Felon. A word whose meaning seems so at odds with its sound. That soft fricative “f.” That sonic resonance with other lovely “f” words: feline, female, fellow. That rhyme with “melon.” A word whose first use was recorded in the 14th century to denote one who commits “an act on the part of a feudal vassal involving forfeiture of his fee.” Like “villain,” (one from a village), the word has evolved over time in meaning from a marker of societal status relative to a powerful authority to one denoting criminal activity and immorality. Though the original meaning of “felon” (feudal vassal) has gone the way of the feudal societies to which it was attached, the sense of forfeiture has survived.
I have spent a lot of time wrapping my head around the word “felon” this last year. Knowing a young felon intimately who was convicted of a non-violent crime, agreed to a plea bargain, did 8 months in a state minimum security prison, and was released in May, I’ve taken an interest in this growing segment of our population and of the post-incarceration fetters imposed on them by our criminal justice system.
First off, what numbers are we talking about here? As of 2014, around 24 million people in the US (close to 10 percent of the adult population) had a felony conviction. This number is not surprising when we consider the fact that the US locks people up at a higher rate than any other country on earth. Our prison population weighs in at 716 per 100,000 people. Alarming when you consider that more than half of the 222 countries with prison populations tracked in one study record a rate of 150 per 100,000 people.
There are many implications of this state of affairs, not the least of which is the very disturbing evidence for racial bias in incarceration rates and the clear connection to political delegitimization of people of color. (Note that state laws barring people with felony convictions from voting date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers worked to neutralize the black electorate.)
But here I’d like to simply address the effects on felons AFTER they have served their sentence. In fact, I wonder why they are still labeled “felon” at all once they have paid their debt to society. As noted in a New York Times editorial in May of 2016, the very “vocabulary of incarceration — the permanently stigmatizing way we speak about people who have served time — presents a significant barrier to reintegration.” On top of this psychological barrier—and the many typical challenges felons face, such as limited family support, a spotty work record, low level of education, outstanding fines, and substance abuse and mental health issues—ex-offenders (note that “ex”) face myriad legal restrictions as well. Among many others, these include:
- Restrictions on housing (most apartments, especially corporate owned, will not rent to felons);
- Ineligibility for financial aid;
- Difficulty finding a job;
- Ineligibility for some professional licenses;
- Ineligibility to enlist in the armed forces; and
- Loss of voting rights
That last restriction alone has received much attention this election year. Consider that in 2016, state laws barred nearly 6 million Americans with criminal convictions from voting in the presidential election. About 4.4 million of those are people who are not in prison but were still denied the right to vote. And if you home in on the rate by state alone, the percentage can be even more alarming. For example, a whopping ten percent of Florida adults can’t vote due to felonies.
So, why does this situation continue when a national survey shows that most Americans think that people who have committed felonies and served their time should be able to vote? I have no answer to that question, but I suspect it has something to do with politics, economics, and a judicial system geared towards punishment rather than rehabilitation.
Certainly there are bad, dangerous, and, arguably, irredeemable people in this world. But too many times we think in black and white about convicts; we fail to distinguish among them; we have no time to consider narratives of how each ended up behind bars. The system is complicated. Just the other night, a friend of mine pointed out what “animals” so many of the incarcerated are. Perhaps this is true. But perhaps our “correctional” facilities have some hand in completing the transformation of a human being into an animal unfit for society.
I don’t think I am naive about the criminal mind or about evil, but I do believe real rehabilitation must be an option for the many non-violent prisoners crammed into our often for-profit facilities. And I believe those felons who have paid their debt and make real efforts to rejoin society as productive citizens should be given a better chance.
Witnessing the obstacles my own young felon faces has certainly raised my awareness of this issue. But Charli Mills’s recent flash fiction challenge prompted me to write about it now. The prompt happened to coincide with a visit I made to accompany my felon to a residential drug and alcohol rehab center last week. Waiting in the dawn cold with a few other early comers hoping to get one of the limited beds that day, I listened to a couple of middle-aged individuals talk about their addictions and about the cascading legal problems and social isolation that has resulted.
Here is that December 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about something or someone not allowed. Maybe it’s about gender, race or other intolerance. Maybe it’s the cat who paws at the door, but not allowed inside. Maybe it’s a trail where dogs are not allowed. Go light, go dark, go where the prompt leads you.
Her name is Karen. She stands outside in the dawn cold hugging a drab olive overcoat around her. “I’ve got to get this bed,” she said.
“What will you do if you can’t get in today?” I asked. “No family to stay with?”
“They gave up on me. My sister helped, but I burned her out too. Too many relapses.”
“That’s rough,” I said.
“I’m not a bum,” she said. “I’ve got a degree. Got a job with Easter Seals this year. But when the background check came back, they let me go.”
She shook her head. “No felons.”