1. Life after Incarceration: Maintaining Employment as a Practical Challenge Facing Returning Citizens
PJR Vol. 9, Issue 4, 2019, The Returning Citizen: A Public Justice Perspective on Reintegrating the Formerly Incarcerated
Denise Strothers Denise Strothers is a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) candidate at Howard University School of Divinity. With a concentration in Church & Community, Denise’s project centers on the sexualexploitation of women and children, and how the Church can speak up on their behalf. Denise also serves as the national director of operations for Healing Communities, a non-profit prison reentry organization. Healing Communities challenges congregations to become Stations of Hope — communities that assist returning citizens in connecting to their faith, and provide them with political understanding and advocacy. She coordinates a Station of Hope in the Washington, DC area.
Kerwin Webb serves as the editor of Public Justice Review, CPJ’s primary theological journal. Kerwin is a 2019 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree.
“If you do the crime, you must do the time”– or so goes the saying. This rationale exemplifies the cause-and-effect thinking of many in our society today. And while this thinking is not wrong, it is incomplete. Many people think that the cycle of crime and punishment follows a linear pattern of conviction, incarceration, and release. What this understanding fails to take into account is the fact that even after incarceration, a conviction, and the stigma associated with it, lingers long after a person is released.
Undoubtedly, there are many examples of people released from prison who are able to easily and successfully reintegrate into society. Whether it is attributed to financial means, relational connections, or other external factors, it is possible for some formerly incarcerated individuals to experience an easier transition back into society. For many, however, the transition is far from simple.
It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the racial and socioeconomic dynamics that cause the prison population to have the demographic makeup that it does. This article intends to highlight just one example of a person’s conviction hindering them from becoming a fully reintegrated returning citizen. In actuality, the term returning citizen is a misnomer, because many formerly incarcerated individuals are never accepted back into society as full citizens. Just a few benefits of citizenship that are withheld from people with convictions are access to federal funding for education, public housing and, in some cases, the right to vote. In addition to these barriers, gainful and sustained employment is hard to come by. Many employers require applicants to check a box to indicate whether or not they have been convicted of a crime. While the disclaimer states that checking the box will not automatically disqualify the applicant, it is inconceivable that a conviction does not limit an applicant’s chances at securing the job. As a way to help make the transition easier, some states and municipalities have passed ban the box legislation. Ban the Box legislation refers to removing the question from job applications that asks candidates about their criminal history.
Beyond this, formerly incarcerated individuals are often subject to random visits from parole/probation officers (PO) to ensure compliance with the terms of release. And while this is a reasonable condition of release, some parole/probation officers are unreasonable in their exercise of authority over individuals. The following example from Pastor Denise Strothers will provide a case in point.
Parole as a Barrier to Reentry: A Case Study
Editor’s note: This example is an anonymized anecdote from a faith community to demonstrate how a returning citizen’s employment situation played out.
We were ecstatic to welcome home our first returning citizen, Kay. As a new Healing Communities Station of Hope in the Washington, DC area, the members of Impact DMV, our local congregation, rallied around her with exclamations of praise and hearts full of true forgiveness. Even with all the acceptance, support and love from her family and church community, Kay’s biggest challenge was maintaining employment. She had been successful in getting interviews and even received a couple of job offers. We all were overjoyed when Kay was hired for the position of program manager at a local establishment. Unfortunately, this story would not have a happy ending. Despite Kay’s hard work, determination, and commitment to a new life, keeping her job proved to be a traumatic and ultimately devastating experience.
After her release, Kay decided that she would tell the truth about her recent incarceration to potential employers. She hoped that they would see her willingness to be transparent as a sign ofher integrity, and that she was deserving of a second chance. After several weeks of getting back into the routine of working a job again, Kay’s parole officer came by her place of employment for a surprise visit. When the receptionist asked for his name to inform Kay that she had a visitor, the parole officer disclosed the true nature of his visit.
Instead of being discreet about the purpose of his visit, the parole officer made it known that Kay was out on parole and that he was there for a court-mandated visit. Within minutes, everyone in the office knew that the newly hired program manager had been incarcerated. Kay was fired the next day, as her employer felt that her newly revealed secret caused her to lose the respect of her team and it would be best for her to move on.
The preceding example is just one of what are many in which society stigmatizes the formerly incarcerated. In Kay’s case, she was offered a job and on track to succeed. However, the actions of her parole officer undermined this.
The sad reality is that even after returning citizens have paid their debt to society, there are major barriers preventing them from having opportunities for a better life. Gainful employment is not only a necessity for survival, it is also often a condition of parole. Individuals who cannot find employment after incarceration are subject to fines, penalties, and arrest for failure to comply with parole restrictions.
Not only are some conditions of parole a legal catch-22, this is economically and morally bad for our country, argue Jamie Dimon and Arne Duncan. According to a 2018 article in the Chicago Tribune, JPMorgan Chase and Co. CEO Jamie Dimon and former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argue that it is in our country’s best interest to hire returning citizens. They note that 6 million jobs remain unfulfilled in the United States and that it is possible to “create meaningful career opportunities for ex-offenders and tackle a hiring challenge for businesses too.” They point to partnerships between businesses, non-profits, and civic organizations as a way to help answer the challenges of returning citizens and businesses’ current labor shortages.
How Christians Can Think About This with a Public Justice Perspective
The Center for Public Justice (CPJ) has articulated guidelines for government and citizenship that illustrate how CPJ’s vision of public life addresses the task of government and how it applies to key policy areas. A public justice framework understands the limits, role, and place of government, leaving room for other civil society organizations like churches and other faithbased institutions to assist as well.
The CPJ’s guideline that is most relevant in the context of returning citizens is that of economic justice. As part of successful reentry, a returning citizen should be recognized for their many talents and capabilities that will enable them to thrive. Oppression and forced marginalization that come from the label “convict” destroys opportunity and inhibits flourishing. Kay and others like her who are not afforded the opportunity to thrive through meaningful work because of a prior conviction are deprived of economic justice after incarceration.
Human beings are created in the image of God with many talents and capabilities that, with maturation and development, make possible the exercise of a wide range of responsibilities — in personal relationships, families, economic enterprises, schools, churches, the media, non-profit organizations, politics, and government.
How can Christians work to ensure that all applicants, regardless of previous history, are treated with dignity and respect? Is it possible for individuals and organizations to look beyond one’s faults to see their new possibilities? Do our Christian convictions call us to engage in this field of service to aid returning citizens?
Taking our cue from the ministry of Jesus Christ, Christians are called to see the value and possibility of restoration in all people. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read of the story of Saul of Tarsus who was a persecutor of Christians. As the story unfolds, Saul has an encounter on the road to Damascus and is blinded. Afterwards, he is converted, and with this his name changes to Paul. He then becomes one of the most ardent supporters of Christianity and helps spread the Christian message to various parts of the world. In Romans 3:23 the Apostle Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” With this in mind, it is imperative that we do not treat those who are formerly incarcerated as though they are less than any other person. This includes in the areas of education, employment, and social benefits.
The pervasive nature of mass incarceration in America, both in terms of financial and human costs, has produced a network of uncommon allies. In Congress, members from both political parties are advocating and working toward changes in the criminal justice system, albeit for different reasons. Some are demanding changes because of the costs. Others are demanding changes because of the inequities in the system. Still, others demand changes because of the conditions of America’s prisons. While their rationales may differ, this environment provides a tremendous opportunity for concerned citizens to become engaged in the process. With the high number of incarcerated people in the country and the reality that society will need to absorb them back into the community once their debt to society is paid, it is prudent to begin developing a framework to streamline the process and ease the burden on the returning citizen and the community as well. Returning citizens will need to be connected to programs offered by government agencies, non-profit organizations, and other concerned entities such as personal development skills, job training and placement skills, as well as health and wellness resources.
A public justice perspective encourages organizations to partner with local faith-based communities, the business sector, and municipal governments to create opportunities for returning citizens. Two organizations that do this well are Healing Communities USA and FWD.us.
Healing Communities is a framework for a distinct form of ministry for men and women returning from or at risk of incarceration, their families and the larger community. HealingCommunities challenges congregations to become Stations of Hope for those persons affected by the criminal justice system.
FWD.us is a bipartisan political organization that believes America’s families, communities, and economy thrive when more individuals are able to achieve their full potential. For too long, our broken immigration and criminal justice systems have locked too many people out from the American dream. The founders and supporters of FWD.us believe that America's criminal justice system undermines the promise of who we can and should be. As such, the organization has three main goals surrounding the issue of Criminal Justice: 1) Safely reduce incarceration, 2) Reduce the number of impacted people, and 3) Support families.
Healing Communities USA and FWD.us are just two among a number of organizations that are doing the difficult work of advocating for criminal justice reform and supporting families of the incarcerated. Along with this type of work, more work is needed to support those who are returning from incarceration. In addition to economic justice, CPJ’s guidelines for governments also include guidelines on education, family, and human life. Employing these guidelines to returning citizens will help us all to honor the image of God (the Imago Dei) in every person, regardless of prior circumstances. By doing this, we believe that we can arrive at a more equitable and just society that helps to bring about flourishing to God’s people, while at the same time, solve some of the challenges that businesses face when it comes to labor shortages. A public justice perspective helps Christians see that successful reintegration of returning citizens is good, not only for the formerly incarcerated, but also for a positive Christian witness and the flourishing of our nation.
To respond to the author of this article please email PJR@cpjustice.org. The articles in the Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.