Every year, more than 600,000 individuals are freed from America’s jails and prisons.
But many of America’s formerly incarcerated people face numerous obstacles when integrating back into public life once free, according to Wes Caines and his former colleagues Scott Hechinger and Hannah McCrea at Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender service in New York City.
Former prisoners are routinely denied employment, housing, education, and other benefits that would help ease their integration into life on the outside, Caines says.
Caines understands the value of these benefits better than most people. He finished both his undergraduate and graduate education while serving 24 years in prison for his role in a shootout that left one man dead.
The rare educational opportunities that Caines was afforded in prison changed his life.
“I didn’t have to worry ... when I looked for a job and the minimum requirement was a bachelor's degree,” Caines told me. “I was going to be able to convince an employer to give me an opportunity.”
After he was released in 2014, Caines got a job with the Brooklyn Defenders Services, working as a reentry coordinator helping individuals cope with life outside of prison.
While with BDS, Caines helped produce the above video, illustrated by artist Molly Crabapple, about the everyday obstacles former inmates face. It’s a concept that Caines calls “perpetual punishment.”
Caines considers himself lucky. Unlike many other former inmates, he found meaningful work after prison. He is quick to remind me that stories like his are rare.
“I never want my experience ... to be the story that is used as the rule,” he told me. “The fact of the matter is that it’s exceptional.”
I recently spoke to Caines, who is 51 years old and now working with the Bronx Defenders as a reentry coordinator, about his prison experience and his work helping to reintegrate former prisoners into society.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You were able to obtain your education while in prison, but many of these programs have disappeared. Why is that?
Initially, the [Bill] Clinton–era anti-death penalty legislation that was signed in 1994 removed Pell Grant accessibility to people who were incarcerated. Then in New York state under the [George] Pataki governorship, a similar legislation was signed which removed the tuition assistance program from access to people who are incarcerated. So those two funding mechanisms, once legislation passed, removed their accessibility to people in prison. There was no way for men and women who were incarcerated making 12 cents per hour to legitimately pay for college education.
And of course the ability to get a loan and to get to school is a nonstarter. Most people who are incarcerated for a long term in New York state are considered civilly dead. A civilly dead person cannot qualify for a loan.
I can imagine you come across critics who are not sympathetic to the plight of people in prison. They might reasonably argue that it’s hard enough to find funding to pay for services for people who have not committed crimes. How do you respond to those critics?
On an emotional and even on a very superficial level, I think comments like that are somewhat legitimate. I think, however, whether it’s in the community or in the correctional setting, we have to expand the conversation around policies and policymakers who oftentimes are not very deep thinkers.
The vast majority, if not more, of the people who are incarcerated eventually return to society. Whether or not they deserve a second chance, the fact of the matter is they will return. Every crime doesn’t lead to life imprisonment without parole. Every crime is not a death penalty crime. So people are going to return.
The question we should start with is how do we want that person who entered into our incarcerated space to return to our community space?
In 2014, you came out of prison. What was that experience like for you? Was it intimidating coming out after 24 years?
I always like to preface my reentry experience by stating that I never want my experience and my story to be the story that is used as the rule. The fact of the matter is that it’s exceptional. And when we make the exception to the rule that, we allow policymakers off the hook. We allow those who would do nothing about fixing a very broken punishment system to not address real systemic inequalities in our system.
While incarcerated, I had good fortune on my side. Whether or not people who are incarcerated get access to true rehabilitative opportunities should never be dependent on good fortune. If it weren’t for me being at a particular prison at a particular time when the Bard college program came in, my reentry experience likely would have been a lot different. Maybe even closer to what I see everyday with my clients.
So how specifically was your experience different from some of your clients?
I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep; I knew that I had a home. I didn’t have the desperate need for financial support. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was going to be able to get myself food everyday because I had family support. I didn’t have to worry about ... when I looked for a job and the minimum requirement was a bachelor's degree whether or not I was going to be able to convince an employer to give me an opportunity.
In the video you talk about how even low-level crimes can ripple throughout a community and family. So let’s say someone gets in a fight and punches someone in the face — how does that punch ripple out to families and neighborhoods?
Let’s take that individual who punched somebody in the face and gets arrested. That individual, regardless of what caused that encounter, that individual might possibly be the primary breadwinner. Or maybe a caregiver, maybe the only caregiver for minor children. If it’s in public housing in New York City, they could possibly lose their housing because of the arrest. If you live in a New York City housing authority complex, it can result in you being excluded from you returning to your family setting. So that impacts directly the family that that individual belongs to.
One of the things you say in the video is that even being arrested can lead to complications for individuals later in life. What exactly do you mean?
I am now working on a project with the Bronx Defenders where we review our clients’ criminal justice involvement records, what's called a rap sheet. And rap sheets have error records of over 60 percent.
So it may be that someone is simply arrested and the arrest is voided. That should not be on a person's rap sheet. I've had several clients who've had had those experiences, who thought when they walked out of the precinct the matter was behind them.
Then months later, or sometimes years and years later, they go on a job interview and there is, in the interest of hiring them, a background check. The employer [later] contacts them saying, “Hey, we're going to rescind this offer because we see that you have an open criminal matter.”
So we do a record check where we get the rap sheet, and sure enough, there is this arrest information on the rap sheet, by itself. John Doe, arrested on this date, charged with this crime, and it says no court information available.
And this person lost a job opportunity for a criminal matter that doesn't exist, that's not there.
But then the kicker is, in order to access your own record that the government has of you, you're required to pay, in New York, $65. That’s unless you can provide documents or proof of indigency, where they will then waive the fee.
What doesn’t the public understand about formerly incarcerated people and the attitudes they bring to opportunities like schools, jobs, and housing?
If you have a conversation with employers or housing providers who have as their employees formerly incarcerated people or have as their residents formerly incarcerated people, you will get a sense that we are people that are passionate about our work and we are grateful for our work and we will go above and beyond.
We are grateful for a place to live, so we want to make sure that the conditions, that which we live [in], are sound. So we will clean up what is not our duty to clean up. We will work late when we're not required to. We will do the things that I think most people who haven't had our experience take for granted. I have yet to speak with or to hear an employer who employs a formerly incarcerated people complain about the quality and the passion of the work that they have received.