By Michelle Logan
NOTE: The below story is the second in a series highlighting the voices of women across the country whose experiences and stories are helping to propel the national conversation on the need for criminal justice reform, and helping to advance the ongoing efforts to achieve reform at the state and federal levels. The series, “Women in the Justice System,” will highlight these stories throughout March here, by the Coalition for Public Safety, and by our sister organization, the U.S. Justice Action Network.
The Washington Post recently hosted a panel on reforming the criminal justice system, called “Out of Jail, Into Society.” It’s a nice thought, especially if it were that easy.
The more accurate phrase would be out of jail and into the unknown.
Leaving incarceration is arguably as tough as entering it. For many of us — whose past mistakes landed us in the criminal justice system — being released felt almost like entering a new type of jail.
For me, when I left jail, I entered a world where I was no longer welcome. I entered a world where becoming a productive, self-supporting, contributing member of the community was virtually impossible. With not much more than a criminal history record, it’s beyond difficult to find employment, housing, and a network of support to get back on your feet.
When I was released from jail, it was almost as if I was still chained down by my past, as if the system was intentionally designed to corral me down a narrow path only leading back to prison.
I don’t blame society. I gave them every reason to doubt me, to not trust me, to fear me.
However, after 11 and a half years of staying on the straight and narrow, I think I’ve paid for my mistakes and I think I deserve to be seen more as just an ex-con.
In fact, I think many Americans who have done their time, and are ready to turn their lives around and become productive members of their communities, deserve to be seen as more than criminals.
We are your neighbors, your family members, your friends. Except our mistakes landed us in incarceration.
I was no saint.
After becoming addicted to prescribed medication, I moved on to heroin. I was the epitome of what society would call a junkie.
I was homeless, stealing from people to support my addiction. Stealing from people to support my illness. What I needed wasn’t jail — it was medical treatment.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to escape the chaos of drug addiction. After going to jail, and finally coping with the consequences of my life decisions, I worked hard to get clean and to leave that dark chapter behind me.
And while I believe incarceration was the wake-up call for me, what I found was that life after jail was ironically similar to my life before jail, as a junkie.
At least when I was high, I didn’t care what society thought of me, and I had no desire to play by its rules. But after incarceration, struggling to turn my life around and make something of myself, I faced the constant judgment and being written off as a lost cause, an ex-con, a criminal.
In the past 11 and a half years, I have fulfilled my obligations to the criminal justice system. I’ve done everything expected of me by the courts. I’ve stayed out of trouble, I’ve maintained steady employment, I’ve paid my fines, completed my community service, and I successfully completed all required treatment and probation.
And I went further.
I went to college and got my bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a concentration in substance abuse. I graduated with a perfect, 4.0 GPA and am a member of multiple national honor societies.
I’ve gone on to mentor numerous recovering addicts, I’ve spoken publicly in jails and in courts about my journey. I’ve aided in the development of curriculum and educational content taught at the national level to public safety employees who work with addicts. I’ve volunteered during my personal time to help others move beyond addiction and overcome the burdens that a criminal history presents.
But I am still seen by many as another criminal, another burden to society.
After paying my dues, doing my time, educating myself, working hard, and overcoming hurdles that most people could never imagine facing in their lifetime, I am still a criminal. People still see me as the ex-con.
I have only myself to blame for my past mistakes.
But our nation’s criminal justice system isn’t making it any easier.
Despite all of my hard work, and having a college degree, I still have to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. Because I have a criminal record.
The criminal justice system isn’t designed to help rehabilitate people and help them become better people. It is designed to punish them, and then after they’re done serving their time in jails, they continue paying for their past mistakes in society.
Despite having turned my life around, I am still a convicted drug felon, and therefore I can’t obtain employment as a substance abuse counselor (or employment in any other clinical capacity in the state of Pennsylvania).
Because of my criminal record, not only can I not obtain employment pertaining to my degree, but I have had a hard time finding any type of work.
I am supporting two children, one of whom is disabled, by working multiple part-time jobs, which pay minimum wage. I am still paying off student loans I used to put myself through college, registering more than $60,000 of debt.
Being a convicted drug felon, I am ineligible for any sort of housing assistance. I was ineligible for all college scholarships, which I would have otherwise been eligible for. I am ineligible for tax credits on my student loans and interest.
In short, the criminal justice system has shut off access to critical resources and tools that would otherwise help people in my position to turn their lives around, and become productive members of society.
Against my will, I have to rely on public assistance to support my family and to have access to medical benefit, which is one of the few forms of assistance available to convicted felons.
But what bothers me the most isn’t the societal penalties I’m paying for mistakes I made in my past, it’s the penalties my children are paying as well.
It’s hard enough paying to keep the lights on and a roof over our heads, much less providing my children with opportunities that would help them achieve their full potential.
My 16-year-old daughter is an honor roll student who regularly volunteers at multiple organizations. She was turned away to serve as a babysitter by a popular caregiver website because she “lives in the home of a convicted felon.”
When my son was just eight years old, he asked me if I could please be a “classroom mom” like some of his friends’ moms were. I had to explain to him that I was banned from volunteering at his school due to my criminal record. My son didn’t know me as an addict, but he has had to deal with the consequences of my past mistakes his entire life.
I am not blaming society for my mistakes. I made my mistakes, and I paid for them. I picked myself up and turned my life around. I have put myself through college, mentored others struggling with drug addiction, and have tried to make sure that my experiences would be put to good to help others in similar situations.
But our criminal justice system isn’t designed to reward this behavior, or to empower people to become productive members of their communities. Our system is designed to continue penalizing people for past mistakes, and creating hurdles that make it nearly impossible to become a true success story.
When we talk about the criminal justice system, we must talk about reentry. We must talk about how we can better empower people to turn their lives around. We must talk about the crippling effects a criminal record has on a person and their families.
When former offenders are released from prison, and they can’t find employment, they will almost always resort to the only way they know to get by. Faced with few options and desperation, they will likely return to making bad decisions as a survival mechanism.
Offenders will continue to offend if that’s the only road available to them. But we can change our criminal justice system, and reduce our skyrocketing prison population, if we can reduce recidivism.
And we can reduce recidivism by creating new paths toward productive living, dismantling the obstacles former offenders face in turning their lives around and becoming law-abiding citizens.
The Coalition for Public Safety is the largest national bipartisan effort working to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost effective at the federal, state and local levels.
The Coalition has brought together the most prominent organizations from across the political spectrum to pursue comprehensive reforms, including: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Right on Crime. Together, these organizations represent tens of millions of Americans seeking commonsense criminal justice reforms. Our key supporters are Laura and John Arnold, Koch Industries, Inc., the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Learn more about the Coalition at www.coalitionforpublicsafety.org.