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From time to time, a letter makes its way to my desk because no one was sure where to send it. I want to share one that gives a glimpse into what our tough on crime policies really do to actual people.

Most of my personal and professional interest is on the policy end, looking at the big picture, seeing how systems work.

But sometimes, you just need to hear a personal story that exemplifies what's so tragic about our system, both for the motivation of why we seek policy changes, and to rebut some of the uglier talking points that float around. The 2.3 million people incarcerated, plus the millions more on probation or parole, plus the millions more with a criminal record, overwhelmingly want one thing: to live their post-sentence life treated just like any other citizen. That means voting rights, access to government support, permission to see friends and family, and help reintegrating into civilian society, particularly housing and employment.

I'm very opinionated when it comes to solutions. But today, I want the focus to be on someone else's voice. I just ask that you hear this handwritten letter and see what the vast majority of offenders are, people just like you and me, trying to make a life in our country.

Dear [let's say, Samantha]:

I am writing at the suggestion of my brother, [John], and my fraternity brother, [Tim]. I am currently incarcerated at the United States Bureau of Prisons [somewhere miles from my city]. There are a large number of [city] area residents here. Many of them are in need of assistance in obtaining employment.

I am particularly interested in assisting [Sarah], a 40-year old, who will be released to [a halfway house] this [soon]. [Sarah] has limited educational resources, but is a good person and, in a job within [his/her] capacity, will, in my opinion, be an excellent employee. What does [s/he] need to do in order to avail [him/herself] of your services?

Originally posted to washunate on Tue Jun 16, 2009 at 11:01 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tips for Second Chances (4+ / 0-)

    If nothing else moves you, these populations tend to vote disproportionately for Democrats :)

  •  the revolving door (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doodad

    Just one experience.  Your mileage may vary.

    I live across the street from a junkie.  She used to be my best friend, a long time ago.  No hard-luck life here - great parents and a good upbringing.

    She's been in and out for various offenses.  She's been in and out of rehab more times than my car's been through a carwash.  Everyone's tried to help her; for my pains, she burglarized my house.  

    There's not an employer on the planet I'd recommend her to, nor am I in favor of her getting her right to own a firearm back, or to vote, or to hang out with the people the court has forbidden her to.  She doesn't deserve any of those things, because she'll just head right back out and start over again.

    You speak of prisoners getting their rights back.  When do I get to come home and not have my first chore be to check and see if any of my windows have been smashed out?  

    •  Substance abuse is a disease (4+ / 0-)

      Addicts steal to support their need for expensive black market drugs. Treatment is the proper response, not incarceration. Those for whom treatment fails should have a source for drugs that does not involve stealing to get funds.

      There are a number of harm reduction strategies that are vastly preferable, cheaper, and more successful than our zero-tolerance punitive approach.

      "All that serves labor serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason. -Abraham Lincoln

      by happy camper on Tue Jun 16, 2009 at 12:39:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  she's been treated. Repeatedly. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AllisonInSeattle

        And she has said point blank she has no intention of stopping.   What do you do with someone like this?

        •  Well, what was the longest time she was in (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          arbiter, mieprowan

          treatment?

          I've heard it said that the 3-month, and perhaps even the 6-month programs have lousy track records because they're just not long enough to truly change behaviors.

          Especially if the person really isn't interested in the beginning, if the "buy-in" isn't there.

          I don't know the total answers, not my field. Hopefully someone else here could discuss what they believe an effective plan would be for someone like this, and how long it would take.

          I'm just saying from what I know, short programs have such a high failure rate, that relapse is to be expected. I'm saying that if someone's family pays for a short program, they might as well take their hopes and money, put it in a pile, and burn it.

          Your position sounds quite painful. Someone you knew, now in this position, even having to guard yourself against their actions.

          Be good to each other. It matters.

          by AllisonInSeattle on Wed Jun 17, 2009 at 12:41:21 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  recidividsm is a big problem (3+ / 0-)

      That's precisely why I support reintigration. Ex-offenders need employment, housing, transportation, family, friends; in other words, a sense of community, of belonging.

      We either engage people in civil society, or we create a separate class of citizens, those whose only marketable skills involve the commission of various crimes.

      As far as specific individuals, that should be done on a case by case basis. Not to be too crass, but which is more expensive, the vandalism on your house, or the cost of incarceration? The reason drug-related crimes are such a problem is because we lack universal health insurance and we fight a drug war.

      But even ignoring those policy issues, we have three options when dealing with criminals. We can execute them. We can lock them up forever. Or, we can release them back into society. Each has its costs.

      I would argue quite passionately that for the subset of criminals who fall under the final category (ie, those in position to be recidivists), full engagement within the community is an absolutely essential component.

      •  How're you getting this gal off drugs and (0+ / 0-)

        keeping her off? Do you know how to do that? I could not be asking more sincerely.

        Be good to each other. It matters.

        by AllisonInSeattle on Wed Jun 17, 2009 at 12:47:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  some addicts can't be 'cured' (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          AllisonInSeattle

          What they need is the medical system, not the criminal justice system. And not only is that better for them, that's better for society, as well.

          I'm not disputing at all that a small percentage of the population is basically rendered unfunctional by problems related to substance abuse. Given that reality, I would argue, the best approach is harms minimization, not incarceration.

          The alternative, really, should be euthenasia/execution. If we're not prepared to give them permanent, supportive treatment, and there's no hope of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system, then we've basically declared their life over; we've given up on them.

          •  Wow, the honesty in your last paragraph is (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            washunate

            breathtaking. You lay it on the line so we can look at our giving up on them for what it is.

            I wonder which comes first, the chicken/egg thought, do they give up on themselves first, or do we give up on them first?

