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12.28.10

Obama's Vick Prison Gambit

By praising Michael Vick's "second chance" after the NFL quarterback served 19 months in prison on a dogfighting conviction, the president is creating an opening for a national discussion on opportunities for former prisoners.

By praising Michael Vick’s “second chance” after the NFL quarterback served 19 months in prison on a dogfighting conviction, Mansfield Frazier, an ex-con, says the president is creating an opening for a national discussion on opportunities for former prisoners.

President Barack Obama is causing quite a stir in the national prisoner reentry movement with his comments on Michael Vick. “So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,” Obama reportedly told the owner of Vick’s football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. “...It’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out.”

The Eagles signed Vick after he served 19 months in prison for running a dogfighting operation, and by praising the team’s owner for giving the quarterback a second chance, the president is broaching a subject that’s sure to be polarizing. As states across the U.S. struggle with looming budget deficits, Obama perhaps realizes the timing may be right to address what he has called the country’s “incarceration and post-incarceration crisis” and remove barriers that inhibit successful prisoner reentry by offering former offenders an opportunity to reclaim their lives and a modicum of dignity.

While Obama’s conversation with the Eagles’ owner, Jeffrey Lurie, about second chances for formerly incarcerated persons might be among his most publicized pronouncements on the subject, they certainly were not his first. As a presidential candidate in September 2008, he sent a letter to the Third Annual Prisoner Reentry Summit commending San Francisco city leaders for their “innovative work to reduce recidivism” and pledging to create opportunities for former prisoners if elected.

Obama said in his letter that he “recognized that American urban communities are facing an incarceration and post-incarceration crisis.” He vowed to create a prison-to-work incentive program… to create ties between employers and third-party agencies that provide training and support services to ex-offenders and to improve ex-offender employment and job-retention rates.” He also pledged he would “work to reform correctional systems that prevent former inmates from finding and maintaining employment.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at the Project Safe Neighborhoods Annual Conference in July, echoed the president’s commitment to the issue by stating that incarceration is not an economically sustainable way to combat crime.

“Most Americans have a very punitive mind-set…they don’t seem to care that we lock up far too many people, for far too long, for relatively minor crimes.”

“At the close of 2009, the U.S. prison population was 1,610,446—a rate of 504 inmates in custody per 100,000 U.S. residents,” wrote Randall G. Shelden, a senior research fellow at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, in a recently posted research brief. “If we include jails, the number of people incarcerated totals more than 2.3 million, and the incarceration rate climbs to 754... The United States incarcerates almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners yet has only 5 percent of the world’s population.”

Holder’s verdict on the cost of our “incarceration nation”: “At a cost of $60 billion per year our prisons and jails do little to prepare prisoners for jobs. This is a recipe for high recidivism. And it’s the reason that two-thirds of those released are rearrested within three years. It’s time for a new approach.”

Michael Vick’s case might provide the right entrée for a national conversation about such a new approach.

Nonetheless, Edward Little, a Cleveland-based reentry consultant who lobbies for saner reentry policies at both the state and national level, cautions that selling the idea of removing barriers to successful reentry is tricky indeed. “You can’t sell people on ‘hug-a-thug” programs… people are not going to buy into progressive reentry policies simply because it’s the right and fair thing to do,” he said. “Most Americans have a very punitive mind-set… they don’t seem to care that we lock up far too many people, for far too long, for relatively minor crimes. Even though the crime rate has fallen for decades, the incarceration rate has continued to climb. They have to be convinced that saner policies will keep much-needed dollars in state coffers, and therefore in their wallets.”

President George W. Bush first addressed the subject of prisoner reentry when he pushed hard for passage of the Second Chance Act of 2007. However, although the act was codified into federal law, many federal agencies still ignore it when considering individuals for employment. The Census Bureau routinely turned down former felons for employment, until it had trouble finding enough other citizens to carry out the count. Only then was it stated the Census Bureau would consider folks for employment on a “case-by-case” basis.

Former felons like the highly skilled Vick obviously encounter fewer barriers when attempting to reenter society, and a select few, like Martha Stewart, encounter none. Stewart’s star seemed to rise even higher upon her release, reinforcing the notion that class, along with race, play an important role in the reentry paradigm. Struggling with reentry is a province of the poor.

And money also plays an important role in the lucrative prison industry, and has done so for years. In President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation, he warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

Many experts, including Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, argue that a prison-industrial complex has been quietly on the rise in America for a number of decades, and the profit motives of purveyors of goods and services to institutions, coupled with the growing prison privatization movement, are antithetical to successful reentry. “We remain bullish” on private prisons, said Jeffrey T. Kessler, an equity researcher at Lehman Brothers, in 2007. And why not? What business owner would not like to own a hotel that was always full?

As states around the nation scramble to make up shortfalls, legislative eyes always turn to those most vulnerable: the elderly, the young, the sick, and the incarcerated. So as prisons become more overcrowded, less money is available for programming that would reduce recidivism, and the revolving door spins even faster as a gullible citizenry is fooled into thinking this makes them more secure in their homes and persons.

Attorney and former Cleveland city councilman Ken Lumpkin, after reviewing the 2009 expenditures for our nation’s prisons, said, “Any nation that is constructing more prisons than universities, that is spending more to incarcerate non-dangerous people than it does to educate its young people, that won’t provide second chances for those seeking to turn their lives around… is about to begin that long slide into the dustbin of history.”

But Edward Little sees a ray of hope. He welcomes the president’s remarks on Vick. “It’s a start… we’re not going to be able to turn this thing around overnight, but at least these words just might be a start.”

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.