So, what do labels have to do with prison reform? A lot it turns out.
Labels are a powerful thing. They influence how we see ourselves. They also influence how we see others, and how others see us. Labels impact our interaction with those around us, what we choose to do and how we define progress – in our own lives – and our country.
Some labels we take on ourselves. Others are given to us. This process plays out in our homes, our offices, our places of worship, our communities and our politics. We also see it at work in our prisons, jails and throughout the criminal justice system, where society’s labels like” felon,” “convict” and “prisoner” are amplified when people take on more personal labels like “hopeless,” “unlovable” or “forgotten.” Beating back those labels requires a decent amount of mercy, grace and time.
This week, for many of the 180,000 federal prisoners who might identify with some of those labels, a “first step” was taken that could ultimately help make their lives better. That step comes in the form of federal prison reform legislation that recently passed the House of Representatives. The bipartisan legislation, known as the First Step Act, would improve the quality of life for our incarcerated friends and family in federal prison through better education and vocational training opportunities, an upgraded good time credit process, a more compassionate release program for terminally ill inmates, new policies to allow people to be closer to their families, as well as enhanced programming for incarcerated mothers, which includes an end to the shackling of pregnant women.
If the bill makes its way through the Senate and becomes law, these changes would result in the immediate release of nearly 4,000 inmates who would qualify to return home under the new good time credit process. For the men and women directly impacted, as well as the family members of those who are working hard to get released early, that is great news.
While there are parts of the bill that could be improved upon, and added to, the fact is many of these changes will also help make lives better for non-prisoners and families who live in our local communities, as these family, education and vocational training policies have proven to improve a person’s ability to assimilate back into the community after prison, and therefore help lead to better job prospects and ultimately a reduction in crime.
Not everyone sees this legislation that way. In part, because people can and do disagree. But also because of the labels many of us bring to these debates. For some, releasing prisoners early seems counterintuitive to public safety, even as the data proves otherwise. For others, it is because President Trump is helping to lead the effort, and needless to say, there are many labels that get thrown his way on a regular basis.
Because of that, when President Trump says “America is a country that believes in redemption…a country that believes in second chances,” the public processes his comments through a variety of filters, lenses and labels. Likewise, when he says “our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter our society as productive, law-abiding citizens,” those same labels and filters can sometimes get in the way of our ability to digest the underlying message that is driving prison reform.
My hope is that we have the kind of commitment to mercy, grace and justice that will allow us to look beyond some of our labels and truly engage in this underlying conversation – a conversation that is ultimately about incarceration and the role of prisons in our society. It is an important, fundamental conversation that matters to millions of people, and matters more than most people realize – yet languishes in part because the labels we carry with us about prisoners, presidents and progress have blocked this much-needed conversation for too long.
We can do better.
As presidential adviser Jared Kushner said while rallying support for the prison reform bill at the White House last week, “the single biggest thing we need to do is define what the role of the prison is, which I think is undefined right now in this country.”
“Is the purpose to punish?” Kushner continued. “Or is the purpose to warehouse? Or is the purpose to rehabilitate?”
For the millions of families who are directly impacted by these proposed policies, and ultimately an entire nation, answering that question correctly is worth fighting for, and why I believe it is possible for us to finally see real prison reform enacted this year.
Well, the first step has been taken.
In the House of Representatives, the bill was held up, hotly debated, re-worked and finally brought to the floor for a vote – where it passed overwhelmingly by a 360-59 vote. That gives me hope. We heard lots of labels and accusations during the prison reform debate. Democrats won’t support President Trump. Conservatives won’t work with liberals. People don’t care about prisoners. Yet, when all was said and done, the legislation, and the people it would help, received overwhelming bipartisan support.
Now we move on to Step Two – the United States Senate.
The climb is higher in the Senate, and more challenging. There are changes that need to be debated and voices that need to be heard. But something tells me, if we agree to work together and continue to reform our labels about prisoners, their families, their communities, and even the president, we just might get there.
Neil Volz is the Political Director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition