Principal Ryan Puckett worked with RecycleForce President Gregg Keesling on the following opinion editorial originally published in the August 31, 2013 edition of The Indianapolis Star. The op-ed is in reaction to the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Dream of Equality Must Include Ex-offenders
by Gregg Keesling
On Aug. 28, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s empowering and invigorating “I Have a Dream” speech.
In that historic address, King spoke of the state of racial inequality in 1963. In the shadow of the statue of the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier, he lamented that black Americas were still not free. He rightfully accused America of writing a “bad check” that came back marked “insufficient funds”.
While there has been great progress since 1963 there is much ground to cover. As former President Clinton reminded us at the anniversary celebration, “there remain racial inequalities in employment, income, health, wealth, incarceration, and in the victims and perpetrators of violent crime.”
The demographics of the U.S. criminal justice system underscore this inequality. African-Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated population. In Indiana, black males make up 4.3 percent of the state’s population , but 37 percent of its adult prison population .
If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Not only must we prevent this trend, we must change the way we treat those returning from prison, regardless of the color of their skin.
The destiny of white ex-offenders is tied up with that of African-American ex-offenders. The freedom of each of us is “inextricably bound” in the freedom of the former inmate.
We are destined to continue to fund prison budgets at astronomical rates if we don’t change the way we handle those who have served their time and if we fail to provide true, legitimate second chances.
The idea that by serving time one has paid his debt to society is ingrained in our social narrative, but it is not true. Once one is caught up in the tides of the criminal justice system it is very difficult to escape – recidivism rates in America exceed 66 percent. To borrow from King, it’s like “quicksand” of injustice.
But Dr. King’s words inspire me, “This situation can and will be changed” and I am not willing to allow formally incarcerated men and women to “wallow in the valley of despair”. As President Obama urged Americans during the celebration, we must continue to march.
Obama reminds us “that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security.” For most ex-offenders, that liberty is elusive.
But not if we march.
We must march against a growing prison population – the world’s largest – filled with individuals who have not committed a new crime. Roughly one-third of the Americans entering prison each year return for a technical rule violation.
In 2012, of those on probation or parole who were subsequently remanded to the Indiana Department of Correction, 71 percent were remanded for a technical rule violation (TRV). A variety of issues can result in a TRV, but key to the definition of TRVs is that a new crime was not committed.
By providing flexible employment and immediate wage-paid work in combination with job skills training and supportive services, we can eliminate the massive amount of human capital languishing in our prisons for minor infractions.
But we must march. Indiana’s new expungement law is step in the right direction, but we must continue to march.
If we believe prison should be reserved to provide rehabilitative services to those who are a threat to society, and not how we punish those who are unemployed and unable to keep up with re-entry fees and obligations, we must march forward.
I march for second chances.
Keesling is president of RecycleForce in Indianapolis