Roundtrip Out of Prison

Rare is there consensus this broad across the political spectrum.

Mandatory drug-sentencing minimums that everyone from President Obama (who becomes the first president to visit a federal prison this week) and Hillary Clinton, to Ted Cruz and the Koch Brothers have railed against, are commonly viewed now as unjust law and ineffective policy. It's just that three decades of this policy have unalterably changed countless lives, and decimated entire American communities as a result.

I have seen first-hand how these policies, and their outgrowth, have helped feed a ceaseless cycle of recidivism. More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison every year in the U.S. and, according to the Justice Department, roughly two-thirds will be rearrested within three years.  Returnees-to-society are, most often, returnees-to-prison-in-waiting, churning a complex that gives America -- with its 5 percent of the world's population -- 25 percent of its prisoners.   

As someone who has traveled 100,000 Greyhound miles over the last decade, part of a project to shed light on the struggles of fellow riders, I've talked to many people who've found themselves somewhere along this vortex of human potential.

Returning to capital-starved, crime-ridden neighborhoods, with few if any honed skills for the work world; no real networking or technical skills, other than those of the survival variety; a nearly-insuperable ding on the resume (when you say you served 10 years in a federal prison, no matter if it was for possession of crack cocaine the size of a 10 nickels, no matter if it was sentenced 100 times harsher than powder used by those of greater means and whiter complexion). Nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving sentences for drugs, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

And changes in guidelines set out by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and subsequent Justice Department remits, can't win back the millions of lives affected by this now-agreed-upon failed policy. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, and the federal drug prisoner population grew by a factor of 20.

Greyhound is a common point of re-entry for ex-offenders.  The federal government and most states allow for a bus voucher, when required, for transportation out of prison, often to the state line, or to where one was sentenced. I would meet Keith, who was unable to get a (non-prison) state ID without his original birth certificate from another state, and proof of residency, where no such proof existed -- making housing, employment and public assistance applications impossible; Darren, whose debt (from pay-to-stay fees) upon leaving prison and whose difficulty finding "legitimate" work meant subsistence on cash enterprises alone; and many others who had cycled through multiple prisons, gaining experience that better served life on the inside than out.

Mass incarceration is its own epidemic, with fallout directly affecting the health (economic, societal, mental) of large swaths of our populace. And with roughly 1-in-31 citizens under corrections supervision, through incarceration, parole, and probation, according to the Pew Center, the implications of these now-agreed-upon failed policies are inextricable from the many ills of our collective American society.