Ex Marks The Spot

by  Assistant Editor

Like a slave master’s bull whip marking up the back of a slave, an invisible X marks the back of an ex-offender from the inside out, advocates claim, leaving many of them in pain and without a leg to stand on.

Ex-offenders expressed to me that once they are released from the controlled environment of prison into an uncontrolled society that doesn’t embrace them as human beings, they feel left out and lost. They feel as if they don’t exist.

Often, ex-offenders feel that they have been X-ed out of society. Many have expressed to me that they feel like every day living is like climbing up a steep rocky mountain, almost like Mt. Everest. Many of the ex-offenders referred to the high hurdles and loops they have to jump through trying to obtain housing and jobs.

The ex-offenders have already served their time in prisons and penitentiaries across the state; they wonder why they must continue serving time on the outside.

“Haven’t we already served our time behind bars?” asked Joseph Watkins, spokesperson for VOTE – Voices of the Ex-Offenders – an organization that advocates for the ex-offenders and the poor. Watkins explained to me that he had filled out hundreds of employment applications and had not received any calls back after he revealed that he was an ex-offender.

The issues facing these men and women are basic: they need employment and income, housing, childcare, healthcare and education.

Some ex-offenders say that the lack of access to these needs is the reason why some of them return back to a life of crime and end back behind cold gray steel bars. There seems to be a never ending cycle that keeps revolving and society is never solving the plight of the ex-offenders.

“We have to eat, drink, and to live just like everyone else,” one man who had just been released from prison told me. Well, maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the ex-offenders. Representative Constance “Connie” Howard (D-34) introduced a bill called the Automatic Expungement Act to try to address the concerns of the ex-offenders. The bill recently passed the House and Senate.

The bill states that “that the arrest, conviction, and court records of a person who has been convicted of a misdemeanor shall be expunged and sealed automatically after completion of his or her sentence, if certain conditions apply.” A person with a Class 4 felony may also be able to have his or her record sealed.

David Bates, an ex-offender and an organizer for the Justice Coalition said “The Expungement Bill that Representative Howard recently got passed doesn’t go far enough to address the needs of the ex-offenders. Her bill only deals with non-violent misdemeanors.

“What about the ex-offenders who went to the penitentiary for selling drugs and have received a Class X felony. It doesn’t address his or her needs but yet it was also non-violent act.”

US Congressman Danny K. Davis, who worked closely with Howard, Rep. Art Turner, and state Sen. Barack Obama, expressed to me that he is working hard on addressing the concerns and the issues of the ex-offenders.

State Rep. Connie Howard (lower left), Alderman Burnett (with megaphone), Rev. Paul Jakes (right) led a rally downtown about the issues of the ex-offenders.

“I and Representative Howard would also agree that the expungement bill doesn’t go far enough,” Davis said. “We are just beginning to scratch the surface, but what we can agree on is that – oh my God – we have come so much farther then we were.”

“Every chance I get I’m raising the issues of the ex-offenders but we do need more levels of support in order to get the ex-offender’s issues addressed,” Davis continued.

Davis brought to my attention that he has spoken about the plight of ex-offenders in Springfield, Bloomington, Savanna, Georgia, Detroit, and Tallahassee and will continue to fight on behalf the ex-offenders.

In fact, Congressman Davis is sponsoring a new bill called the “Second Chance Act of 2004: Community Safety through Recidivism Prevention.” The proposed legislation would provide $113 million for a variety of ex-offender programs. Davis described the bill, which has support from the President, as an important first step to address the needs of the ex-offenders.

Ex-offenders are hoping the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train, but a better life.

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