Some commentators are using Pope Francis’ planned Sept. 27 visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility to argue that Jesus would have been opposed to mass incarceration. I disagree; while Jesus would never condone human and civil rights violations such as beatings and rape, he was no prison abolitionist. He made visiting prisoners one of the corporal works of mercy for a reason; he knew sinners gonna sin and land behind bars.
Incarceration would have appalled Jesus far less than the way society excludes released offenders. Because today, a criminal conviction is a bit like leprosy; we’ve been deemed unfit to enter society, just as lepers were once banned from the temple.
I learned this firsthand, with my 13 felony and four misdemeanor convictions for identity-theft-related crimes that more than six years in a maximum security prison were supposed to cure. I lost friends I’d had for 20 years just for being arrested; they stopped talking to me without ever asking what happened or if I was OK. I think I might be one of very few people in the world to reach her 30s and count no true friends.
Getting released back into society with legal findings of guilt attached to my name made things worse. Ex-offenders face discrimination in employment, housing, licensing and membership in organizations. No one wants us around. The fact that a conviction may be wrongful or on appeal doesn’t matter; we’re branded for life, even more so now that Google search results hang around indefinitely.
Scholars studying the collateral consequences of criminal convictions focus on employment, housing and other legislative penalties such as being barred from possessing a firearm or residency restrictions for sex offenders. Nationwide, there are over 46,000 collateral consequences of conviction, according to the American Bar Association, which was assigned the task of arranging the consequences into a searchable website for the Department of Justice. Nowhere among the consequences is that we might be left utterly alone.
The social isolation a released prisoner experiences is on par with if not more hurtful than any official form of discrimination. None of our old friends hang out with us anymore. For those of us under probation or parole supervision, usually one of our conditions of release is to avoid contact with other felons. This rule is rarely enforced, though, because supervising officers know well that, upon leaving prison, other felons are the only people who will talk to us.
Justice reform activists rarely talk about the social lives of ex-offenders, probably because the nature of the problem resists sociological study. After all, there’s no existing data set to mine about friendlessness; researchers would have to survey the released prisoners. Who among them would want to admit that that they are imminently rejectable and may stay that way forever, saddled with a life sentence of exclusion?
Social exclusion is understudied not because it’s a new phenomenon. Nor has the Christian ministry disregarded it. In 1871, Enoch Cobb Wines, a Congregational minister and early prison reform advocate from the late 19th century, wrote in his “Transactions of the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline,” “The poor, the wretched and the forsaken have plenty of friends after they have committed crime and while they are in prison; but who takes them by the hand … after they are discharged?”
Earlier this year, at a Mass in Rome, Pope Francis laid out a mission for his tenure: to help “those who are discriminated against, no matter who they are.” That’s exactly what the United States needs to do. Judging from his remarks at the White House on Wednesday, he displayed a bit more faith in American society than it has earned in how it treats ex-offenders. He said, “Together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”
In the 18 months since I left prison, I haven’t seen much of this commitment. Sometimes I think ex-offenders feel so marginalized that they reoffend just to rejoin a community, even if that community is behind bars. I saw this often in prison; a woman who completed her sentence would reappear, and it was like a scene from a school reunion — hugs all around, seamless return to the gossip stream and, quite frankly, a little bit of joy from the reverse prodigal daughter over how she is received. “Orange Is the New Black” is spot on with its commentary on recidivism when Taystee, who returns to prison after being released, tells her good friend Poussay what re-entry is like. “Don’t nobody ask about how my day went,” she says. “I know how to play it in here … and I got you.”
Francis told an Argentine newspaper that when he visits prisons, he asks himself, “Why did God allow that I shouldn’t be here?” It’s a question for the people who remain unbaptized by the judicial branch and still refuse to extend an olive branch to released offenders in their communities. In a country almost awash in anti-Islamic sentiment, the way we treat ex-offenders violates every Christian principle on redemption.
The pope’s visit to a prison isn’t just about the inmates or how they ended up there; it’s also a reminder to the rest of us to stop throwing stones at ex-offenders.