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I was an invisible man in America for 15 years. I hid in plain sight, biding my time and navigating a cumbersome path to survive until I could remove the stigma of incarceration from my life and reclaim visibility.
The trope of invisibility is usually associated with Ralph Ellison’s protagonist from his classic novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s nameless black man bumps into a white man while walking and is outraged that the person did not respect his space, only to discover that the white man did not see him. But nothing prepared me for the reaction when I was released from prison in 1985. I believed that I was going to have a second chance at life. I worked hard, obtained my bachelor and master’s degrees but soon discovered that the stigma of having been incarcerated was so oppressive that I had to re think my strategy for reentry and reintegration.
Race, gender, and a hypocritical society that only paid lip service to the so-called second chance were obstacles. So was the Box, the one to check on many job applications that asked if I had ever been convicted of a crime. At one early job interview when I answered honestly that I had been convicted of a crime, the interviewer got up, fled the room, and never returned. I realized that to admit to being a felon who had served 4 years, 8 months and 9 days in prison made me unemployable. Honesty was not the best policy. I lied on job applications and only applied to positions that did not have the Box.
Like many others who are formerly incarcerated, black men in particular, I chose, to go underground. Not literally as Ellison’s protagonist did but by staying on the down low about my past and trying to make it disappear.
There are more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country. Over 600,000 are released every year. Seventy percent return to prison in an average of five years. Of that number over 50 percent are people of color. Control of black bodies post slavery was replaced first by segregation and oppressive Jim Crow laws and now mass incarceration.
Even when a black man has been accused of a crime, tried, and acquitted in the courts, he is very often still considered guilty. Look at filmmaker Nate Parker, who was acquitted of rape nearly two decades ago, became successful as an actor, and is currently being retried – and convicted by some – in the court of public opinion. This is why black men who go to prison, get out and try to build new lives for ourselves accept lower wages, are silent about work place exploitation, and often remain invisible. How is it that we can be acquitted and still treated as convicted? Is our debt to society never paid? Is redemption simply more lip service?
Harvard sociologist Bruce Western has studied the formerly incarcerated. His research suggests that to remove the stigma of incarceration one must do three things. One, obtain education and skills. Second, develop and cultivate a social and professional network of friends, family and colleagues who sustain you, not as an ex-con, but as a returning citizen. Third is society’s willingness to accept your reintegration. Even former President George W. Bush understood this. “America is the land of the second chance-and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life,” he said in his 2004 State of the Union address.
When I was released from Soledad State Prison 30 years ago, I had just finished a five year sentence which cost the State of California approximately $250,000. I was given $200.00 and a bus ticket. This is how reentry begins for everyone. It’s no wonder that only 30 percent of those formerly incarcerated are able to achieve successful reintegration.
What would really help the formerly incarcerated – particularly black men – is education and vocational programs while imprisoned, and housing, health care, and the creation of post-release social and professional support networks encompassing the elements Western describes. Most of all we need an understanding and mindful American society, one that believes in second chances.