A Sentence to a Lifetime of Poverty

Twenty years ago 1 in 125 children had an adult parent in jail or prison.  In 2010 that statistic rose to 1 in every 28 according to the Pew Charitable Trust.  The stats reflect that 68% of prisoners were imprisoned on alcohol or drug charges and 40% of those lack a GED or High School diploma.  Of those arrested 30% were unemployed in the month prior to their arrest and almost 60% of those people were underemployed at the time.  Prisoners with serious mental health problems are estimated at about 16% but I think this number may be higher as identifying mental illness is not one of priorities of jails or prisons.

Additionally, the state of Arizona ranks as the second highest state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation superseded only by West Virginia.  That’s pretty astounding considering the nationwide the prison population has declined over the past 2 years after growing for decades.  But not so in Arizona!  In Arizona the prison population has actually increased by as much as 16% while in West Virginia it rose 17% between 2009–2011.  Projections indicate that the numbers will increase by another 52% by the year 2017.

Families of these prisoners are severely affected by incarceration especially children.  Incarceration typically dooms a family to severe poverty.  It cause emotional stress within the family and the children of inmates are typically stigmatized in school.  Nationwide 1 in 5 children live in poverty in the US and that is shocking as being in the alleged richest country in the world one would think poverty would be nonexistent.  And that 1 in 5 statistic does NOT include those classified as the “working poor” by the way.

Growing up poor is bad enough but growing up poor and having a parent in prison is even worse as the chances of success by a child from such a family are minimal.  Many children in these families lack adequate medical care and sufficient houseing not to mention limited food that is nutritious.  They tend to grow up being unemployed, unhealthy, and in trouble with the law themselves.  It’s a vicious cycle that must be stopped.

National statistics reflect the reaching out to families with a parent in prison is crucial as children in these families are 1 to 7 times higher at risk for ending up in prison themselves when they get into adulthood, according to the National Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents.  These families and children are invisible in our society for the most part and they are a vulnerable element in American society.

The circumstances of these families tend to be no better when the incarcerated parent is released from jail or prison as that parent most often cannot find a job.  No one will hire ex-cons because of their past criminal record especially if their crime was a major crime.  We hear a lot of talk about how everyone deserves a second chance yet that seems not to apply to people with criminal records who were in jail or prison.
Everyone deserves a second chance, ” is for the most part pure lip service, unfortunately.

Once released from jail or prison these parents cannot find jobs and that just make it harder on their families and children.  Such disappointment and lack of opportunity does nothing to boost the self esteem of the ex-inmate who is trying to correct her or his life and start anew.  They try to make something positive out of their lives but, sadly, the odds are rather stacked against them.  In some states the state itself makes it more difficult for these people to pick up their lives and do something positive with them.  In Arizona, for example, the state is only one of 13 states that has a lifetime ban on convicted felons for drug crimes receiving food stamps.  Jobs aren’t the only thing former prisoners have problems finding.  They also have problems finding housing, renting an apartment, applying for professional licenses so they can work at various careers and these problems continue typically even after decades of being released from jail or prison.  In effect, a prison sentence is a sentence to a life of gross poverty!  And yet we expect these people to correct their lives and become contributing members of society?  Just how are they suppose to do that when the odds are already against them and we are far too busy excluding them from society?

The US is spending billions on prisons and, frankly, I think that money would be better spent going to education, skills training, and opening up opportunities for former prisoners who truly are trying to get their lives straight.  But, as is so typical in the US, we are spending huge sums of money on all of the WRONG things.  Very little money is actually spent on prevention or rehabilitation.

Repeat offender rates are high.  There is no arguing that.  But we need to pay some more attention and money to prevention and rehabilitation IF we truly have a desire as a society to reduce the repeat offender rates.  Many ex-prisoners become very frustrated and some throw their hands up and decide that lives of crime are all they have.  That attitude needs to and must be changed!  As a society we need to stop with all of the lip service and get serious about helping some of these people especially those who really are trying to correct their lives and do not go back into lives of crime.  An incarceration record should NOT sentence a person and their family and children to lives of destitute!  We might like to think of ourselves as a “civilized” or “compassionate” society but that doesn’t mean that we really are such a society.  There’s an old bit of wisdom that says you can tell a lot about a society by looking at the way they treat their young, old, and disadvantaged.  When that old adage is applied to America it speaks volumes.

To even begin to help these people correct their lives and help set them on a straight course we must begin to bust through some of the many myths we have about people who have been prisoners.  Sorry but they are NOT all boogey men!  Some of them honestly made mistakes in their lives and they know it as sitting in a cell gave them plenty of time to reflect on it.  Some people committed their crimes while on drugs or being drunk and others have some mental issues that must be addressed and corrected.  Demonizing these people, excluding them from society, and making it very hard for them to earn a living to support their families and children does not help them one bit.  In fact these things only add to their struggle and the struggle of their families and their children.  At some point we must break this cycle of crime and begin to really help people get their lives straightened out so that they can become positive and contributing members of society.  Otherwise they will continue to be a drain on society and do we really need anymore of that?

People are people no matter what.  Some people do really horrible things in their lives but they are still people.  People can change if given the right opportunities and help.  Most people DO realize mistakes they’ve made in their lives and we should NOT be demonizing them for those mistakes.  I’m not advocating giving these people or anyone else a free ride!  I am advocating doing what we say we do and that is giving them a second chance to get their acts together and become positive members of society!  And, as a society, WE need to start taking our share of the responsibility for the repeat offender rate and for NOT practicing what we preach.  If we truly believe everyone deserves a second chance then we seriously need to start giving these people that second chance.  If we don’t then crime and prison populations in this country will only continue to worsen and grow.  To condemn ANYONE to a life of poverty is just about the worst thing a society can do to a person, family, and child.  It’s time that we as a society correct our errors and make things right so we can help others make their lives right!

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