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We Wear a Scarlet Letter

Prison has a terrible stigma attached to it. Whether you are an inmate, a former inmate, or the person who loves an inmate, you wear a scarlet letter. Finding work, keeping a job, having a place to live, and even maintaining social connections with family and friends are all struggles inmates and their loved ones face.

Recently I read a book called Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. It chronicles the true history of the drug war in our country and illustrates the tremendous toll it has taken on societies worldwide. While I’ve never used drugs (in fact, I have never even smoked a cigarette), that doesn’t mean I haven’t been impacted by drug use and addiction. I grew up in an alcoholic home and have friends and family members through the years who struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. Some are still struggling. Chasing the Scream gives an eye-opening look at a topic I’d still never spent much time focusing on even though I’d been personally affected by addiction.

Surprisingly, addiction it turns out has little to do with the chemicals themselves. Addicts are often drawn to the social sense of belonging in addition to the need to feel good about themselves, even if it’s only for a short high. Addicts crave having social connections in a world that they otherwise don’t feel a part of. Maybe childhood trauma or a catastrophic event in adulthood has led them to feel isolated from the rest of society, but they find comfort in being with people who understand who they are.

This made me think about the message I try to portray in my latest book, Guilty Hearts. Eleven families and couples who are living with an incarceration are spotlighted in my new work.

The same phenomena that drives drug addicts to continue to use is directly tied to the causes of high recidivism (re-offense) by American ex-felons. Why is it that inmates can’t seem to stay out of trouble once they are released?

A lot hinges on how we as a society treat anyone who has been to prison. If upon release an ex-felon is unable to find a job, housing, or a way to receive job training and education; if friends and family have turned their backs on the former inmate, what does he or she have to be good for? Prison culture is cruel and dangerous, but friendships and social ties are made within prison walls. If the only way former inmates can feel a sense of belonging is to go back to prison, just like the addict, they will do whatever it takes to return to prison. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Crime will occur–and you, me, or anyone else could be the victim.

The movers and shakers inside the prison culture are automatically at a disadvantage when they are released. They were “somebody” within the prison. Re-entry into normal society will be difficult, especially when society at this point has disenfranchised ex-felons from ever living a normal life. A good friend of mine compared it to “a big frog in a small pond becomes a small frog in a big pond.” But it’s worse than that: The pond doesn’t even want them to be a part of it at all. Prison is the only place they can exist and feel welcome.

What about the inmate who wasn’t powerful in prison? Why would they choose to re-offend? They may have been a nobody in prison, but at least they belonged to the inmate population. In the outside world, they are a nobody in a world where no one wants to claim them as a member. Going back to prison a second, third, or fourth time literally only makes the draw of prison stronger. By becoming a repeat offender, they gain credibility as a criminal in prison.

If we want the revolving doors of our prisons to stop swinging, our country must stop the life-long disenfranchisement of former inmates. Reinstate voting rights. Allow them to get decent paying jobs. Don’t ban them from housing. Give them the opportunity to get financial aid for continued education. How on earth is someone supposed to get a fresh start in life, an opportunity to become a productive member of our society, if they are ground into the gutter by the heels of society?

The number one indicator of whether or not an inmate will re-offend is whether or not they have a strong positive family and friend network upon release. I know because the Department of Corrections teaches employees that during training. I was one of those employees. Governor Eric Greitens has said we must improve as a state the way inmate family relations are handled, and he is absolutely right. You, your children, and your grandchildren are all safer when former inmates have someone to be good for instead of being treated as a social outcast.

One of the hardest parts about having a “prison” relationship is the social stigma that comes with it. The loved ones of inmates are considered tainted. We must be defective if we love someone who made mistakes. So much shame is attached to incarceration that inmates are dehumanized, and those of us who love inmates are degraded in the eyes of many as well. Many people try to kill a relationship someone has with an inmate. That is the worst thing that could happen if we want to keep crime rates low. Every time an inmate relationship is broken, it increases the odds that the inmate will commit crime upon release.

I am not advocating that crime is okay or that all inmates are warm and fuzzy poster children. They aren’t. Most are broken, violent, and at best misguided. Humanity on all ends of the spectrum can be found inside a prison, but most have serious social issues that need to be corrected. I’m not saying prisons shouldn’t exist or that we should throw the doors open. Crime does deserve punishment. There are ways, however, that we as a country can focus on rehabilitation, focus on strengthening positive social ties for inmates, and focus on making it less likely that men and women will commit more crimes in the future.

The answer isn’t to ostracize them even more. Helping them transition back into normal society is the key. At present, we treat every ex-felon as if they have a life sentence instead of accepting that they have paid their debt to society. Don’t make them wear that scarlet letter for the rest of their lives.

 

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