Human Rights

Want to Help the Economy? Stop Throwing Workers Into the Maw of the Prison-Industrial Complex

The taxpayer and the drug user have become odd bedfellows, with the former losing its wealth and the latter its liberty.

In a time of economic turmoil, America must draw upon every resource at its disposal to overcome the challenges posed by a deepening recession.

Yet the economic stimulus plan put forth by President Barack Obama in an effort to create millions of new jobs will effectively discriminate in hiring a growing minority of millions of American citizens: convicted felons.

It is time that we as a nation strip this scarlet letter of shame from the breasts of those Americans who have paid their onerous debt to society and allow them to re-enter the workforce and help the country move forward again into prosperity. Continuing our failed rehabilitation policies can only create a permanent underclass.

In ancient empires, in Rome and in early America, even slaves and indentured servants could earn their freedom by displays of loyalty and meritorious conduct. What must felons do to shake off the encumbrances of a criminal record that technology assures will stain their lives beyond death?

America’s economy groans under the weight of a bloated prison system holding the largest population of incarcerated people in the world, having recently stolen this dubious distinction from the infamous gulags of Russia. The United States releases over half a million Americans a year from prison.

With a recidivism rate hovering at 70 percent, the American taxpayer is shoveling cash through a revolving cell door that has proved an abject failure in rehabilitating criminals and a stunning success in producing men and women who are no longer able to find employment. With the heavy millstone of a prior conviction hanging round their necks, most felons find themselves plunging back into a life of crime, and taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab for this failed policy.

Most newly released felons served time for convictions of nonviolent, drug-related offenses. It has long been considered a truism among drug-policy experts that the prosecution of America’s once vaunted "war on drugs" has been an abysmal failure. With drug purity attaining ever-higher levels, and drug prices dropping to new lows, the wide availability and quality of illicit narcotics is ample proof that this ill-conceived war has only benefited two groups -- drug cartels and the prison industry.

The taxpayer and the drug user have become odd economic bedfellows in this conflict, with government and the private prison industry stripping the former of its wealth and the latter its liberty. The drug cartels operate as the third point of this insidious iron triangle, profiting on the misery of those suffering from addictions,  often the most vulnerable in society -- the poor and the disenfranchised.

A drug user who is a convicted felon and unable to find employment becomes locked into this triangle; the prisons have failed to rehabilitate, and the government has failed to stem the tide of drugs that washes daily onto our shores. But the cartels never fail to keep our cities and towns awash in drugs, and unlike most American employers, the cartels are always hiring.

It is understandable that little sympathy exists for the plight of ex-convicts during a time of economic hardship. But it is precisely because of the current economic crisis that America must act to restore labor rights to felons who have earned them through exemplary conduct, but who continue to be discriminated against by employers (most notably, including the federal government, which encourages rehabilitation and then denies employment to the rehabilitated).

Reforming the policies that govern how we treat felons in the workplace should reflect our dire economic circumstances; bluntly put, it’s cheaper to hire a felon than it is to incarcerate him for crimes he is statistically more prone to commit if refused employment and relegated to the status of a third-class citizen.

In a country that lavishes freedoms on most of its citizens, and whose culture cherishes the power of redemption, we resign millions of people into perpetual poverty for mistakes many have made 15 to 25 years ago. For too many Americans today, the youthful indiscretions of their past will forever close the door on the American dream in the future.

A continuation of these failed policies will create an ever-burgeoning subset of our society that no longer identifies with the ideals and possibilities of our democracy.

As shocking as it may sound, many felons hold college degrees that would allow them to make a valuable contribution to society. Most felons don’t leave prison plotting their next crimes, but have languished for years in the hope of redeeming themselves through their own good work. Unfortunately, these hopes are all too often dashed by people who can’t see the immense potential the felon sees in himself, but can see only his past.

It is time to reshape our public policy to reflect the shared ideals of compassion, tolerance and redemption that are enshrined in our Constitution, that sprang from the minds of our forefathers and that still inhabit the hearts of all American citizens.

Wesley Kendall is adjunct professor of law and economics at Harris Stowe University.
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