I thought that when I was released from prison in early 2015, after blowing the whistle on the CIA's illegal torture program, I could step right back into my life and live happily ever after. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Four years have passed since I got home and things still aren't back to "normal." With that said, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have bachelor's and master's degrees. I have 20 years of government experience with the CIA and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I was an on-camera commentator for ABC News. But now daily life is a struggle. I work three different jobs to put food on the table. I'm not at all unique. That's the rule, not the exception.
Imagine, then what life is like for someone who has been convicted of a violent crime. Imagine what it's like even if that crime was committed decades ago, as a juvenile who has since done his time, "reformed," and gone on to try to lead a productive life. It's just not possible. That impossibility the roadblocks that ex-felons face trying to reintegrate into society are what lead to recidivism. If this administration or any other is serious about prison reform and sentencing reform, reintegration, coupled with education and job training, has to be at the top of the agenda.
I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. James Watson did something stupid when he was 17 years old. He robbed a man at gunpoint after taking him to an ATM machine to withdraw money. Armed robbery is, of course, considered to be a violent crime. Taking the man to an ATM was deemed to be kidnapping. As a result of those crimes and a subsequent gun charge, James was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served 15 years.
During those 15 years, the teenage James became the adult James. He took classes in prison, made restitution to his victim, and did his time without incident. And when he got out, there was nothing waiting for him. James tried hard to get a job. He was willing to take any job. But there were none. James has a lot of friends who wanted to help, but were not in a position to do so. He decided to travel to Greece, and later the Philippines, to look for work. He even spent time as a mercenary, fighting courageously alongside Syria's Kurds against the terrorist group ISIS. That's not a career, however.
James returned to Montana and has been on the verge of homelessness and bankruptcy ever since. What company would hire a "violent" felon? What apartment complex would rent an apartment to one? James thought that he had done his time, only to realize that a felon never really does all of his time. The punishment, the ostracism, follows you for the rest of your life. And in the meantime, he's getting older. His body is beginning to break down from years trying to earn a living as a professional mixed martial arts fighter, so hard labor is not possible. It seems that only clemency would help him.
What does a person do? For many ex-felons, literally the only alternative to homelessness and unemployment is a return to crime. Don't forget that, reformed or not, ex-felons have spent years around other felons. People in prison love to talk about their crimes and their cases. A person can learn a lot. (In my book "Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison," I detail how, in 23 short months of incarceration, I learned how to manufacture meth, how to set up a Ponzi scheme, and how to defraud the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among other things.) It's not the kind of education most people would want.
The bottom line is twofold: Jobs and forgiveness. There is an active campaign across the country to "ban the box," whereby employers would be prohibited from asking on a job application whether the applicant has any felony convictions. That's a great idea in theory, but all an employer has to do is to google an applicant. They don't need boxes on applications anymore. What ex-felons need is job training and an apprenticeship program. Employers could receive tax credits for hiring newly-released prisoners, training them, and giving them a job. The government, whether state or federal, could bond them. They'd likely be on parole or probation anyway, so the prospect of returning to prison would probably ensure good behavior.
The tougher of the two is forgiveness. How long does society hold a grudge against a person who has been convicted of a crime? How long does a person have to be punished? How do people like James support themselves without having to return to a life of crime? These are questions that we should be asking of our elected officials. In the meantime, if you have a job available in the state of Montana, let me know.
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