For Many Ex-Offenders, Poverty Follows Prison The U.S. incarceration rate is the highest in the world with about 2.3 million people behind bars. But while the country spends more than $50 billion a year on incarceration, the economic prospects of people who have been in prison remain bleak.

For Many Ex-Offenders, Poverty Follows Prison

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Last week, we brought you a number of stories related to the criminal justice system. We talked about the case of two sisters who were sentenced to life in prison for a robbery that they say they didn't commit, but in any case, yielded $11. And we told you about a new film that tells the incredible story of a woman who fought for 18 years to free her brother from prison.

Today, we want to talk about why prison matters - not just as an unpleasant experience, but about the question of whether the fact of having been in prison affects a person's life forever. That matters because over the past 30 years, the number of people behind bars in the U.S. has quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980, to 2.3 million now.

That makes the U.S. incarceration rate the highest in the world. In fact, according to a Pew study, the U.S. houses more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. And now, new research shows that a person's status as a former inmate limits him or her to such an extent that it may be nearly impossible to climb out of poverty even decades after release.

This issue is examined in a new issue of the journal Daedalus from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And one of the authors of this study is with us now. Her name is Becky Pettit, and she's an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Professor BECKY PETTIT (Sociology, University of Washington): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Eugene Nelson. He is a former inmate who is now in school at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. And we'd like to mention that Mr. Nelson is three years removed from his release, and he served a 20-year sentence for sexual assault.

And I welcome you also, Mr. Nelson. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. EUGENE NELSON (Student, University of Wisconsin): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Professor Pettit, I wanted to ask you: How did you get interested in this question?

Prof. PETTIT: I started working on something entirely different. I was working on research that was investigating the Moving to Opportunity program, which is a housing relocation program. It was in five cities, including Los Angeles. And so I was doing research in Los Angeles, and I was interviewing women who were participating in the program.

All of the women had children, and at some point in the conversation, we started talking about the fathers of their children. And all of them had either been or were in prison or jail.

MARTIN: The argument that your article makes - and it's titled "Incarceration and Social Inequality" - is that there's a prison-to-poverty-to-prison cycle, that higher rates of incarceration actually produced more poverty, and that more poverty produces more incarceration. You're saying that the fact of having been incarcerated can affect not only your life, but the next generation's life. It could pass on kind of intergenerational poverty. Tell me about that.

Prof. PETTIT: Over the last 35 years, incarceration has become deeply concentrated among low-skill groups, people who have dropped out of high school. And some of the research suggests that over 60 percent of young black men who dropped out of high school will spend some time in prison. When they get out of prison or jail, our research also finds that they have even more difficult time getting a job, keeping a job.

They also experience reduced wages if they are working. And so, in this way, there's this long-term consequence after release from prison. And that has consequence for their ability to provide for their children and to establish relationships, to contribute to communities. And one of the really important things in our work, we find that there are 2.3 million people in prison or jail, and they have 2.6 million children under the age of 18.

So those children are experiencing not only the loss of a parent while the parent is in prison or jail, they're more likely to be in poverty. They're more likely to live with a single parent. They're more likely to have behavioral problems, particularly the boys. So there are these long-term consequences that are not only relevant for inmates themselves, but also for their children and the communities in which they live.

MARTIN: The study says that a criminal record was found to reduce callbacks from perspective employers by around 50 percent, an effect that was larger for African-Americans than for whites. And you further write that incarceration may reduce economic opportunities in several ways. The conditions of imprisonment may promote habits and behaviors that are poorly suited to the routines of regular work. Time in prison means time out of the labor force, depleting the work experience of the incarcerated. The stigma of a criminal conviction may also repel employers who prefer job applicants with clean records.

So let's talk to Mr. Nelson about this. You are three years - three years since you've been returned to us.

Mr. NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: And so congratulations on that.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: How old were you when you went away?

Mr. NELSON: Well, you know, actually, I was 18 years old, 19 years old when I went away. I was actually in school at the time, so I did have some employment, but it wasn't anything in terms of a stable, career-minded employment. It was just high school employment. But just, you know, to relate to some of the things that Becky was saying, I completely agree in terms of the fact that it is a snowball effect for individuals who are in prison. And keep in mind that in 2007, when I got out we were in the middle of a recession. So you had individuals who, you know, were losing jobs, and so it kind of, like, compounded the situation for those who, like myself, who had gotten out and had a felon. And so...

MARTIN: Okay, well, give me an example. What would happen? I mean, you'd go -where would you go? Would you fill out an application? You wouldn't get a call back? What exactly would happen?

