In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional setting of Boston in 1642, a woman named Hester Prynne must stand for three hours on a public scaffold wearing the scarlet “A” on her dress. For what purpose? So that she could be publicly shamed and humiliated for adultery! For those not familiar with the classic novel The Scarlet Letter, adultery was against the law of the land and church but also an unforgivable sin whose sentence lived on until death. Fast forward 375 years when adultery does not carry the same legal or societal stigma and where most surveys reveal that it is more common for husbands and wives to cheat than not over the course of their marriages.
Perhaps because adultery is so common, we have put the Scarlet “A” back into our pocket and now sew on a Scarlet “F”, as in felony, on every shirt lapel leaving prison. Oh, we may not be as obvious about it in this politically sensitive world, but how we treat ex-felons, who have served time for their crime, speaks volume in what we think of these men and women. Through our laws, community policies/practices and personal actions we have labeled these released prisoners (a.k.a. felons) with “F” as in “Failure.” Did you know that when a prisoner is released from prison he gets the clothes on his back, $50, and a bus ticket to anywhere? What is he supposed to do with those resources for his first night’s lodging and food? Let’s get real. What do you think happens next? With no support he will likely connect with old friends who will help him back into illegal activity to put food in his mouth and a roof over his head. And so the cycle begins again! Statistics show that 50% of felons return to prison after 3 years and 75% after 5 years. These are just the felons who get caught. Why are these statistics so surprising? They shouldn’t be.
What are the hurdles for felons who want to legally re-integrate into community? Well, he has difficulty finding a place to live, because he doesn’t own a home. He can’t live in an apartment complex, because management discriminates against all felons regardless of the crime, and probably, he can’t stay with relatives where he has worn out his welcome long before his prison sentence. He can’t get a job, because he doesn’t have any decent clothes for an interview, but if he did, when he checked the felony box on the application he is immediately disqualified. What would you do? I expect you are saying to yourself, “Well, he shouldn’t have gotten himself involved in crime to begin with?” Honestly, there is a part of me that wants to sympathize with that statement, but the other part of me knows a different story. My other half will suggest that the difference between you and an ex-felon can be the simple fact of just getting caught. How many times have you had one too many drinks, been legally intoxicated, and yet chose to drive home? For those who made it home safely, we breathe a sigh of relief—no one was hurt or killed. If you didn’t make it home, you might be in prison for intoxicated manslaughter.
So, you may think, “I see your point; it could have been me, but it wasn’t. Felons are not my problem.” My reply is, “If you live in this country, it is your problem, because incarceration affects each and every one of us.” Did you know the average annual cost to hold an inmate exceeds $30,000? Did you know the real cost to the taxpayer is multiples of that when you factor in lost tax revenue on wages, welfare and aid given to families of incarcerated men, and damages from crime. For those who are killed or harmed during a criminal act, I cannot put an estimate to the value of life and limb, but at a minimum, lost wages, funeral expenses, and medical bills could be tallied in the total cost.
So what can be done about this problem? Well, the solution is not by any means easy or short-lived, but we can start by building awareness of the issue, investing in effective transformational programs, and crushing the felon stereotype. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP, http://www.pep.org) is giving prisoners the opportunity to change their lives for the betterment of their families and communities. PEP sees the value of these incarcerated men, and along with other business volunteers, they all come along side those prisoners who are doing the hard work to transform themselves. This program initially focuses on building authentic manhood and servant leadership and follows with building skills and training in business entrepreneurship. When program graduates are released from prison, they have access to transitional living and support to help integrate back into society. Over the past 3 years I have been an executive PEP volunteer and have seen transformed lives and returned dignity in the men we serve.
On April 1, 2016 I honorably participated in a kickoff session for another PEP class who were entering the authentic manhood segment of the program. Today I received a batch of photos with thank you cards from those men with whom I had the privilege of spending the day in prison. Yes, they teach these men how to write handwritten thank you cards, a much appreciated and overlook form of business etiquette. When you see how hard these men work for their future, you can’t help but be inspired to partner with them in their walk. If you were wondering whether this program works, recidivism is < 7% after 3 years for those graduating from this program. For the fifth consecutive year 100% of the graduates secured their first job within 90 days. Since PEP’s launch in 2010, 211 businesses have been started with 6 now generating over $1 million/year revenue. That’s not failure—that spells S-U-C-C-E-S-S!
PEP is a non-profit organization operating only through donations and no government financial assistance. The local Texas state correctional facilities welcome this program, because it works! We can only hope that one day, the federal and state governments will fund and incorporate these concepts into the prison system as a whole. You may not be in a position to volunteer your time or talents or to donate to this worthwhile program, but you can change the way you think about a felon. You can start to break the felony stigma. Don’t rush to pin the “F” letter on a felon’s collar. Ask questions. Learn his story. Offer support in a meaningful way. Even the act of listening and empathizing shows compassion and can make one feel valued as a human being. Like every one of us who has made a mistake, we hope to be judged not for who we were but for who we are actively working to be! Embrace the PEP Revolution!
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership. She now coaches others in how to develop and execute their life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.