While the word ‘Serve’ has many meanings, in the context of this commentary, we ponder what serving one’s time in prison means and whether the time served intersects with eventual redemption. Hundreds of thousands of men and women serve prison sentences for wrongful acts they have committed. They are found guilty by a jury or in a bench trial by a judge and sentenced. Yet even after serving their sentences, most of the formerly incarcerated are forever branded by the conviction. Society, in many cases, permanently disables formerly incarcerated persons and casts them into a subculture from which escape is nearly impossible.
The permanent crippling of the formerly incarcerated, who to a large extent represent America’s Black, Brown, and poor folk, bears a resemblance to how in the 1600s, the United States brought voluntary indentured White servants or debt bondsmen (and women), from Europe, who paid the debt of their passage to America with their servitude. The timing closely coincided with the transatlantic slave trade, which ripped Africans involuntarily from the continent of Africa. The difference between indentured service and chattel slavery is that the Whites agreed to their servitude for a defined number of years and worked their way to freedom. At the same time, Africans became the property of their masters, and they and their generations were forced to serve as free labor until Congress abolished slavery in 1865. But slavery has led to a devastating inequality that has caused the descendants of enslaved Africans to be victimized by a justice system built on criminalizing and punishing them.
Due to systemic racism, the American criminal justice system affects the lives of Whites in an entirely different manner than it deals with the descendants of the formerly enslaved Africans and Brown people. Systems create structures that (a) mete out excessive sentences to those groups and (b) permanently punish the formerly incarcerated.
When offenders are punished for crimes against humanity, as they should be, Black and Brown offenders receive the severest punishments. Once released, not only do they receive less support, but the formerly incarcerated leave prison with permanent penalties levied against them.
The Fully Free Campaign, led by Heartland Alliance in Illinois, is an effort to end the endless punishment of the formerly incarcerated. Men and women that have SERVED their sentences.
If you are convicted of a crime and serve your time, should you be deprived of the right to support your family forever? Should you forfeit the right to vote forever? Should you forfeit the right to get a government loan to educate yourself forever? Once you concede to being convicted of a felony, the possibility of being favored, much less considered, for any. Still, low-paying entry-level positions diminish, regardless of the candidate’s skill set or academic credentials.
“In Illinois, 3.3 million adults have been arrested or convicted of a crime since 1979, with people of color most impacted. There are 1,189 permanent punishment laws and regulations in Illinois, mostly denying people housing, education, and employment.” https://fullyfree.org/
Many “openly” formerly incarcerated persons use their lived experiences and hard-won expertise to organize in grassroots and non-profit organizations to assist other men and women facing a difficult reentry into society. And yet, many ex-offenders live on the “down-low.” Ashamed, fearful of discrimination and continued punishments from the society they seek to reenter. They are hoping no one “outs” them.
And what of redemption in this nation of highly churched, synagogue, and mosqued persons? Didn’t doing time for the crime atone for the sin? Shaka Senghor, Head of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion at TripActions, Director’s Fellow Alumni of the MIT Media Lab, college lecturer, and best-selling author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, who served a 19-year sentence for murder said,
“I’m asking you to envision a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their past. Where misdeeds and mistakes don’t define you for the rest of your life. In an era of record incarcerations, in a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves. Together we can begin to make things right.”
In my opinion, to stem the rampant criminal behavior and the violence it begets, we must support the reentry of those that have served their sentences and assist them in reintegrating into their communities. We also need to enlist their advice and activism to help us reach, rehabilitate, and redeem a generation of youth that we seem to be losing.
Susan D. Peters, aka, Ahnydah (ah-NIE-dah) Rahm, brings a wealth of experience gained as an expatriate living in West Africa. Her memoir Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, received the Black Excellence Award for Non-Fiction from the African American Alliance of Chicago and the Mate E. Palmer award for Non-Fiction from the Illinois Press Women’s Association. Stolen Rainbow, a short story focused on the post combat recovery of a beautiful marine captain after a devastating combat injury. Broken Dolls, represents Susan’s foray into mystery writing and is the first of a series featuring the flawed Detective Joi Sommers as its heroine. The second Joi Sommers mystery, The Iron Collar is a riveting story with multiple ingenious twists, and Slay the Dragon the third in the series, illuminates the sexual exploitation of children in expected and unexpected ways. Her most recent novella, The Chef’s Choice is a delightful holiday romance. Susan’s work is featured in numerous anthologies. Buy her books online and at www.SusanDPeters.com.