“You think it’s all over. You think that after they’ve been released from prison, after they’ve served their time, after they’ve paid their debt to society, it’s over. I tell you, it’s not! It’s not!” The words of a mother, as we chatted this week about her son's former incarceration.
To underscore her position, when I arrived in the office following our meeting, Matt was on the phone with an ex-offender who was begging for our help. He explained that he had been released three years ago, and his brother graciously offered to let him sleep on the couch until he found a place to live. Sadly, he’s still sleeping on the couch. He’s on Michigan’s sex offender registry and, even though he has the means and can afford the rent, he cannot find a place to live.
That was exactly the point of the prisoner’s mom. “They can’t find a place to live, they can’t get a job…it just keeps right on following them.”
In recent weeks I have chatted with two delightful elderly black guys, for whom I held prison doors open when they stepped into freedom last year. Both had served nearly 40 years behind bars, but made the best of their lives while there. Both were determined to become productive citizens upon their release.
Mr. J, who had been a geriatric care giver for years while in prison, wanted to continue that kind of work on the outside and got a nice job in an adult assisted living facility. That is, until a routine background check revealed his prison record. He was instantly fired. State regulations do not allow convicted felons to care for seniors in licensed facilities.
Mr. B, who continued his education at every opportunity behind bars, stayed on that path after he was released. While gaining further accreditation, he became a substance abuse counselor for a reputable agency. That is, until one of the clients recognized him, and quickly explained to the others around him, “He and I served time together.” That kind of reputation was too much for the agency. He was instantly fired.
It’s easy to point fingers. Blame the heartless Department of Corrections, blame the stupid and terribly unfair Michigan Sex Offender Registry, blame biased and opinionated managers who insist that ex-offenders are a risk, and, of course, blame the ex-offender. If he/she hadn’t committed the crime in the first place, he/she wouldn’t be facing this dilemma.
Those who have read my book SWEET FREEDOM are aware of the challenges we faced finding a place to live for Maurice Carter. He was in the final stages of Hepatitis C, he was black, and he was a newly-freed prisoner. It was almost impossible to find a bed for him in this lily white area, even or especially among those claiming religious affiliation. Sorry. No room in the inn.
While some of our churches are finally coming to the realization that a position on immigration is important, we still find little interest in helping former prisoners. Yes, we’re glad to give them Bible lessons during their incarceration, but we’re really not all that excited about having ex-offenders in our churches, our homes or heaven forbid, our businesses..
I call it THE SECOND PRISON. These men and women are released from a locked facility behind barbed wire, into a society where their chances are marginal. It’s simply another prison, this one much more subtle. No visible bars or wire fences.
I’m sorry. The buck stops here. The blame goes back to you and me.
May God give us the compassion and the courage to do something about it.