Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Notes from the Unrepenitentiary: A Matter of the Past

In Charlottesville, Virginia, Mary Smith, a Black working class woman, got fired from her job at the University of Virginia Medical Center. So did eight other workers. They all had prior felony convictions. Ms. Smith's was for $200 of bad checks. Like four of those fired she had not hidden that fact on her application when she was hired four years ago. But in the aftermath of a rape at the Medical Center, in which the accused rapist was also an employee, Ms. Smith and the others were fired.

"Morally, these are people who have paid their dues," said Susan Fraiman, a member of the Labor Action Group and a professor of English at the university. ( The New York Times, July 2, 2001, p. A-10.) The Labor Action Group is part of the growing movement for fair treatment of former offendersexcons in the oldspeak. Fortunately, the recent firings have sparked protest and a federal civil rights suit. That's the good news.

The bad news is that for far too long former prisoners have been banished to the outhouse of society: no jobs (or marginal ones) for the vast majority, as well as an overdose of contempt, hatred and fear. Few skills are taught for rehabilitative purposes, unless one considers that simply following irrational, mindnumbing orders, along with avoiding injury, rape, or death in prison amount to positive social/economic skills. (So far, there's no indication that such skills are given any positive social value.)

Nevertheless, every once in a while an exoffender is not kicked into the outhouse. Look at Eliott Abrams! He was recently appointed to George Bush II's National Security Council as director of the Office of Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations. Not bad for an exoffender. I wonder if he will consider democratic rights for all his comradeoffenders? (Well, no, he didn't have to serve time. He had good probation reports, I imagine.)

He had withheld information about the Reagan administration's illegal operations during the U.S._ Contra war against Nicaragua; i.e, the gunsforcocaine operations that this government conveniently forgets in these times of the "war against drugs" (and oppressed communities, unemployed and marginallyemployed sectors of the U.S.). But, as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer explains things, Mr. Abrams' is "an outstanding diplomat" whose legal troubles are "a matter of the past." ( The New York Times, June 30, 2001, p. A-4.) Besides, he was also pardoned by Bush I. Got his civil rights back, the whole 9 yards. Even his sterling diplomatic reputation. Redeemed! I do wonder if he had to state that he was a former offender on his government application. After all, even if he was appointed, he has to fill out forms to draw his hefty salary, his perks, retirement, and to pay his withholding taxes. Or doesn't he?

If Mr. Abrams' lawbreaking is not an obstacle to work for national security, why should it matter that a young Black woman, or any other former offender, work in a medical center or anywhere else for that matter? Ms. Smith has paid a very high price for $200 worth of bad checks. Certainly Mr. Abrams' crimes involved a hell of a lot more than $200. Together with his cronies in crime he caused unmeasurable suffering and death not only for Nicaraguan citizens whose democratic society was undermined, but also, for U.S. citizens and residents, a proliferation of cheap cocaine to fuel the crack industry with the resulting social destruction, loss of productive labor, and loss of parents and children to the prison system.

In short, he covered up mass murder and mayhem, as well as death of more than a few children and adults. Should not Ms. Smith's word be more believable than that of Mr. Abrams? One would think so, in the equal justice scheme of things. He slipped and slided, connived and inveigled as part of the Contra-gate gang.

(In fact, given that he was a gang member, how did he miss maximum security?)

If a man like that is judged to have social value and found worthy to be pardoned, then shouldn't all former offenders be pardoned? Not to be idealistic, let's remember that most women and men do not go to prison as "criminals;" they are judged to be offenders of the law. The prison system does its best to destroy the individual's morality, integrity, sense of community, as well as their hope to be a respected, productive human being within the community. If one is unable to become productive, earn one's living, then what is left?

If Eliott Abrams is allowed to work, then Mary Smith must be allowed to work. And Jose Diego, Ashanti Black, and Janet Rides the Wind. Why should a former prisoner/offender have to say by law that she or he has been in prison (unless, of course, she or he wishes to use that prison job as a reference)? Why should there not be automatic restoration of civil rights?

If Florida had not concerned itself with whether Black people should be allowed to vote because they might have been in prison, then that state would not have spent all that time, energy, and money to discount the Black vote. And state officials would not have had to break the laws themselves to make sure all those folks' votes didn't count.

Perhaps prisoners and their advocates might advocate to get rid of all those laws restricting people's civil and human rights. We need to eliminate the double binds that prisoners and far too many other people are caught in: to tell the truth and not be hired; or hired under constant suspicion; or to lie, get hired and later be fired for dishonesty on the application.

If that is too difficult a proposition, how about making it illegal to consider ones' former offenses in hiring. Merit, not past circumstance. George II has shown us the way! George has hired an exoffender! Let's advocate that he hire more _ and not as prison labor. Congress should follow in his footsteps! That might help keep more than half of former prisoners from returning to prison or living in the margins.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login