By Richard Gilliam (Richard Gilliam is a writer currently serving time in a California prison.)
The term “penitentiary” is derived directly from the word penitence. A person who has been confined to the penitentiary for a period prescribed by the courts (who represent the will of the people) has, theoretically, performed the expiation required of him by society. That individual should then be able to rejoin society as an equal member; though with the knowledge that his actions will be scrutinized more closely for a time sufficient to demonstrate to the community that he has re-integrated into society successfully. This is called “parole.” But, those of us familiar with the modern criminal justice system know that our punishment does not end with the opening of the cell door.
One released from imprisonment, all men face discrimination and oppression at ever level: I will refer to the masculine gender because they as a group are affected more extensively than women are in the current discussion. I have long noted the hypocrisy inherent in this treatment of our fellow citizens, considering that our society was formed on, and a large portion claim to assert, Christian virtues. The concepts of sin, redemption, and forgiveness are firmly rooted in the Christian doctrine. Jesus himself commanded his followers to forgive: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11-24). But, at every turn after their release, those men who have suffered a criminal conviction face almost insurmountable obstacles erected by secular leaders who invariably profess piety, for the rest of their lives.
In many places there are laws denying formerly incarcerated individuals the opportunity to live in public housing (he may even be asked if he has ever been convicted of a felony on a standard rental application), to work in many specialized vocations, or to receive some public assistance. Every job application asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony? And if so, explain.” Answering this question in the affirmative usually condemns an application to the trash bin. Choosing to lie on an application is grounds for immediate dismissal. A proverbial catch-22.
Where is the forgiveness? John Stuart Mill, in his essays on liberty, opined that “society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” Meaning the punishment men face, even after release, is never-ending and ultimately defeating. This being the case, is it any wonder the recidivism rate for ex-felons in California is 65 percent? But there is hope, for Mill also said, “people decide according to their personal preferences.”
Many profess Christian morals in platitude, but those same people are hard-pressed to demonstrate the morals they claim to uphold. It is easy to say “I love my neighbor as I love myself;” it is a much different thing to happily lend him your car when his breaks down; or hire him for a job when he has suffered a conviction for some indiscretion, even though almost everybody is related to or knows somebody who has committed a similar offense.
One of the first renovations we as a society must make is to deinstitutionalize the discrimination of formerly convicted individuals. If we as a society do not allow them the opportunity to prosper, they simply will not. They will continue to be burdens to a society that gives them no other alternative. And we simply cannot afford it.