At the beginning of my ten years teaching teenagers in a county lockup, years I chronicle in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup(Beacon Press), I was always surprised, and yes, disappointed, when one of my students got rearrested.
Jail’s a sobering place no matter how tough you want to think you are. The deprivation, brutality, and oppression gets your attention especially if you’re 15 years old. So once locked up, many of the kids I taught saw my jailhouse classroom as an opportunity to do something productive. Along with education, some got counseling to deal with their addiction and anger problems; others reconnected with family and church. When they were released, they talked about changing their lives for the better. They were sincere and determined, and I was hopeful that they would do just that.
Over time, though, my attitude changed. More and more I was surprised when a student didn’t return. Despite society’s puzzlement as to why jail is a revolving door for so many teens, the reasons became obvious to me: The kids I taught might have made significant changes while locked up, but the world they were sent back into—poor, violent, defined by racism—had not. I’ve seen teens walk out the prison gates alone, carrying nothing but a plastic bag with their clothes, a token for the bus, and the county’s other freebie—the wise words, “Don’t come back.” That’s all. No planning, or guidance, or support to make the mega-changes needed to turn their lives around, changes that when you’re a kid with no resources feel insurmountable.
One major stumbling block for any former inmate is jobs. Ex-offenders don’t get hired. Teenage ex-offenders get hired even less. When I asked guys, “What are you doing back here?”, they would talk about not being able to get jobs they knew they were qualified for because they had a record. It’s hard to “do the right thing” when the streets and their hustles—drugs, auto theft, guns, robbery—are the only employers eager to hire you back.
States have made it easy for employers not to hire someone with a record by formalizing that refusal in their CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) laws. The biggest roadblock to getting a job is a pretty simple one: the yes/no box on an application that asks, “Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime?” That box has buried a lot of young men and women trying to start a new life. Check “yes” and the application gets dumped without anyone talking with you, hearing your story, or evaluating you in person. Check “no” and you’re back in the world you’re trying to put behind you, a world of deceit, dishonesty, and manipulation.
Josh is a good example of the power of that box. After serving time, he cleaned himself up at 17. He signed into drug rehab and earned his GED. Then he got lucky. He was accepted into the French Culinary Institute, completed the program, and was ready to fulfill his dream of being a chef. Giant steps for a young man who had been homeless and addicted. But his luck stopped there. No restaurant would hire him because of his record.
Originally CORI laws were designed to help employers make responsible, informed decisions when hiring, and thus to protect citizens from harm and abuse. But these laws have actually turned out to be an impediment to that very protection. If, after individuals do jail time, they are still pushed to the margins of society, unable to legally support themselves and their families, they will only go back doing the things we want to protect society from.
Some states are beginning to understand this vicious cycle and are considering changes to their CORI regulations. Massachusetts is one of the first states to make that sensible and humane reform. One of the most significant changes the state has made is to remove “the box” from applications. An employer can still ask about a prior criminal record, but now at least an ex-offender will have the opportunity to explain his or her past and present themselves as they are now. It may be an awkward and painful conversation for an ex-offender to have fresh out of jail, but it’s a lot more dignified than the deadening silence of the wastepaper basket.
As a teacher I am always pushing my students to “think outside the box.” It’s time that more states do the same and examine closely the laws that limit the possibilities of success and mobility of people who, if we really believe in our own system of justice, have served their time and want to take their place in society.