slumped in a heap to the floor. A homeless man walked by. “Are you OK” he asked. Then, sizing up the situation, he added, “Oh. You just got out.”

Five’s freedom didn’t last long that time. Escorted to the hospital by police, he missed his first parole appointment and soon found himself back in prison. In 2012, when he was released again, he was more prepared. But things were only marginally easier.

In New York, Five found that a place to live was an impossible thing to obtain for a returning felon: Public housing was off-limits by statute, and private housing was unavailable to him because of a lack of employment and cash. But when he tried to find work, he had to check off a box saying he was a felon, and jobs mysteriously dematerialized. On some days, Five had an afternoon appointment with his parole officer, or one of the endless tangle of agencies for public assistance, so he couldn’t get in line early enough to score one of the limited number of homeless shelter beds. On those nights, he slept on the street.

Five was afraid to look up friends who had been inside, because felons cannot be caught associating with other felons. For the same reason, he often felt afraid to even go outside. “If you go to the corner store,” Five said, “You don’t know who is there. Because of the community, it’s highly likely one or more will be felons. Cops make a routine check, find you are a felon in the same store as another felon, and send you back to jail.”

Five was learning quickly that he was not a free man, but a felon – a label that never goes away. He was not actually living in the free world, but in a kind of internal exile, banished from fully rejoining civil, economic and human society.

Instead of a ladder, we have built a higher wall to keep the poor out of the middle class.

Just over 50 years ago, when Bobby Kennedy was attorney general, he brought together a group of people who shaped what would become Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the first serious effort to confront widespread poverty in the United States since the New Deal. At its heart was the idea that if you gave the poor a modicum of support and opportunity, you could give them a leg up into middle-class society and eventually do away with the nation’s permanent underclass. In addition to Medicare, Medicaid and Food Stamps, there were education programs, notably Head Start, employment programs like Job Corps and VISTA, and legal support through Neighborhood Legal Services.

Over the ensuing years, most of this would be knocked down through a combination of aggressive right-wing attacks and neoliberal accommodations. Instead of a ladder, we have built a higher wall to keep the poor out of the middle class. Nothing has contributed more to the building of this wall than the growth of mass incarceration and with it a vast system of what are called “collateral consequences,” which follow those convicted of felonies for the rest of their lives, and brand them as permanent outcasts.

While these exclusions vary and change, the numbers remain fairly consistent. Recently, the American Bar Association, under a contract from the National Institute of Justice, completed a detailed investigation of the residual effects of incarceration and published its findings as the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction.

As for education within prison, the demise of federal Pell grants for the incarcerated, lack of teachers and the inadequate nature of the job training mean that few people emerge from prison with usable skills.

According to the ABA study, every state in the union bars people with criminal records from various jobs, skilled and unskilled, professional and nonprofessional. The state with the largest number of exclusions is California, where anyone having served time for a felony is not eligible for a job as a school janitor, marriage or family counselor, or tow truck driver, among many other jobs. In Wyoming, ex-felons cannot be a certified animal euthanasia technician, physical therapist, midwife, correctional officer, dentist, dental hygienist, teacher, or professional geologist. In Florida, they cannot get a pilot’s, cosmetology or funeral director’s license. Texas bars them from being railroad commissioners, air conditioning/refrigeration technicians, licensed engineers or dentists; and Maryland forbids them serving as driver’s ed instructors, employees of nursing facilities, private nurses, acupuncturists, and physical therapists – and the lists go on.

Higher education is, of course, key to getting a job in many areas. But many universities require people convicted of felonies to check a box on their applications, which is a clear barrier to admissions. As for education within prison, the demise of federal Pell grants for the incarcerated, lack of teachers and the inadequate nature of the job training mean that few people emerge from prison with usable skills.

According to a 2013 Rand study, “Research, for example, shows that ex-offenders, on average, are less educated than the general population: 37 percent of individuals in state prisons had attained less than a high school education in 2004, compared with 19 percent of the general U.S. population, age 16 and over … 14.4 percent of state prison inmates had at least some postsecondary education, compared with 51 percent of the general U.S. adult population. Moreover, literacy levels for the prison population also tend to be lower than that of the general U.S. population”

The study continues, “This lower level of educational attainment represents a significant challenge for ex-offenders returning to local communities, because it impedes their ability to find employment. A lack of vocational skills and a steady history of employment also have an impact, with research showing that incarceration impacts unemployment and earnings in a number of ways, including higher unemployment rates for ex-offenders and lower hourly wages when they are employed. “

Obtaining a job or an education when you are homeless is a daunting proposition. Yet In New York State alone, 30 percent to 50 percent of parolees in urban areas – 7,000 to 12,000 individuals – are homeless. The Second Chance Act of 2004 (a “House bill”), pending in the United States House of Representatives, states that “from 15 percent to 27 percent of prisoners expect to go to homeless shelters upon release from prison.”

“Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life, which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.”

Public housing presents another hurdle for recently freed people convicted of crimes. Anyone is likely to find it hard to get public housing with any sort of criminal history involving drugs. In some places, people who live with people previously convicted of drug offenses also are refused public housing. In most states the decision whether to provide public housing or not is in the hands of the local housing authority. And 27 housing authorities surveyed make decisions about eligibility for public housing based on arrests that never led to a conviction; 23 do not.

In Connecticut, for example: There is also cause for eviction from public housing when someone is associated with someone arrested for a drug-related offense.

Many ex-felons are further hampered in their attempts to reenter society because they can’t vote and hence are denied normal entrance into normal society.

“Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life, which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.”

All states are affected by Felony Disenfranchisement except for Maine and Vermont. See the link below for a table that shows the spectrum of disenfranchisement from no restrictions to 12 states that continue disenfranchisement post-sentence (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming).

For people convicted of a sex offense, the barriers to reentering civil society are even more profuse and insurmountable. Galen Baughman had been a 19-year-old college student and aspiring opera singer when he was sent to prison for kissing a boy of 14, with whom he was in a relationship. After he had served nine years, the state of Virginia tried to subject him to continued “civil commitment” on the grounds that he was still a danger to society.

He beat back that attempt in court, only to find himself in another sort of perpetual exile, as one of the 800,000 Americans on the sex offense registry.

Galen Baughman’s “freedom” came when he was taken to the door of his Virginia prison and handed a check for $25. He had no bank account, so it was waste paper. Then he was escorted to the parole office, where an ankle bracelet was attached. Finally, Galen’s family arrived to bring him home. In short order, he had a firsthand experience of what life after prison would be like for him. His two dogs slipped their leashes and ran off. Two teenage boys grabbed them and returned the dogs to Galen. He wanted to thank them but was prevented by the law from speaking to them.

As a person convicted of a sex crime, Baughman has found it impossible to complete his college degree because of the difficulty of crossing state lines. Now in his 30s, he lives with his mother. He must get his parole officer’s permission to travel to other states and must apply for and obtain permission to be allowed to go to the UK for the wedding of his sister, who is in the Air Force there.

The hundreds of thousands of people on sex offender registries are more or less under government surveillance and supervision for the rest of their lives. There is no real federal registry, but rather a collection of state registries that fulfill that function. These people are publically marked for anyone to see. The registries include names of children convicted of sex offenses, although there are court challenges to the practice of including minors on a sex registry forever.

These registries essentially create their own form of banishment. If you are on the registry, your possibility of obtaining a job is nearly nil. Same with housing. People convicted of sex crimes most often end up living with their families. They often are blocked from crossing state lines without explicit permission of their parole officers. They cannot go near a school to pick up their own children or enter parks and other designated public spaces. In Virginia, they are barred from swimming in a public pool and must go to private gyms. Their car registrations are tied to the registry.

A few hundred of these people have been placed in civil commitment, based largely on the word of state psychologists. They can be imprisoned for life, not because of actual crimes but because the judge, usually strongly influenced by the shrinks, is convinced they might carry out another offense. There is no charge, no trial, and for most, no way to appeal.

Galen Baughman and Five Mualimm-ak have both survived, and even found a kind of community, by devoting themselves to reforming the very criminal justice system that has placed them in internal exile. Galen got a job in Washington, DC, with CURE, which works for prison reform and the rights of the previously incarcerated, and eventually rose to become the group’s director of communications. He is a fellow at the Center for Sexual Justice, which fights for LGBT issues, and of Just Leadership USA, which promotes leadership in former prisoners. This year, he is a Soros Justice Fellow.

Five, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has finally been able to get public assistance due to his psychological disability. He has devoted himself to prison reform in New York, especially to ending the use of long-term solitary confinement, and has met with both the mayor and the governor. He speaks at schools and houses of worship. Excluded from the larger society, he has created his own, founding a group called Incarcerated Nation, in which former prisoners help others newly released from prison.

Galen and Five’s struggle to reenter normal society did not end with prison. They have become lifelong struggles to overcome the banishment that follows their every move. It is government surveillance beyond anything imaginable under the NSA and the Patriot Act. It exists beyond any constitutional restraints. Ex-felons find themselves in limbo, marked forever as criminals by the legal system and kept in its labyrinth of judicial rigamarole, reminiscent of Kafka.

Still they struggle to live as free men: Five clamors within the complex rules of the New York state legal system to find a home, to locate medical care that will replace his broken knees, to care for his children; Galen, caught by the sex registry, had his promising career as an opera singer stopped.

For them freedom remains a distant world

This article was written with the support of a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

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