Ex-Offenders Matter: Sister Hearts

After spending 13 years in a Louisiana prison, 6 of which were in solitary confinement, Maryam Henderson-Uloho was free (so to speak).

She found herself struggling immediately. As a felon, she was unable to rent an apartment, find work or get a credit card. As she puts it, “You’re not allowing me the tools that I need to sustain myself out here in society.”

Realizing that safety was of paramount importance for women in particular, she started Sister Hearts, a thrift store and “re-entry” program “focused on providing ex-offenders with a safe environment to achieve their goals with dignity.”

Incarceration in the U.S. does little to actually rehabilitate inmates, nor does it adequately prepare them for the uphill process of putting their lives back together outside prison walls. Meeting deadlines with probation officers is non-negotiable and include finding employment, a place to live, money to pay fees, and reliable transportation to accomplish these tasks.

The imminent threat of going back to prison adds additional pressure, and many do just that: a 9-year (2005-2014) Bureau of Justice study shows 43-55% of ex-offenders end up back inside. More than 30% of those who re-offend do so within the first 12 months of release, with the first three years showing the peak arrest rates.

Extended time in solitary is particularly traumatic. Studies have been able to measure DNA rewiring and physical changes in the brain occurring within the first 24 hours. Mental trauma akin to having suffered a head injury and PTSD make assimilation back into to daily life painfully difficult.

And I don’t have a study to quote but I’ve personally observed what I will call an unsympathetic, rather unforgiving public sentiment toward felons in general. It seems “time served” for some people means nothing and felons are not to be afforded the benefit of a second chance. I’ve heard people say things like, “Well, I’m not the one who went to jail.” Or my personal favorite, “They shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place.”

It’s beyond the scope of this post for me to get into the particulars on the failings of the justice system, but at the very least consider that a prison term was served, and ex-offenders are not escapees. Supposedly people serve time so they could pay their “debt to society” for whatever wrongdoing was done.

I think it only makes sense support those coming back into our communities by allowing them the rights that other people have. Otherwise, why let them out in the first place?

Anyway, do check out the film short I posted. Henderson-Uloho’s compassion for others in similar circumstances is a gorgeously moving thing to behold. If you are able, I encourage you to donate. She has lots of options for directing funds to help out in specific ways, like with basic toiletries or a fresh bed. Or just a straight-up digital cash gift works too.

Federal Prisons Continue Contracting with Private Industry // Clinton-Era Setencing Rules That Just Won’t Die

The Trump administration has quickly abandoned the Obama administration’s resolve to no longer contract with for-profit private prisons. Companies like The GEO Group and CoreCivic Inc. lead the industry and have contracts with the federal government, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Obama announced the move away from the private prison system last September. It came shortly after a Mother Jones undercover investigative report (June 2016) took Americans inside one of the country’s most dangerous, run by Corrections Corporation of America in Alabama.

With Trump green-lighting private prisons in the federal system once again, there seems to be little hope that for-profit prison’s history of cutting corners (CO pay, overcrowding, safety violations, keeping inmates after their sentences are up) will see desperately-needed reform.

Already a source of major profits for shareholders who make more money from higher occupancy rates, many major companies (Whole Foods, AT&T, Walmart) now utilize prison labor, somewhat under the radar from the public. Under scrutiny for paying wages as low as 16 cents/hr in some cases, the rules surrounding fair pay for inmate labor favor businesses rather than protect laborers – and I’m guessing (no data on this) it impacts American jobs and salaries.

There are laws that govern prison wages, such as the Percy Amendment, but these are outdated. Private companies contracting prison labor must meet minimum wage requirements or something close to it,  but there are tax breaks that companies get for using this labor. Laborers which are not declared as official “employees” and thus do not have to pay unemployment taxes, for example.

Additionally, up to 80% of prison pay is deducted from their checks for various fees that go back to the prison, like room & board. This seems like double dipping to me, at least in the case of private prisons since they are already given a guaranteed stipend from the state they’re in based on minimum contracted occupancy levels. Also if there is a room and board charge only for those who work, it is unfair and inconsistently applied.

I have firsthand observed how stressful it is for inmates to successfully assimilate back into society and meet financial obligations upon release. Finding a place to live, meeting the terms of parole and fines imposed by the courts are heavy responsibilities for someone with no income. Recidivism could be greatly reduced if the corporations leveraging prison labor were forced to acknowledge them as actual employees, making prisoners eligible for unemployment benefits upon release.

And that brings us to this past Friday, when a two-page memo was released by Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing US attorneys to, among other things, “immediately” adhere to mandatory sentencing guidelines which have been proven ineffective.

He asserted in a statement to the public that he was looking to punish drug traffickers, but the Clinton-era crackdown on crime has long been proven a total disaster. Minimum mandatory sentencing laws disproportionately jailed people of color and non-violent drug users who pose no threat to public safety.

Former AG Eric Holder said the easing of mandatory minimums for non violent offenders has enabled the Justice Department to jail more high-level drug dealers.

Muddying the prison pot are Session’s investments, which might prove a serious conflict of interest. I’m trying to track down if he followed up on orders to divest once he took the AG office, but the jury is still out…here’s what I did find:

Sessions has considerable holdings in Vanguard, the largest purveyor of funds with investment in the private prison industry.

  • iVanguard Total Stock Market Index Admiral Shares – consists of both GEO Group and CoreCivic, Inc. stocks worth over $164,000,000. Sessions investment value is from $15,001 – $50,000.
  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Admiral Shares – same fund as above, but Sessions lists investment value between $1,001 – $15,000.
  • Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund Admiral Shares – consisits of stocks from The GEO Group and CoreCivic, Inc. valued at over $173,500,000. Sessions shows investments valued from $15,000 – $50,000.
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index Admiral Shares – contains GEO Holdings Corporation stock valued at over $4,400,000. Sessions owns $1,001 – $15,000 of this fund.

Vice Motherboard reported in January (2017), Sessions failed to disclose the 600-acres of subsurface oil and mineral reserves located beneath a wildlife refuge in Alabama. I’m not super-wealthy, so I have no idea what it’s like to completely forget I have land worth more than I could dare to guess. But Sessions does not adhere to the same strict rule of law for himself as he is ready to impose on others.

I am not aware of any reports that he divested from his Vanguard funds listed above, and if he hasn’t it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s a story I’m watching with a weary eye.

The two-page Sessions memo is linked via NPR: