To Be Continued…

Re-Writing the Narrative of the Returning Citizen’s Story

FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade speaks with a member of FRRC during an advocacy event.

I recently had a speaking engagement. The audience was kind, attentive, and supportive of the message of empowerment I sought to communicate with passion and purpose. After my talk was over and the program came to an end, quite a few people walked up to greet me and offer words of thanks and appreciation for the message delivered.

One woman stood strong and stately before me. She reached out to shake my hand, smiled widely with her eyes, though her face was masked, and proceeded to tell me that a loved one of hers was a convicted felon (or a returning citizen, as we call ourselves). She said she wanted to know more about my work as a criminal and social justice advocate, and even went so far as to reach out to me after the event.

When she did, I was quick to seize the opportunity to tug at her conscience, seeking to elevate her consciousness by encouraging her not to ever use the term “convicted felon” again.

Instead, change the negative narrative thrust onto the lives of human beings with past felony convictions for far too long, by adopting the identification, “returning citizen.”

You see, returning citizens are people who have been negatively impacted from, formerly convicted by, and previously incarcerated in our criminal legal system. And they are returning to our communities with a felony conviction. They are citizens who are in the process of returning to whole, healthy, and habilitated lives, complete with employment, housing, transportation, and some money to maintain it all. Returning citizens are people recovering and reclaiming their vote, their voice, and their vital participation in our democracy.

What people don’t realize is that when they use terms like “felon,” they deny the human dignity of people who are and have been incarcerated or convicted, by not recognizing that these men and women come from, are part of, and return to our communities to live, work, strive to re-establish their lives, and contribute to the betterment of those communities.

In essence, change the narrative. We have to.

If returning citizens and the families who love them don’t tell their authentic story — a story of humanness and reality — then those who do not know them will. And it will be a grotesque caricature of the actual story. Far from the real thing. A false narrative.

That’s why the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) is on a mission to change the lives of returning citizens, by changing the minds of those who make both assumptions and laws concerning returning citizens without even knowing who they are.

FRRC is working with key officials on legislation like the Desmond Meade Bill (Senate Bill 1862: Background Screening). This piece of legislation aims to change the narrative on incarcerated citizens who are currently serving sentences in Florida’s prisons and working for pennies on the dollar for both private and public entities who employ them.

Employers like major universities and government agencies at the local and state levels turn to people in prison for labor, as have dozens of nonprofits and other schools. Unfortunately, many of these companies and organizations won’t hire or even consider hiring the very same people who worked for them while in prison.

Once these incarcerated citizens have been released from prison and are looking for stable employment, the same companies turn a blind eye to these folks, acting as if they never knew them.

What blatant hypocrisy!

That unethical and unsupportive approach to reentry only feeds a false narrative that incarcerated citizens are “good enough” to work on the inside, but far too great a risk to work for the very same people on the outside. You and I both know that’s just not true.

SB 1862 would require employers that use prison labor to adopt second-chance employment policies, ban the box on job applications, and give returning citizens a fair shot.

I don’t mean to get too technical here, but I think the details and specifics of this all-important piece of legislation are worth spelling out:

  • This bill would require that any entity that contracts with the Florida Department of Corrections for prison labor may not exclude a person from consideration for employment or disqualify them from a job because of their criminal record unless certain conditions are met.
  • The bill would require these entities to delay all inquiries into an applicant’s criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment. When reviewing an applicant’s record, entities would not be allowed to consider arrests, sealed or expunged records, misdemeanor convictions without incarceration, or noncriminal infractions.
  • In addition, the bill would require that entities consider individualized factors in determining if an applicant may be disqualified from employment due to an offense, including whether the offense is directly related to the job and whether the job provides the opportunity for the same or a similar offense to occur. Entities would not be allowed to disqualify an applicant due to their record, even if directly related to the position, if the applicant can show evidence of mitigation or rehabilitation.
  • Finally, the bill sets forth that entities that do not comply with these requirements would face civil penalties, and that the state would enter into contracts for prison labor only with entities that follow the requirements.

Such a bill places dignity and respect not only on the work incarcerated people have done while in prison, but it validates their ability to do good work in the same job or kind of job in society. It rewrites the narrative.

We’ve got to change the way people view other people with past felony convictions.

Not just their adjudication or incarceration, but the often heart-wrenching circumstances that led them to that unfortunate state in the first place. Can you envision a world where second chances are not the exception but the rule? I can. And because you chose to spend moments here, I believe you can too.

Let’s get the Desmond Meade Bill (Senate Bill 1862: Background Screening) passed.

Let’s tell the whole story. A narrative that says every returning citizen is so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. And because of this, they deserve a second chance at employment. They should have the opportunity to do the same job outside that they did inside.

Enough of the false narrative that says people are not good enough “here,” when clearly we thought they were good enough “there.”

It’s time we change the narrative and see the life of a returning citizen as a story yet being written, and at the bottom of their last mistake, in big bold letters, it says, “ To Be Continued.”

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The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is committed to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions

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Chasman Barnes

Chasman Barnes

Chasman is a Policy Professional, Advocate for Returning Citizens in Criminal and Social Justice Reform, TEDx Speaker, and sought after Communicator.

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