In our Western culture, there is a stigma associated with having been incarcerated. During a recent Good Men Project Premium Member call with our publisher, Lisa Hickey, discussion centered on how we social justice change-makers can explore this issue with compassion.
De-Stigmatizing, Not Normalizing
With many of the issues we at GMP tackle—such as racism, sexism, and fascism—we aim to “normalize” groups of marginalized or ostracized people and their lifestyle circumstances, such as gay marriage, stay-at-home dads, sensitive men, strong women, transgender people, and others who are bucking stereotypes. When discussing formerly incarcerated persons, we want to help de-stigmatize the association, not normalize it.
In order to be part of the solution, we seek to understand the bigger picture as well as the personal stories of individuals who have experienced the mass incarceration system in the United States and elsewhere, in comparison.
The Numbers Speak Volumes
How many people do you know who have been in prison or in jail? Before I moved from the Northwest Chicago suburbs to a tiny town in Central Illinois—five miles from a woman’s State prison and 12 miles from a men’s State prison—I was never aware of any person who had been to prison. Jail, yes, but not prison. I would soon hear stories of this husband and that father being in “the big house” for D.U.I., domestic battery, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and more. I even knew a woman who was indicted for hiring to have her abusive husband killed. It was a culture shock for me. I had to wonder if I had known men or women in the burbs who had been incarcerated but who simply never talked about it. After all, I knew that my own father was in jail a couple times or more related to his alcoholism and short temper, I assume.
According to PrisonPolicy.org:
“The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”
That means, if you live in the United States, chances are high that someone you know—or you yourself—was previously incarcerated. The numbers warrant a closer look.
Rehabilitation and Recidivism
The stigma attached to having served time in prison (or even in jail) then hinders that person from getting hired to gainful employment or entering a course of education required for a new career. Until we address these challenges, how can we as a society reasonably expect any previously incarcerated person to stay on the straight and narrow?
Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. One study tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that:
- Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
- Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
- Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
- Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders. [Bold added for emphasis.]
While I have consciously considered semantics in communications for decades, I had somehow conveniently neglected listening to my own speech (or written words) related to this topic. While preparing the first draft of this very post about how to de-stigmatize, I used language that was fully drenched in perpetuating the stigma, completely oblivious of doing so. A team member brought it to my attention.
“Prisoners,” “convicts,” and “ex-cons” are labels I hear on a regular basis since living in a community with a State of Illinois Department of Corrections Maximum (and Medium) Security Prison. My neighbors and friends are prison guards and administrators or retired from the system. The Department of Corrections culture and the language of control are apparent when you choose to observe. In fact, the BJS stats in the section above clearly (see the bold words) use stigma-rich language that labels the people who were previously incarcerated.
Take a good look at this chart from Education From The Inside Out.
The Children of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Parents
The stigma of having a parent in prison is a topic we have shared here on The Good Men Project through POPS.
POPS is a high school club that welcomes all those whose lives have been touched by prison. We offer a space where members are encouraged to write, talk and paint their truths. At POPS we thrive on seeing the world as it is while imagining it as it could be. We are creating hope by tackling shame and fear. We are building a community based on dignity and openness.
You can read the essays of POPS members here on GMP.
If you were previously incarcerated, tell us your story about re-acclimating to society. What challenges did you face that you found a way to overcome? What obstacles remain for you? What about the relationships with loved ones?
Are you the family member of a person who is or was incarcerated? What are the challenges and heartaches?
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