Father Mike Kennedy of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI) speaks to Voicewaves in his office.
The State of California is just months from releasing thousands of inmates jailed for nonviolent offences. Many people are nervous about the decision and think the State is making a huge mistake. “Why are they going to release criminals? They belong locked up. We aren’t going to be safe,” says Susie H., a concerned Long Beach resident. There are many worries but the ones most people don’t think about are those of the inmates soon to be released.
Even though some may think five years is not long, Jermaine Subia — once convicted of manslaughter — will argue that things change more than people think. “We had cell phones back then but not like we have them now. It took me a while to get used to using a smartphone. When I was driving around the streets, I saw that a lot of businesses were not there anymore and some buildings were even torn down,” he says when thinking about his first few months outside of prison. Jermaine was released in early January of this year; he is still adjusting to many of society’s changes.
For H.M., it was not the amount of time that was served but the fact that he has a criminal record. It has changed his life completely. Although his time served was relatively short — just over 6 months — H.M. was sent to jail for Lude Acts with a Minor. He will now be registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life. “People don’t want to listen to what I have to say. I have applied for so many jobs but when I have to check ‘the box,’ everyone just tells me they will call back or that they cannot hire ex-felons,” he says. ‘The box,’ is the section on a job application that asks if the person has ever been convicted of a felony and, if so, what that felony is.
There are problems that some might face upon early release. Father Mike Kennedy of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI) says that people go through phases while behind bars. Some people will never come to terms with the fact that they have committed a crime or caused harm to someone. Furthermore, Father Mike is one of many people that believes the prison system is less about rehabilitation and more about making money. In California’s 2009-2010 budget, $10 billion was spent on incarcerating inmates. Prisons make $46,000 a year per adult and $252,000 per youth a year. This seems like so much money when the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems must split $7.1 billion that same year.
There are also some big hurtles for prisoners facing release. For some, it may be financial hardships, housing, food, and securing basic necessities. If this wasn’t enough, there are no jobs unless the individual knows an employer or has some sort of network that can connect them to a “felon-friendly” employer. The solution to this, in the eyes of many who have been down this road, is that people have to learn to network and must begin preparing for their release on the “inside.”
A recently released individual known as Green Eyes who did ten years and eight months in prison commented on a few issues he has with the approach that some restorative justice activists have. There are people who are trying to pass the SB-9 which would be the end of life in prison for minors. “I think it’s cool if you want to change that law but if you want to change the standards like that on one end, you have to raise the standards on the inside as well,” explains Green Eyes. In his point of view, this bill could backfire and hurt everything he has worked hard for. Green Eyes has been helping released inmates since his release in January this year. “You can’t give everyone all the resources because some people aren’t there mentally yet. I watch a number of people who are about to parole: some people I can refer to a friend at Target, others I can only support them until they are ready to move on,” he says.
One in every hundred adults in the United States are incarcerated and over two million youth are arrested a year according to Pew Center on the State Public Safety Performances Project. The main problem faced by this group of people is that they are now rendered outcasts in society, facing large social and systematic forces working to keep them that way.