To put it lightly, President Donald Trump’s approach to crime is problematic at best. It has become apparent that his law enforcement priorities include conviction as a default response to essentially every broken law, no matter how small the crime. His plans will not only put undeserving people in prison, but it will also make it much harder for those on parole to stay out of prison. Successful reentry is already a challenge, and Trump vows to make it worse.
In November, we held a Mass Story Lab in Greensboro, North Carolina. Storyteller Anita Bennett spoke about her negative experience on parole. "[Parole] is not designed for productivity,” she stated. “It is designed for failure." Parole refers to the supervision that those convicted receive once they are conditionally released back into society after serving time in prison. If the rules are violated in any way, those on parole risk returning to prison. Two-thirds of them will be back in prison within three years, and many of them for minor, non-violent offenses. Anita urged the audience to understand that parole is essentially incarceration after incarceration. After being unable to supply her probation fee of $15,500, she was threatened with more time and even taken to court. She recounts,
"The court decided I needed an additional three years of probation. Each time I went to court I was advised that I could once again be sent back to prison. But what's important to note here is that each time it was abundantly clear that it was the intention of my probation officer was to do just that: incarcerate me again. Really? For a non-violent crime?" –Anita Bennett
The goal of probation should be to provide a smooth transition, but in truth, the system is corrupt. There are countless reasons why people on parole may be sent back to prison, often for monetary reasons. This can affect many consequences for people. Employment is very difficult to come by for people who have been incarcerated, though required by parole. Many returning citizens are responsible for child support and required behavioral programs for things such as chemical dependency and mental health therapies. Anita, who pursued her degree while on parole, shares with us how much of her life was overtaken by this restrictive and harmful system:
"In total, one hundred and two months or two and a half years of incarceration, six years of probation and a total of seven court dates of time spent dealing with the judicial system. Not to mention the monetary part of it." –Anita Bennett
These excessive court dates restricted Anita’s ability to travel, preventing her from supporting her daughter, a traveling athlete, and being the mother that she wanted to be. Along with the probation fees, this was devastating for her.
People who are unable to pay their probation fees should not be sent to prison. The same goes for substance dependent, physically disabled, or mentally ill folks who are unable to attend required treatment programs, those who cannot find employment due to lack of education or skills, those who are illiterate and unable to fill out required forms, and the many who are left homeless. It is unacceptable that such struggles are considered violations of parole and often lead to additional prison time. Rather than a parole system that continues patterns of punishment and entrapment in the criminal justice system, we need a system of support, care, and empathy for people who are coming out of prison.
Visit www.MassStoryLab.com to find out how you can help us bring Mass Story Labs to 10 communities in 2017.
By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern.