By Jackson Laughlin
I’ve been inside jails a few times before, back when I was an intern at the Public Defender’s office. On those days, I spent just a few hours behind the confining cement walls present in most jails and prisons. When I stepped through the heavy metal doorways to go home, I was able to leave those walls behind.
Back then, I always imagined that was also true for people who were released from incarceration. I imagined they too would leave behind the walls that had confined them for the duration of their sentence.
Over the last four months, I’ve heard the voices of people telling me just how wrong I was.
“The worst city in the world to live in as a felon is Kansas City.”
“I’m having a hard time transitioning… I’m just trying to get back on my feet.”
“Once you put a person in prison you destroy the rest of their life, basically.”
Those are the words of men in Kansas City who have been previously incarcerated. Some of them have been out for over ten years. But their mistakes continue to haunt them even now, as they face the stigma of being an “ex-offender.”
“[I was rejected by] this one employer. ‘Once a criminal always a criminal’ is what she told me.”
The man who spoke those words is not alone in his struggle. One study found that 87% of potential employers and 80% of potential landlords conduct background checks. If you have a criminal record, you are 50% less likely to receive a callback on a job. In 2015, a quarter of recently released Kansans found themselves homeless.
Over the last four months, I worked on a research project at CCO conducting public records requests, reviewing literature, and interviewing previously incarcerated people about what kind of barriers they face after being released. What did I learn? I learned that the walls don’t go away.
Of course, there are those that meet my findings with little sympathy. During my time researching the prevalence of these barriers in Kansas City, I’ve spoken with many people who believe that if someone is convicted of a crime then they should have to suffer through whatever barriers society puts in their way.
The people who make those claims are perhaps unaware of how many of their neighbors have been previously incarcerated. National trends indicate that a third of the population has a criminal record. That’s over 50,000 people in Wyandotte County; over 6,000 of those people have been released in the last five years alone.
These folks are no longer “criminals.” They have served their time, gone through their punishment. More than that, they’re our neighbors. Our friends and family.
Every previously incarcerated person I spoke to told me the same thing. They were trying to “stay focused” on their success. They “didn’t want to break the law” anymore. But according to the National Institute of Justice, 74% of them will be reincarcerated within five years following their incarceration.
Why? Because it’s next to impossible for them to succeed.
When someone is released from prison, they leave with a hundred dollars (often less) and sometimes a relative to stay with or a halfway house to sleep in. They must then find employment and housing in a world where background checks bar them from many opportunities. Often they’ve been incarcerated long enough that they no longer have the knowledge or skills to work at places willing to hire them.
Even if they are hired, many face suspended, revoked, or expired licenses that bar them from driving to work. According to a public records request received on February 13th of this year, there were 15,108 suspended licenses in Wyandotte County alone. If they are able to find a job, they may still be tasked with paying child support, parole fees, probation costs, legal debt, or halfway house fees. One man I spoke to told me that 40% of his paycheck went to the halfway house he lived in.
And those are just the most common barriers to reentry. Kansas City residents who have been incarcerated may also be overcoming psychological barriers, health problems, addiction, familial hardships, safety concerns, issues with public transportation, and nutritional barriers. How can they be expected to shoulder all those burdens when someone refuses to hire them because they think “once a criminal, always a criminal”?
It’s no wonder some of these men turn to back to crime to make a living or even just to get back into prison, where at least they’ll have a bed to sleep in.
Hearing the stories of the men I’ve interviewed has left my head riddled with questions. Why would we treat someone so differently just because of a mistake in their past? Where is our forgiveness? Where is our compassion? Why are the confining walls of incarceration still there, even when the incarceration itself is over?
One of the men I interviewed told me that he is doing “everything in his power” not to go back to prison. Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to help him succeed?
Jackson Laughlin is a graduating senior at the University of Kansas with a BA in Applied Behavioral Science and Political Science. Jackson is an intern at CCO and will be attending Harvard Law School in the Fall of 2017.