Finding Purpose, Dignity & Empowerment After Conviction.
Somewhere in the hallowed halls of a college or university, inside the airy room of a semi-auditorium reeking of old books and the hint of stale coffee, a professor is shouting to his students in a rather stern and irritated voice, “Define your terms!”
You can imagine students going into panic mode as they struggle to rummage through the thesaurus of their own minds, trying to find just the right word or phrase to define the term they are using.
You know, come to think of it, everyday people are the exact same way about the resilient group of citizens in our local communities, who despite major setbacks keep making substantial comebacks. They are Returning Citizens.
Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, returning citizens just keep coming out better and rising up stronger, despite the state of Florida’s efforts to halt the use of their civil rights and hinder their participation in democracy. Still, as rightly defined, returning citizens keep up the fight by beating even the unfair odds set against them.
A returning citizen can be defined as a person who has been negatively impacted from, formerly convicted by, or previously incarcerated in the criminal justice system, and is returning to the community with a felony conviction.
Did you get that? Read it again.
Negatively impacted. Formerly convicted. Previously incarcerated. Returning from the deplorable conditions of incarceration.
Barrier. Barrier. Barrier. Hope.
The very fact that we deem these citizens to be “returning” only further proves and displays the hope that lies within each of us, and the yards of potential that resides in each of them.
I believe there are three things each member of society can do to not only acknowledge returning citizens, but do our part to empower them as well.
Recognize Returning Citizens
Remember those huge maps at the mall or the outlet store? Right square in the middle of it would be a big colored dot and the words above it would say, “You are here.” The dot is meant to be a demarcation to help customers navigate through the maze of stores to the actual place they’d like to be. We help returning citizens by acknowledging their existence, validating their return to the community, and supporting a healthy reintegration into society. Doing this says, “You are here. We see you. We acknowledge you as an equal member of the community.”
Something as simple as the recognition of being there helps a returning citizen navigate through the maze of emotions and negative sentiments that may cause them to feel alone or that society doesn’t want them. When the truth is, not only does the community want them, but our neighborhoods need them. Because the lives of returning citizens are just as valuable to the growth and greater development of communities as anyone else, we need there contributions for the benefit of the common good.
Utilize Returning Citizens
From the best employees to diligent and vigilant tenants, returning citizens offer a usefulness and an ethic that is unique; unlike any other. People don’t often think about it, but they sure need to consider the fact that returning citizens bring a work ethic, an appreciation for life, a newfound commitment to social justice and civic engagement, and a deep desire to repair breaches and chasms they see in their families and communities. All of this is born out of the crucible of their own experiences. Prison changes people. Some for the better. Some for the worse.
Having a jury find you guilty is a traumatic experience some never quite get over.
A judge who could have locked you up, but gave you probation and a second chance can make people think twice about recidivating. An appreciation for life and freedom hits in a very different way for those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Because of this, employers benefit from hiring returning citizens. Why wouldn’t we hire them?
Apartment homes and other rental properties have a much better tenant in returning citizens because some of them know how it feels to sleep in a cell, and have the utmost convictions of never, ever having to do that again. They appreciate a roof over their heads that is all their own. Why wouldn’t we rent to them?
Simply put, returning citizens are some of the best employees. They’re great neighbors. And they have an appreciation for life that is infectious.
Maximize Returning Citizens
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and its ally organizations understand how important it is to recognize the lives and contributions of returning citizens.
Members of the Coalition know how important it is to utilize the skills, talents, experiences of returning citizens in the workforce and to respect their humanity in fair and equitable housing. That is why the FRRC is working hard to maximize the positive impact of returning citizens in our communities by championing initiatives that make them whole.
When it comes to this work, I hear the chants coming down the street.
“ Let my people vote! Let my people rent! Let my people drive! Let my people work! Let my people live!”
From expanding the Fines and Fees Modification Program to pushing for the implementation of Second Chance Hiring Incentive Programs, the FRRC is maximizing the moment for returning citizens.
Well has it been said, “ Leaders start with ‘Why?’”
The ‘why’ of what FRRC does is simple: Recognize returning citizens. Utilize returning citizens. Maximize returning citizens.