Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Restoring the rights of ex-prisoners:
a challenge to communities of faith

This is a shameless plug for a new project launched by a good friend. Rima Veseley-Flad has worked with folks in prison off and on for many years. She currently teaches part-time in a college-level program at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y. That work led her to understand that even when people are released, especially Black and Latino people, they still don't get a fair shake.

So Veseley-Flad has founded ICARE, an Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment "to eliminate barriers to reentry by leading a Restoration of Rights campaign in the Restorative Justice tradition."

What's the problem? Even when prisoners do it all right, study hard, and play by the rules, they still can't catch a break. Veseley-Flad describes an example of how it goes:

Jose … achieved a master's degree in prison and trained in building maintenance in the prison construction shop. Upon release, he was hired to work in social services at the Red Cross but was shunned once they discovered his prison record.

Daily discrimination became too much to bear, and he took every step needed to start his own construction business. However, the Department of Consumer Affairs rejected his application. Although he achieved high marks in courses run by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, submitted letters of support from the Red Cross and his parole officer, and explained the circumstances of his crime in detail, he received a form letter listing the factors that were taken into consideration. He was banned from applying for a license for five years.

ICARE will work with religious congregations on the outside to advocate for removal of the obstacles that prevent ex-offenders from re-entering society.

The project has generated a long and detailed list of laws and bureaucratic norms that ensure that the ex-prisoners never quite rejoin the human family. Veseley-Flad aspires to teach congregations how the system works against people and how to advocate for "restorative justice" instead of the present punitive norm.

In an article about her vision of justice Veseley-Flad wrote:

As people of faith inspired by the legacy of our role in the civil rights movement, we must wake up to the reality unfolding before our eyes. This is our civil rights issue. We cannot commit to Restorative Justice without committing to Restoration of Rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated clearly the result of discriminatory laws: "[Being a Negro] means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple." In the twenty-first century, people of color in impoverished communities have their legs cut off through poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. With inadequate legal resources and minimum sentence drug laws, African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants of color are imprisoned with lengthy sentences. When home in the community, they are discriminated against because of their imprisonment….

We have enormous political power as communities of faith. As we welcome formerly incarcerated persons into our communities, we must also advocate to revoke discriminatory laws that are a modern-day version of Black Codes.

New Yorkers especially, check this work out.

1 comment:

Matt said...

You might be interested in a coalition called Voting Rights for All, here in the East Bay. They have a program to register ex-felons to vote and they have produced a great information brochure explaining the voting rights of people who have committed crimes. Let me know if you're interested in getting in touch with them. (Emetbloom at hotmaildotcom)