Courage over Convenience

by Eric Boyd

I know how hard the life of an ex-con is. I’ve gotten used to it, but I have been unbelievably lucky.


“We got to put young people to work, we got to give them an education, rather than putting them in jail.”

After jail — less than a year, when I was 22 — I adapted. I learned to look for medical research studies, side jobs, and under-the-table gigs. Now, after years of crawling into the writing world, I’ve begun to freelance more regularly (writing may be one of the few fields in which a criminal record makes you more interesting. Go figure).

But that doesn’t mean things are easy. Far from. I might wake up and get an email that I need to interview somebody in the next hour, and then I’ll have to see if I can still make it to the plasma center and donate afterwards. It’s alright, though. It’s hectic, but it’s a life that works for me. It works because it has to.

But was my cellmate so lucky? How many people in my pod are back in jail? Or worse: how many aren’t around at all?

Combating this sort of wait-and-see style of politics, Bernie Sanders has consistently been on the right side of history, but before anyone else. He hasn’t kept his mouth shut just because those around him weren’t speaking up.

The truth is that, even after someone has paid their debt to society, most never break even again. There is no going back. No “how it once was” or “used to be”. Few people think of how hard an ex-convict’s life is. Bernie Sanders understands, though.

In May of 2015 Sanders, along with 26 Democratic senators, wrote President Obama with one request: to tell employers to cease their discrimination against ex-convicts, to “ban the box” in job applications which almost universally disqualifies felons and even those with misdemeanors. The checkbox is nearly in direct contrast to the Equal Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) 1980’s ruling that employers could refuse to hire ex-offenders only after they “devoted somber thought to the issue.”

I know how quick a job application gets trashed after you check that box, and you check it because you’re misinformed that you have to. Companies tell convicts that if they lie on their applications, that they could face civil or even criminal charges. This is not true. Another falsehood is that insurance companies won’t allow employers to hire ex-cons, as they are a liability. While it’s understandable that employers know of their applicants pasts — especially if they pertain to the work being sought — it is insane to throw out an application before it even starts.

While many wouldn’t like to believe it, everyone in this country needs the ability to take care of him or herself. Without that ability, there’s not many alternatives.

Ex-convicts have a risk of death up to 13 times higher than the general population — and we’re not talking someone getting out of the prison system and enduring years of disappointment, years of setbacks on the road to a normal life. Many of these deaths are a result of suicide and occur within two weeks of release.

Without a job, decent health care is hard to come by and even welfare benefits can be considerably more difficult to retain. The truth is, for many, life ends after jail. It never restarts. At the very least, Sanders has asked that the obscenity of the application checkbox be removed. In this small way it is possible for ex-offenders to regain traction. Off the top of my head I can think of three people I knew who went back to jail because they couldn’t make money in any legal way, and one who killed himself.

To be fair, Hillary Clinton also supported the Ban the Box movement. In October of 2015. Sanders and 26 democrats were supporting this measure in May and earlier — even Martin O’Malley was vocalizing his stance before Clinton — and in an environment where time matters, this is important. It took Clinton 172 days after Sanders to recognize the prison community’s need to reintegrate into society.

One hundred and seventy-two days. Over twelve fortnights.

Many of these suicides are either drug related or due to mental illness. Both Sanders and Clinton have called for the war on drugs to be treated as a medical issue, not a criminal one — but only Sanders has called for a single-payer health system which could allow ex-offenders to get the help they need, especially when work is so difficult to obtain. Meanwhile, Clinton, who fought for single-payer in the 1990’s with Bernie Sanders as a prominent ally, has since said that it “will never, ever come to pass.” This, combined with the inability to find decent jobs, is resulting in ex-convict’s unnecessary hardship at best, unnecessary funerals at worst.

Of course Clinton isn’t directly responsible for these outcomes; that would be maliciously extreme — but it is yet another instance of Clinton allowing her convictions to be determined by others. I used to think this was a strength; after all, it makes sense to wait and see how the country feels about the issues. They are who you serve as a politician. However, Clinton has shown, again and again, that her constituency is not composed of average Americans.

The truth is that, even after someone has paid their debt to society, most never break even again.

On crime, she has consistently demonized those who fall into the justice system, famously calling African-American youths “super predators” and speaking up for then-president Bill Clinton’s 3-strike rule. So while trade deals and support for the big banks has doubtlessly ruined careers and livelihoods, the difficulty of prison life and of being an ex-convict is actually taking lives.

Quickly.

Combating this sort of wait-and-see style of politics, Bernie Sanders has consistently been on the right side of history, but before anyone else. He hasn’t kept his mouth shut just because those around him weren’t speaking up. From segregation to gay marriage, criminal reform to ex-offender rights, Sanders has refused to let Washington mellow his convictions.. He has fought for us — even the most underserved and marginalized of us — his entire life. For Bernie Sanders’ entire career he has been marginalized for his moral courage when he could have easily hid within the comfort of political convenience.

I know how hard the life of an ex-con is. I’ve gotten used to it, but I have been unbelievably lucky. Others have not. Nobody in America should need to rely on luck when the thing they’re playing for is their life. Bernie Sanders has shown foresight and bravery on some of the hardest issues in this country. But when it comes to allowing every citizen the chance to live a normal, decent life — what’s so hard about that?


Eric Boyd lives in Pittsburgh and is working on his first short story collection, “Brownfields.” His writing has been published by Joyland, The Offing Magazine, Guernica, and the Missouri Review blog, among others. He appeared in the anthologies “Prison Noir” (Akashic Books; ed. Joyce Carol Oates) and “Words Without Walls” (Trinity University Press; eds. Sheryl St. Germain & Sarah Shotland).
 
 He is the editor of “The Pittsburgh Anthology” (Belt Publishing) and guest-edited for The James Franco Review. 
 
 Boyd is a winner of Slice Magazine’s Bridging the Gap award, the PEN Prison Writing award, and was a semifinalist for the H.E. Francis award. He was also a judge for the 2016 Waldman International Arts and Writing competition. 
 
 His website is
Eric-Boyd.com.