Many Men and Women Often Still Feel Behind Bars After Being Released

A former convict and his lady applied for an apartment. The building manager told the couple that even though the male had a stable job, he also had a record. The rental company would turn down the application. His advice to the couple, take the male co-renter’s name off the application and re-submit under the name of only the female occupant.

This is one of many challenges formerly incarcerated men and women must face according to Reuben Jonathan Miller, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service and author of “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration.”

Miller’s book is based on research from three studies and 250 interviews he conducted over 10 years. Sixty percent of those interviewed were Black, 20 percent were White, and 20 percent were Latino. Principal cities for the research were Chicago, Detroit and New York.

“One in two Americans have a loved one who has been to jail or prison, but it is not something we talk about,” said Miller.

In his book, Miller says 19.6 million Americans live with a felony record. Almost all lived in dire poverty before they were incarcerated. They usually go back to the same environment upon release. Black men and women are ranked high in the statistics, but all races are impacted. There are those who have the opinion that Black people in this country have been incarcerated since brought to America.

“We’ve been wrestling with confinement since we got here,” said Miller. “We’ve also been wrestling with the labels of violence, crime, and criminal since we got here. It relates to hesitancy to reform the criminal justice system and it relates to the way we view prison now.”

The Odds Are Against Us

Why are so many people incarcerated? Miller shared an astonishing statistic that 95 percent of court cases are resolved with a plea deal. Eighty percent of those incarcerated qualify as indigent for the purposes of legal defense.

“This rules the relationship between incarceration and things that people do. We never get to the truth of what happens,” continued Miller. “There is an agreement between the person accused of a crime and the prosecutor so we can’t know if that person locked up is actually locked up for the crime, we say they committed. That is not to say people don’t commit crime. We just don’t know what most people did.”

Once a man or woman serves time, there is an asterisk next to his or her name showing a criminal record. The range of denials include securing a job, finding a place to live, establishing voting rights, and accessing court-required drug treatment. There are 45,000 federal and state laws that regulate the lives of men and woman who have been accused according to the research Miller shares.

“These are decisions that our policymakers have made that lock people’s criminal records,” said Miller. “They are already excluded from the political economy and culture.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed an executive action restoring civil rights for felons upon release from prison.

He Knows the Path

Miller is intimately connected to what his study covers. In addition to being a professor, he is a former chaplain at Cook County Jail in Chicago. Another qualifier is his father was incarcerated as were two of his brothers. In his book, Miller writes about the stress of trying to make a call to his incarcerated brother. He shared that when sending money to his brother, all the money was not getting to his brother. How did Miller, who was in the foster care system, avoid the same fate as his father and brother?

“I escaped the attention of those who could do me harm. I escaped the attention of the police in my neighborhood. Teachers did not kick me out of the classroom too often. Adults made places for me. Maybe I looked different than my brother,” said Miller.
That building manager who helped the couple with their apartment lease was a rare, a sympathetic individual, Miller noted.

“When you make it, your wellbeing is based on the whim of somebody else,” he said. “This is the insidiousness of it all.”

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