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Patrice Gaines on Prison and Second Chances

Patrice Gaines (Google)
Patrice Gaines (Google)

Patrice Gaines has lived an interesting life. The author, former Washington Post reporter and motivational speaker is a convicted felon, having served time in prison for a crime related to a heroin addiction when she was 21. Gaines speaks of the difficulty in getting a second chance in society, especially in the job market. Check out what she has to say in the excerpt below. Should nonviolent convicted felons get a second chance?

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It was the summer of 2009. I was on my second day of work for the U.S. Census Bureau, knocking on doors in rural South Carolina.

My cell phone rang. It was my supervisor.

"Patrice, headquarters called me and told me to send you home immediately and to take back all government property," she said. "I don’t know why."

She knew me as a 61-year-old gray-haired mother, a former Washington Post reporter, an author and motivational speaker. She knew nothing about me 40 years ago, when I was a 21-year-old heroin user. I knew exactly why they were sending me home: I am a convicted felon.

In 1970, I spent part of a summer in jail for a drug charge and received five years probation. But that was just the beginning. In the decades since, I have learned what it's like to try to change your life in a fearful society that believes it’s safest to lock up or discard anyone who has ever made a criminal mistake or had a problem with addiction. And I have learned that there's another way — a way that offers the possibility of restoring dignity and hope both to the people who make mistakes and those victimized by crime.

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The U.S. Department of Justice reports that one in 32 adults in the United States is behind bars or on probation or parole. One quarter of the prison population is locked up for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Each time a person is locked away behind bars, it leaves a void in a family, neighborhood, or community. Most often, the burden of incarceration falls on communities of color. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a leading organization promoting alternatives to incarceration, writes, "The war on drugs has become a war on families, a war on public health, and a war on our constitutional rights."

"We are exiling millions of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters — making them missing persons," says Carol Fennelly, director of Hope House, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps children stay connected with incarcerated parents.

I was lucky. I was becoming an addict when I was convicted. The system that sent me to jail did nothing to address my drug problem: It put me on probation and ordered me to pay more than $2,000 in fines, which only made me more bitter. I was a single mother who could not find a job because of my criminal record. I did not see any connection between the high fines and my behavior. I did not see how I was expected to dig myself out of the hole I was in…

Read more at Yes Magazine.

In other news: Michael B. Hancock: Denver Elects a New Mayor.

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