I spent 13 years in Arizona’s punishment system. Though I completed all of the terms of my sentence and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D., I remain unable to fully contribute to or participate in society. I have struggled to find employment, housing, I am unable to vote and I live under the constant threat of social rejection, all of which impacts my two children. The reality is that the impact of a conviction history cannot be neutralized — at least not without amending our collective moral imagination that equates justice with punishment.
In 2014, more than 2.3 million people were held in US jails and prisons. The National Employment Law Project estimated that 70 million American adults have an arrest or criminal record. Contact with the criminal legal system has lifelong and intergenerational health and financial consequences for partners, children and neighbors of formerly incarcerated/convicted people. With 5.85 million Americans ineligible to vote due to a felony record the United States model of supervision, punishment and control have produced an entire underclass of people.
At the center of our adversarial justice system is the moral claim that there are “worthy” and “unworthy” people. However, the consequence of such social classifications is that people are reduced to an abstraction, which bleeds into the social imaginary and impacts the way returning community members are received (or not) post-incarceration.
Transitioning back into the world is difficult; there are the demands of supervision including fines, court-mandated counseling and community service. These are anticipated, but what is impossible to prepare for is social banishment. One man’s story illustrates this challenge.
Lyle Daychild is from the Hualapai reservation in Northern Arizona. As a 16-year-old child, Lyle was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement in a fight that resulted in another person’s death. He was released in 1997 and has spent the last two decades cycling in and out of the system.
At the time of our conversation, Lyle was preparing to graduate with his bachelors degree in social work from Arizona State University. He talked about his professional aspirations, which were tempered by the barriers he faces in securing employment. He said,
[People] don’t know how humiliating and demeaning that little box [on job applications] is, and how you’re viewed once you check that box. Not too long ago, I was fired from a job because I didn’t put down the homicide I was involved in at the age of 15. I wanted to make it; I was working hard to be successful on the outside. I walked to work every day, I was getting there on time and doing my job well. One day my supervisor called me in, and I knew what it was, I thought I was gonna get a chance to explain and they were like ‘Nah, you never put it down so you gotta go.’ The bottom line is that I was embarrassed to put things down, but what alternative did I have? So there I was again, in the same defeated position. When I got paid, I was like ‘fuck it … just drink. I can’t get a job.’ I don’t want that life, but you’re labeled forever. There has to be some type of reprieve. There has to be.
In part, Lyle’s story demonstrates the weight of stigmatized labels such as “ex-con,” “ex-offender” and “felon.” And it also reveals how people who have been through the criminal legal system are constructed as inherently “bad.” These supercharged labels have the effect of setting people up for a lifetime of social, economic and political exclusion.
Placing people in positions of permanent precarity does not increase public safety, nor does it translate into justice. People and communities that lack — or only have provisional access to — life-giving resources such as food, housing, education, employment and health care are vulnerable. Policy and informal social exclusions reproduce vulnerability, making life untenable for people like Lyle, which in turn increases the probability of going back into the
As people with conviction histories, we live as outsiders in our communities and as subordinated citizens in society — and we constitute a significant portion of the public. According to the Sentencing Project, “As many as one in three Americans have some type of criminal record.” The effect of a record extends to the entire family, limiting earning ability and overall stability. Recent data compiled by the Center for American Progress estimates that up to “36.5 million children in the United States — nearly half of U.S. children — now have at least one parent with a criminal record.” Our criminal legal policies and social practices set people, families and communities up for a lifetime of incapacitation.
Moving away from a punishment-as-justice paradigm requires diverse approaches that include changing the social/political discourse, systematically attacking persistent racial disparities, and penal and social policy reforms that do not expand the reach and power of the punishment system. However, statutory and paradigmatic changes will be impossible without a sustained people’s movement.
Transformative shifts require an informed and empowered community that is motivated by justice. Thus, to modify the structure, power and flow of resources, we need to work toward cultivating caring communities by fostering connectedness, and (re)humanizing both the harmed and the person who harmed — because both are our neighbors.
The immediate goal is not merely accomplishing a set of reforms; it is creating a more just nation that embraces complexity, redemption, compassion, love and hope.