Mr. NELSON: I filled out several applications. I also went to several temp services. And one of the key things is that when you write an application, they ask you on the application if you have a criminal background. And on...

MARTIN: And then you say yes.

Mr. NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: And then what happened?

Mr. NELSON: And I said yes, but I would also detail briefly I would like to talk about it in an interview. I wouldn't receive any callbacks at all. And...

MARTIN: Have you ever been called back for any job that you've applied for since you've been released?

Mr. NELSON: Yes, I have. And the reason why I have, because the individual, the manager whom I applied for at a restaurant, knew me and my family. And again, it was really based on actually having a foot in and knowing someone versus going through the situations I went through earlier where I went through the temp services, filled out applications at various restaurants, and in some cases, a couple of cases, kind of got a little cold shoulder, so to speak.

MARTIN: But here's a difficult question...

Mr. NELSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...which is that, you know, if - Mr. Nelson, and I don't mean to hurt your feelings. But the fact is you were incarcerated for a violent crime with sexual assault, okay?

Mr. NELSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So do you fault an employer who may be concerned about your ability to handle stress or to handle conflict, for example, or maybe bringing you in contact with women or something like that, Mr. Nelson? So do you - what do you say?

Mr. NELSON: You know, I think that is a difficult question, but I also believe that one of the key factors is that everyone, anyone who has completed their incarceration and have participated in programs or have received some education while they're incarcerated deserve an opportunity. For a violent crime or nonviolent crime, I think they should at least be afforded an opportunity to be a contributing, positive member in society. And one of the reasons or one of the opportunities in doing that is to have employment - gainful employment. So I think that it is a difficult question, and yes, you know, there should be some concerns. But I also think that in giving someone an opportunity, you place them in a position to lose some of those stereotypes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about a new study that suggests that incarceration can handicap someone in the workforce for decades after that person leaves prison and, in fact, can disadvantage his or her family even on into the future.

We are talking about why that might be with Becky Pettit. She's coauthor of that study for the journal Daedalus. And Eugene Nelson, he's a former incarcerated American. He's now attending school at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

MARTIN: And Professor Pettit, I would want to return to the subject of your study, which is that incarceration has profound, long-term effects for years on people's employment opportunities, or their sort of their opportunities, you know, overall. Why is that effect so profound? Is it that there are so many more people who have been incarcerated now than there were 20 years ago that people are not willing to take as much of a chance? Why do you think the effect is profound as it is?

Prof. PETTIT: I think one of the things I just want to point out is that there are an increasing number of legal prohibitions on employment after release from prison. And so there are certain classes of jobs that are off limits. And some of those classes of jobs are exactly the kind of jobs that would otherwise be available to people without a college degree or without specific skills. But at the same time - and this gets to the larger point, which is our economy has been changing over quite some time. We can think about we're in a global economy. Many of what formerly were low-skilled jobs or jobs for people who dropped out of high school or people who only had a high school diploma, they no longer exist in this country, or they no longer exist in the numbers that they did before.

So we can't think about the growth in the criminal justice system and the implications after release in the absence of thinking about what does the labor market look like today? And so I think this is something that employers make decisions about choosing employees, and it's easy to discount people who've spent time in the criminal justice system, in many ways. I mean, that's exactly the idea of stigma, that there's some sort of a signal that that says about people being unreliable or people being somehow a high risk, when, in fact, the employer may not have any information specifically to that.


Prof. PETTIT: But it's an easy way for them to discount.

MARTIN: So Mr. Nelson, how are your spirits, by the way? You say you have been able to get...

Mr. NELSON: You know what? I really wanted to...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. NELSON: I'm sorry. I really wanted to piggyback what Ms. Pettit said as my experience.


Mr. NELSON: No one really knows or have the background or the history of what transpired, so you can make a split judgment just based on saying someone was incarcerated for a sexual offense or someone was incarcerated for this offense. For me, you know, it was discouraging being able to go back out into the workforce and be denied an opportunity. It goes back to having an opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, you've got - Mr. Nelson, you've got - let's say that the first half of your life is now behind you. Or let's hope that at least the second half of your life is in front of you. What do you see?

Mr. NELSON: I see and I pray that individuals will be more forgiving, not so concerned about an individual's past, but his or her ability to be positive now and into the future, and giving those individuals an opportunity to excel.

MARTIN: Eugene Nelson is a former inmate, a returning citizen who is now a student at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He joined us from member station WUWM. And Becky Pettit is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Prof. PETTIT: Thanks for having me.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you for having me.

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