Returning Citizens

Posted on April 6, 2014


Sometime long ago I read that one can judge a civilization by how they treat their elderly and their prisoners. Presumably you can amend this and add your favorite category as a measuring stick: children, women, Indians, foreigners, left-handed people, the poor, the sick and infirm, and all new politically correct characterizations of the old categories of insane or retarded such as the impaired, the challenged, and so forth.

A while ago, on the other hand, an old friend and retired professor of economics at UA, Eric Baklanoff, sent me a piece published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland on “returning citizens.” I always skim or read what Eric shares with me since he has an eye for what’s important. He’s also a World War II Navy veteran, which reminded me of “veterans” as another category we could add to measuring the merits of civilizations. How are veterans treated?


Returning from what? It is a new euphemism for what we used to call “ex-cons,” or people who have done jail or prison time.
I’m not politically correct, but I kind of liked “returning citizens,” since ex-cons sounds too much like infantry in the New Jersey mafia.
The article addresses the question of how to deal with returning citizens who are usually grossly unable to operate as normal, working people.
The key is to find employment, and everything seems stacked up against returning citizens. There a lot of them. One in thirty-seven of U. S. adults, or more than 6.6 million, have served time in a state or federal prison. “Among the lowest income population, the group in which these citizens nearly always fall, the unemployment rate is 50 percent.” This is a staggering statistic.

To state the obvious, returning citizens are typically less educated, and less able to find employment. The unemployment rate nationally for the less educated was fifteen percent in 2010, while the unemployment rate of New York’s returning citizens was thirty-six percent.
Other barriers include not only lack of education, but also the lack of “soft” skills like reliability and punctuality, two areas that employers insist upon. About seventy percent of offenders and returning citizens are high school dropouts and about half are functionally illiterate. Many lack any work experience.

Some gain some limited work experience while incarcerated, but only about seven percent participate in state prison jobs, and these skills—garment assemble and license plate manufacturing for example—are mostly not relevant in today’s economy.

The statistics on substance abuse and other physical and mental problems are just as grim. Three fourths of incarcerated men have had substance abuse problems, eighteen percent have hepatitis C, two to three percent have AIDS, and the list continues. Both sexes suffer from low esteem.

So, what are the remedies? Some programs focus on training and properly motivating returning citizens once released. Some federal and state programs support businesses that consider employing returning citizens by providing guarantees against theft or other crimes committed by returning citizens. That doesn’t reflect a high degree of faith in the program. Some tax credits exist for businesses employing returning citizens as inducement.

The bottom line of this article is in the first line, “The best anti-poverty program is a good job.” We will always have jails and prisons, just as we will always have the poor (Matthew 26:11). We are biased against the poor, against prisoners, and against returning citizens, although those represent three different but related categories.

In a culture driven by competition and materialism, to be poor is a stigma.

Prisoners are usually shrugged off with the flippant phrase, “if you’ve done the crime, then you do the time.”

Returning citizens inherit or come with so many handicaps mentioned above as to almost guarantee a high rate of recidivism, a fancy word for returning to jail or prison. More than two-thirds of returning citizens are rearrested within three years of their release.

Given jail and prison conditions in most other parts of the world, our returning citizens are treated pretty well here in America. But once you enter the system, given the high rate of recidivism and the other negative factors at work, you will find it hard to escape.

The question then becomes how to break that cycle of poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, a culture of entitlement, and inculcate, rather, responsibility, reliability, and a desire to learn a trade, to work, to renew your life with hope and faith in yourself and the system.


I think it has to come from a faith-based system that transforms not only the physical and psychological man, but her inner self. A good place to find that is in a church-related program of renewal. Change the inner person, and the outer man begins to reflect the inward changes.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday April 6, 2014, in my column The Port Rail as Stacked Odds Hurt Returning Citizens