David Chura is the author of I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. He has worked with at-risk teenagers for the past 40 years. For 26 of those years, he taught English and creative writing in community based alternative schools and in a county penitentiary. His writings have appeared in the New York Times as well as other scholarly and literary journals.
I’ve worked with “slow” learners all of my 26 years as a teacher. But nothing matches the lack of understanding, insight and plain common sense that many of our politicians and their constituents show when it comes to the treatment of ex-offenders, people who by the law of the land have served their time, paid their dues, made amends, learned their lesson, been punished—whatever language matches your view of justice.
I’m thinking about ex-offenders and voting rights. In many states men and women who have been incarcerated are denied one of the basic rights of any democracy: to help select who will govern your daily life. Meanwhile, ex-offenders are expected to stay out of jail, rebuild their lives, and become productive members of the community even though they can’t fully be a part of that community.
I’m not too sure how many people see the irony in that logic. The kids I taught for ten years in the county jail did. Most of them had been labeled “slow,” and yes, most of them probably weren’t able to articulate what irony is (then again, I’m not too sure how many other Americans could either.) Still, these kids knew it when they saw it.
Anyone who has been locked up hears plenty about respect for society, for the law, for other people and their property, and so they should since that respect is essential for civil communities and nations. But at the same time inmates and ex-offenders are not afforded that same respect when it comes to jobs, housing and voting rights. Or as my students would put it, “What goes ‘round, in this case, definitely doesn’t come ‘round.”
The ACLU reports that many states continue to deny voting rights to ex-offenders and that that denial can extend anywhere from the length of time the person has been incarcerated up to a lifetime in ten states. While Virginia’s new leader, Governor McDonnell, intents not only to continue the process already in place of allowing former inmates to apply for a restoration of their voting rights but to actually streamline it, Iowa is about to take a step backward. Newly elected Governor Branstad declared during the gubernatorial race that he would rescind his predecessor’s 2005 executive order restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. He seems set to follow through on that regressive and oppressive promise despite the urgent call from over 20 civil rights groups to reconsider.
Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but whenever I hear stories like Iowa’s governor rescinding voting rights, I can’t help thinking, “What lesson are we trying to teach?”
Most offenders have been disenfranchised all their lives. They’ve never felt a part of any society. Many come from backgrounds of deprivation, living in neighborhoods devastated by poverty, violence, addiction and disease, neighborhoods abandoned by the larger community. The schools they attended, or in so many cases were kicked out of or fled from on their own, weren’t much better. And not coincidently the majority of locked up men and women are people of color.
The way they are treated during incarceration as well as when they are released only reinforces the lessons they’ve had drummed into them since childhood—that they are outcasts, outsiders, and eventually outlaws. A basic concept in all human relations is that the way we treat people is the way they’ll act. When my jailhouse students and I discussed this idea in a communications lesson they summed it up crudely but cogently, “Treat people like shit and they’ll act like shit.”
And so we’re back to the slow learners. Too often people are puzzled and angered at the high rate of recidivism among young offenders. “Why can’t these kids just learn their lesson and stay out of jail?” But I’m not too sure who’s the slow learner here. It looks to me as though those repeat offenders may have learned the lesson we’re teaching all too well. Perhaps it’s our policymakers, and ultimately we the voters, who are the slow learners as we continue to fail to recognize the damaging effects the criminal justice system has on all its citizens. A small but significant step in correcting our national ignorance would be to restore voting rights to ex-offenders and so restore a small portion of the respect and dignity they’ve been denied.
Photo by Kenn Wilson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.