This issue of The Fire Inside is about getting out of prison. Once they get out, former prisoners face almost insurmountable odds. In California, a person who has been convicted of a drug offense is unable to get welfare or food stamps for herself (though she can still get welfare for her children). The “One Strike and You’re Out” rule in public housing makes affordable housing for prisoners and their extended families extremely difficult once a person has been convicted of a drug offense. And one drug conviction means you are ineligible for federal education grants. Job discrimination is rampant.
This is why CCWP joined with thousands of school children, teachers, former prisoners and community activists on May 8, 2003, and converged on Sacramento to demand Education, Not Incarceration! We visited every single state legislator’s office and told them that the best way to avoid incarcerating our young people is to give each one of them a decent education. So long as the state budget is geared toward the prison industry instead of toward education, we will see an increase in our prisoner population and a decrease in educated youngsters. On that day, Gov. Davis’ office told us that he would decrease the prison budget, though he never did promise to increase the education budget.
Two weeks later, Gov. Davis published his revised budget. He stuck to his word. He DID decrease the prison budget. But instead of decreasing the number of guards or cutting their wage increases, he cut education and vocational rehabilitation for prisoners! Now that education and vocational rehabilitation are being cut in the state prison system, there will be even fewer opportunities for former prisoners. These cuts will make it almost impossible for people to use their time inside to acquire job skills or the education they will need when they finally return to their communities.
Even if prisoners were not discriminated against and had decent education and job opportunities, getting out would be hard. Reuniting with families is extremely difficult. Children are angry, parents are hurt, real friends are hard to find. And some parents will never be able to reunite with their children (see this issue’s legal column). The discrimination that former prisoners face is unacceptable. We in CCWP demand that everyone in this society get a fair shake. Equal opportunities must extend to all former prisoners. We salute those former prisoners and organizations that are fighting for the rights of those who have gotten out and commit CCWP to working with you to ensure the rights and dignity for people returning to our communities.