Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Poverty and Incarceration

Blog from Advocacy Intern, Elise Gahan

Most Monday’s, I get to sit around the classroom tables and enjoy a cup of coffee with Hub community members.  We chat about lighter issues like the weather or news but don’t shy away from the big issues of life.  I get to hear about the real, lived experiences of individuals and because of that, better understand the barriers and hurdles they must overcome to fight for what I had always considered basic rights.  I had not realized how difficult it is to secure and maintain safe housing or how there is a shortage of careers that provide a livable income rather than a job that barely allows a family to squeeze by.  But, by sitting around the table and hearing the stories of others, I better understand how exactly oppression is the root cause of poverty.  I see how when we collectively are not working to create a society where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed and thrive, the cycle of oppression will only continue.  In one conversation, I saw how prison is a specific way that this cycle is created.

I knew from the news that people who are incarcerated once are more likely to return to jail, but I never dug into the reasons why this is the case.   By talking to someone, I found out that after jail, some individuals go directly to a homeless shelter because they do not have the money necessary to rent a place of their own.  This does not dignify individuals or give them the resources and skills they need not only to survive but to create the life that will keep them from re-entering jail. Rather, it promotes the cycle of returning to jail.  As one person put it, “It’s a vicious cycle if you’ve been in jail for any length of time.  You don’t know how to live on the outside  It’s (jail) all you really know.”   If the purpose of jail or prison is to provide correctional action, we must evaluate whether or not that is occurring; is time spent behind bars resulting in a successful reentry into society?  I would argue that the lives of individuals who have been incarcerated is evidence that it is not.  

One of the flaws I see in our current correctional system is the lack of mental health care.  A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that 61% of inmates in State prison and 44% in local jails had mental health problems.  Additionally, 74% of State prisoners and 76% of local jail inmates that had a diagnosable mental health problem also met criteria for substance dependence or abuse.  Despite the high prevalence of mental problems in the prison system, little is done to address them with only 1 in 3 state prisoners and 1 in 6 local jail inmates receiving treatment while in correctional facilities.  While the relationship between crime, poverty, and mental illness is complex, failing to address the known underlying cause of mental health is a fatal flaw; one that is shown to cause re-entry into the prison system.  The rates of recidivism, particularly of those with mental illness, demonstrate the need for more services and treatment than what is currently provided.  Making mental health services a priority would increase the upfront cost of incarceration, but I believe that preventing future crime and equipping an individual to re-enter society successful must be worth that cost.

As I tried to think about what would be expected of me after exiting jail, the list became extensive and overwhelming quickly.  I realized how hard it is to get a job yet there are immediate needs for money, how you might lack a support system, you are expected to live successfully independent constant oversight, yet you may have never had a healthy role model and lack social support.  This is made even more difficult when safety net programs are made inaccessible.  For example, currently in Indiana, there is a ban on receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if you have had a drug conviction.  However, legislation has been introduced that would opt Indiana out of this federal law, which is much needed forward progress.    

I realized how society has conditioned individuals to pull themselves up from their own bootstraps, yet for formerly incarcerated individuals, we do not give them the opportunity to do so.  If someone has a gap in their resume or a felony on their record, they are often given no serious consideration at jobs that can develop into careers.  When I asked someone about jobs in Bloomington, they said, “After a while it’s hard to get a job unless you want to work for the college or for fast food joints… And if you don’t dress right or look right with long hair and a beard… You gotta look the part if you want the job.”  Not hiring the formerly incarcerated while expecting that they support themselves cannot coincide, so the result is formerly incarcerated individuals being forced to live in poverty.

Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard has seen the negative impact of this cycle in the lives of our patrons. We have seen people who are unable to get back on their feet because of their time spent in jail, and we have witnessed how a lack of jobs, housing, and resources creates insecurity and marginalization. We see that there are gaps in services that need to be filled.

Progress is happening.  The Monroe County Correctional Center is currently building a mental health unit that will provide services to the estimated 50% of inmates with mental illness.  The hope is that the services will continue as inmates transition out of jail to better address the medical needs they have.  This is a step in the right direction, one that will hopefully provide services that prevent recidivism and deal more directly with the root cause. In greater society, we can work together to support individuals with mental illness by advocating for continued expansion of mental health treatment facilities that are affordable and accessible to all.  When we place a higher value on holistic health, health that constitutes body and mind, progress can be made in creating an environment that supports all individuals.