“The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt.”
- Frederick Douglas
In July 1853, Douglas spoke not of the American incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated population, but of the African American experience in the U.S.. Nonetheless, were he to see the state of incarceration today and the social experience of those recently released from prison, he’d denounce with the same fervor the ignorance and bigotry that people outside of the system show to people in it.
When a person finishes his or her sentence and leaves prison, (s)he faces a barrage of challenges. If (s)he received felony charges, and in some circumstances if (s)he has any record at all, (s)he can be excluded from public health care, from food assistance, from state-subsidized housing, from voting (although not in Oregon, yay!), from some types of employment, and many have their licenses revoked. Additionally, employers can, and usually do, ask applicants if they have criminal records or felony charges. In this job market, a record is more than enough to block an applicant from a job. All of this, in conjunction with the requirements of probation or parole boards, which often include paying large fees for intake costs, required drug treatment programs, etc., inhibits new releases’ success. (Alexander 140-177).
Many new releases or probationers, say, however, that the harshest ongoing consequence of involvement with the system is the stigma that comes with it. The public reaction to dealing with the trauma of going to prison or having a family member charged with a crime is, silence, shaming, and judgment. All of these reactions function to exclude people from community rather then reintegrate them.
Here is where the true genius of Inside-Out arises. Beyond the learning that comes from spending time with people with varied personal histories, and economic, educational, and religious backgrounds, Inside-Out gives ‘outside’ students an opportunity for reflection. Each one of us interacts, distantly or intimately with people who have been directly impacted by involvement with the criminal justice system. However, when we see a woman pulling her child by the arm and smoking a cigarette and think “what a terrible parent”, or we walk at night by ourselves and cross the street to avoid crossing paths with the tough looking guy walking on our side, we may not be thinking about the judgment we’ve just made. Inside-Out allows each of us to do just that, to engage with our own stereotypes, to challenge them, and most importantly, to provide a space, at least for a few weeks, where students need not fear the inmate label, the expectations of delinquency, or the dismissal of humanity which people may press on them long after their release. Finally, the Inside-Out experience provides all of us the tools to create individual moments of reflection in our own lives, and to become people who grant every person the chance to let their actions and motivations, not their CHR’s, define them.
Inside-Out alumnus at U of O
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2011. Print