Orange jumpsuits, body ink and handcuffs. These symbols used to consume my stereotyped image of felons: bad people who do bad things.
For the past two years, I have worked in an alternative to incarceration program in New Orleans, Louisiana. The goal of the program: to reduce recidivism, and ultimately keep people out of jail. All the participants have felony charges. All have violated their probation or parole requirements.
All have shown me a deeper look into the people behind the felony.
When I first decided I wanted to apply my social work degree to the field of criminal justice, most people thought I was crazy. The reaction typically included one of two questions: “Why would you want to work with such a depressing population?” and “won’t you be scared?”
I would just smile back in eager excitement: “I cannot wait.”
Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders.
The national average is less than half.
This year, I had the opportunity to work in a rehabilitation program for people on probation and parole. The Day Reporting Center’s goal: to reduce recidivism. Its graduate success rate over a five-year span: 86 percent remaining out of jail.
All clients are felons.
The word felony rolls with a foul reputation. Instead of being associated with a person’s crime, it becomes an unforgivable identity. People with felony charges are felons – bad people who do bad things.
Prisons stand in society as the places where bad people go. But what does bad mean exactly?
According to a 2010 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the U.S. prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.
Our big, bad, scary felons ——
What kinds of crimes make these offenders’ actions so unforgivable that we put them behind bars, remove their rights to vote and throw them back onto the streets post-incarceration with a few dollars and nowhere to go?
– the felons – have committed mostly nonviolent crimes. They are addicts, victims of mental health and products of unsupportive, broken homes.
—— is a problem throughout the United States, but I … Louisiana,
Yesterday, I watched as 16 Day Reporting Center clients received certificates of completion for displaying hard work and dedication to this rehabilitation program.
I waved goodbye, as … I came close to tears when several of the men and women hugged me goodbye and thanked me for everything I have done to change their lives. “I love you all so much,” one client said to me. “Thank you for this opportunity.” He received his diploma then made a point to detour through the audience before returning to his seat to hug and thank each DRC staff member and intern.
As a result of increased prison sentences and the elimination of parole for some criminals, the Federal Bureau of Prisons population has grown by approximately 11,000 inmates per year since the early 1990s (Summerill, 2002). In fact, between 1980 and 2005 alone, the number of federal and state prisoners grew by over 350 percent in the United States, from 319, 598 to 1,446,269 inmates (Gupta, Schmitt & Warner, 2010).
But, there are policies behind the sentences, and
Many drugs are against the law – yes. But, many of these illegal drugs …Not to meantion
Much of this increase can be traced back to the “three strikes” bills adopted by many states in the 1990s. The laws require state courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. The felonies can include relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting.
Why are American incarceration rates so high by international standards, and why have they increased so much during the last three decades? The simplest explanation would be that the rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime. But according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the total number of violent crimes was only about 3 percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the violent crime rate was much lower: 19 per 1,000 people in 2008 vs. 49.4 in 1980. Meanwhile, the BJS data shows that the total number of property crimes dropped to 134.7 per 1,000 people in 2008 from 496.1 in 1980. The growth in the prison population mainly reflects changes in the correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and for how long.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s played an important role. According to the CEPR study, nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Much of this increase can be traced back to the “three strikes” bills adopted by many states in the 1990s. The laws require state courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. The felonies can include relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting.
Felons have committed crimes, but this label should not define their identity. These are people…who have felony charges for participating in illegal behavior. They also read poetry, attend church, excel in art and raise children.
I spent eight full and vibrant months trying to teach these individuals about anger management, resume writing and new cultures. But, they have taught me too. They have told me about life on the streets, addictions and what unsupportive family backgrounds can do to a person’s self-esteem. But, they also showed me about
humanized the word felon.
They have taught me that : ……Every day I laugh over …. Some of their stories make me sad. But, more than anything, they make me happy. While each individual carries his or her own unique story, I know that every day I will walk in to a building full of vibrant personalities. These individuals are not afraid to say it how it is, tell me how they feel or draw attention to uncomfortable scenarios.
I have seen more places than many of them. I have traveled the world. But, they have seen more of another world than I likely ever will. They have witnessed murder, been victims to violence, suffered addictions and been cuffed by discrimination.
I would be a fool to consider myself an expert after only eight months of working with people on probation and parole, but I know a lot more than I did nine months ago. And I know enough to have knowledge to share.
When I search the word “felony” on Google, I find that the charge is a crime, typically one involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor, and usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death.
Felons – those individuals who commit felonies – do not typically have a positive reputation among society. We see them as the “bad guys,” or people who should be in prison for doing bad things. Many fear felons.
I admit that …
According to the Bureau of Justice, drug-related crimes are violations of laws prohibiting or regulating the possession, distribution, or manufacture of illegal drugs.
“Serious drug offense”
So, here we have a 25-year-old woman in an orange inmate suit, walking the New Orleans jail house because she was caught one too many times holding onto marijuana. And I wonder, how is she so different than the ….at Tulane….How is she so different than those of us who had friends and still have friends who enjoy smoking weed once in a while…