Released From Prison ­≠ Freedom

No one grows up wanting to spend their lives in a prison cell. Nevertheless, the United States prison system holds 2.3 million people within its walls, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s entire incarcerated population. Approximately 5.85 Americans are barred from voting due to criminal records. Millions of previously incarcerated individuals experience homelessness and poverty because they cannot find work. 

Which Rights Are Lost? 

When prisoners are released from prison, they are supposedly “free.” However, that “freedom” comes with many strings attached. Their rights often depend on the circumstances revolving around the instance, including the crime, severity, and location. The rights that can be potentially stripped include voting, traveling abroad, the right to bear arms or own guns, jury service, employment, public benefits and housing, and parental benefits.

The loss of all or some of the rights mentioned above, many previously incarcerated individuals find it challenging to find employment due to their criminal records.  Those who do manage to find work, the majority make well below the median wage. 

In an interview with NPR, Dominique Morgan discusses the issues with prison labor. Morgan addresses how he worked for a company, Oriental Trading, making tablecloths. When he was released from prison, he went to Oriental Trading to apply for the same job he had while incarcerated. Oriental Trading told Morgan that the application was denied because they didn’t hire individuals with criminal records. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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If prison is about rehabilitation, why are previously incarcerated persons thrown out on the street with such limited options?

Criminal Record = No Voting In Some States

In most states, prisoners are barred from voting until sentences are completed; they’re barred for a lifetime in some states. Only in Maine and Vermont are currently incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals given their right to vote. 

It’s first essential to realize crime is subjective and secondly understand that whether incarcerated individuals are criminals or not, they still make up “the people” of the United States. 

Incarceration And Income Level

The Brookings Institute conducted a study of incarcerated individuals. It surveyed their income levels 2 years before prison and a year after. 55.1 % of individuals made no income 2 years before prison. 44.5 % of individuals made zero income a year after incarceration, and 35.7% of individuals made $1-$15,000 their first year of releasement.

Brookings’ findings point out an issue with the cycle of poverty and prison, but it also shows that there isn’t much rehabilitation taking place. The United States Social Security Administration reports the 2019 median wage as 34,248.45.

(If you’re wondering why I don’t use the average, it’s because when you take an average of wages ranging from zero to billions, the outliers skew the result. However, we can assume that since most people fall in the middle class, we can take the middlemost wage (the median wage) and assume most people earn something near this amount.) 

Photo by Adrián Macías on Unsplash

With 80.2% of previously incarcerated individuals making below minimum wage, previously incarcerated individuals and their families are more likely to succumb to the hardships of poverty– homelessness, starvation, malnutrition, etc. 

Due to the likely hood of poverty, recidivism rates increase. Brookings states that “Boys who grew up in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution were 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born in top ten percent of families.”  Which means when incarcerated individuals raise families in poverty, their children are more likely to wind up in jail. 

The data shows, “Almost one in ten children born to families in the bottom 10 percent were therefore incarcerated at age 30.” Incarceration haunts not only the individuals but their families and those who rely on them as well.



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