            I know I had a foster child for 18 months who had absolutely given up on himself... before age 4. It was an extreme amount of work to bring him around, to care about himself and others, to have hope for himself. And this was with the size, power and wisdom advantage of being an adult with a child.

            I can't really imagine what type of dynamic would need to be created with an adult to create that turn-around.

            I have 20 more questions, such as, what is that medical support that they need? Do they need a free or reasonably priced source of drugs that make them high?

            Complicated, and I have a great deal of admiration for anyone who understands the intricacies of this.

            Be good to each other. It matters.

            by AllisonInSeattle on Wed Jun 17, 2009 at 10:51:31 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  personally (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              AllisonInSeattle

              I think we need a parallel residential treatment system to complement the prison system. There would be more degrees of voluntary vs involuntary confinement compared to the criminal justice system where you're either in or out, but I think there are some mental and physical health issues where it's in the best interest of both society and the individual to essentially isolate certain people. In practice, there are so many in the criminal justice system now who's problems really are mental health issues and substance abuse that the system has become a de facto mental healthcare system. For obvious reasons, that's not what it's designed to be.

              This really isn't that controversial once you think about how we do this in other areas, like dorm housing for college students or retirement communities and nursing homes for the elderly.

              What I would emphasize is that this would be for the rare, few, extreme cases. The vast majority of drug-related issues would be solved by ending the drug war and giving everyone access to healthcare based upon need, not ability to pay premiums. Most people who end up in a psych ward do so for a season, not for life. Most people on medication encounter their biggest hurdles getting the medication they need. Most people dealing with substance abuse issues run into problems in treatment due to the cost of continuing treatment for an extended period of time, not the efficacy of drug treatment itself. Most people who struggle with psychological/mental health difficulties would benefit greatly if they could just go see a therapist every week, regardless of the state of their bank account, employment, or insurance coverage. And so forth.

              That's my two cents, at least. We never stop to think of the cost when it comes to law enforcement, courts, and prisons. So why do we make cost an overriding factor when it comes to healthcare options that can actually help solve some of the root problems? It's really pretty infuriating for me. I know that kind of system is unsustainable (just look at state budgets recently), so in the long run, I'm confidant we'll establish a better system. It's just frustrating in the meantime that so much preventable suffering has to happen.

              And has to happen outside of the mainstream attention even among most of the Democratic party.

              •  Well said and thanks. Agreed, and much to (0+ / 0-)

                ponder.

                Michael Moore had a former British politician in the movie Sicko. The guy said, "At the end of the war, we decided to give our people health insurance. We couldn't very well make the case the money wasn't there... because when the war happened, we found the money for it."

                Indeed.

                I'll never forget that scene and his words.

                Be good to each other. It matters.

                by AllisonInSeattle on Thu Jun 18, 2009 at 08:10:21 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  My field is rehabilitative justice (4+ / 0-)

    I've long thought about, written to CongressCritters and Senators about establishing a Federal Criminal Records Sealing Program.  If a person were arrested and not charged, arrested, charged and the charges were dismissed, arrested for a non-violent offense, charged, and either pled guilty or were found guilty, the record would become eligible to be sealed after a period of time.  Perhaps 10 years for cases that resulted in a conviction.  Less for cases that were dismissed.  With the records sealed, only certain governmental agencies would be allowed to access it.

    Few people outside the criminal justice community understand how unbelievably burdensome having even the most innocuous of criminal histories.  It has a negative impact on every aspect of life; employment, housing, banking, education, professional qualification, family planning, immigration -- the list is damned near endless.

    We have, (and this is a community "we") in our zeal to pursue the War on Crime, been successful in at least one aspect:  We have created a semi-permanent underclass.  With no access to gainful employment, education, what is to stop these people from re-offending?  We have set them up for failure and then "we" whine about recidivism.  We have failed them, and damaged both procedural and substantive due process while we were at it.  

    I hear and read the story illustrated above several hundred times a week.  During the campaign, anytime there was an opportunity to submit a question to the candiate for a forum or a town hall meeting, my question was always about what can we do about this.  Needless to say, my questions were never chosen (rueful grin here!)  I guess it's not a sexy enough topic up against healthcare, LGBT issues and an imploding economy.

    Bless you washunate for bringing this topic up.  I hope a whole lot of people read this diary and rec it to skies.

    Our promises are made in proportion to our hopes, but kept in proportion to our fears.-LaRouchefoucauld

    by luvsathoroughbred on Tue Jun 16, 2009 at 12:20:20 PM PDT

    •  Semi-permanent underclass (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      washunate

      Through being a foster parent, I met my foster son's biological mother (in court) and her boyfriend.

      Through getting to know them the tiniest amount, a little light bulb turned on for me. They had a snowball's chance in hell of getting a job. Or of staying out of jail.

      Both had dings against their driver's licenses. In a semi-rural area, there are no buses. So you drive. So you get caught eventually, whoops, back to jail.

      So you get out, no job. So you do something stupid to get money. Which entails keeping same friends you rotated in and out of jail with the last time. And you drive. And you're in a sub-culture. I mean, we about needed a translator to just talk to each other.

      Meanwhile, the people in the courtrooms are earning their upper-middle-class incomes from managing all this tragedy.

      Be good to each other. It matters.

      by AllisonInSeattle on Wed Jun 17, 2009 at 12:46:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  thanks (0+ / 0-)

      Good luck on your end.

  •  Thanks for caring, and being in a position (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    washunate, mieprowan

    to help.

    Hope you write again on this topic.

    Be good to each other. It matters.

    by AllisonInSeattle on Wed Jun 17, 2009 at 12:34:17 AM PDT

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