Of rehabilitation, human dignity and second chances

A quartet of dogs greeted me at the door upon my arrival last night. I had been away for two days attending a function in San Francisco. By the level of canine joy, one would have thought I’d been gone a month. But a bit of sadness also permeated the space.

“Chris?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I no longer have a job,” was his downtrodden response.

For some time now, Chris had been working with a friend, a fellow falconer, as his assistant. Very hard and physical work for my sixty-year-old spouse. And even though he may not have loved the job, which he certainly didn’t, he loved working with his friend. He loved being useful. He loved being able to earn a living that did not require him to ask that dreaded question, “Would you like fries with that?”

But last week, while laying flooring, he and his friend were discussing falconry as they worked. The owner of the property seemed thrilled about the conversation and soon stopped leaving the room. He asked questions about the sport as the two friends worked and Chris explained that they flew Gyrfalcons. So the day ended, happy homeowner and his new floor, and two tired workers.

The homeowner decided he was curious enough about falconry and Gyrfalcons to sit at his computer and Google what the three had discussed. Then the inevitable happened. After just a bit of searching, his eyes landed on a video of one of the men who had worked in his home all day – a man he had enjoyed talking to and asking questions of. Christopher Boyce. A convicted felon.

The homeowner immediately called the flooring company to lodge a complaint that a felon had been sent to work in his home. Not that the work had been bad – in fact, the work was excellent. But still, a felon…

For the record, Chris has not been convicted of any crime since 1981. That’s thirty-two years without an incident on his record. He was cleared by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to be the tarmac manager at a local private jet port here in our town. A jet port where he welcomed the governor of the state, Senators and members of Congress, even Hillary Clinton. Last year, Chris received his contractor’s license and a home inspection license through the state, both after an extensive background check. He was also able to be bonded.

But he can’t get a job. Any job.

For more than thirty years, I have worked with inmates and people being released from the prison system. For all of those years, I have watched them struggle to reenter society and make lives for themselves that did not include a return to prison.

In my younger years, I was naïve. Twenty-one years old and unaware of the general dangers of society. I taught life skills classes to men who had just been released from some of the toughest prisons in California. Some of these men had been released from death row when the death penalties were being commuted, and some were just hard timers who had spent their lives in one prison or another from the time they were young.

Life skills. What a joke! Most of these men had been out of the system for so long that they no longer knew how to get a copy of their Social Security card and couldn’t work even if they could find the card – because no one wanted them unless they were being paid to want them.

What I learned during those years made me want to continue working with at-risk youth and adult parolees. What I learned caused nightmares and still makes me uncomfortable and angry.

The U.S. government and the various state agencies throughout the country paid employers to hire convicted felons. For each felon they hired, they received grant money to “assist with the payment of wages.” Of course the employers didn’t look at it that way. To them, it was free money, cheap labor. When even the slightest word of kindness could have helped change a life, it was never offered.

What I did hear time and time again was “You’ll do this job for what I decide to pay you, you’ll work when I decide to work you, you’ll get paid when I decide to write the check, and if I hear one word of protest I can have you rolled up and sent back to the joint.” I heard it from employers every time I tried to place a parolee on a workforce. I heard it repeated by other parolees that they were nothing more than slaves.

So where does it stop?

The U.S. is number one in the world in the rate of incarceration of its citizens, with 702 out of every 100,000 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons or in jails across the nation. More than two million people are now in prison or jail in the U.S., a record number.

While the U.S. accounts for just five percent of the global population, twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are in American prisons and jails. Included among these prisoners are more than 3,600 death row inmates.

More and more prisons are becoming “lock down” institutions, meaning that men and women and kept in a cell for twenty-three hours per day with one hour allowed for “daylight time.” Educational classes are dwindling. The prison libraries are closing. Contact with the outside world is diminishing.

These are my questions: What happens at the end of a sentence? What happens when the door rolls open and that man or woman walks free? How do we integrate these people back into society, into a workforce, and into a life that will keep them from returning to prison?

Rehabilitation and education. Without these two crucial elements, prison will be a revolving door for most of these people, one that will cost the American taxpayer on the average of $247.31 per inmate per day.

My husband is a prime example of the fact that not everyone released from prison is a criminal. With an IQ of 150, Chris earned a college degree while incarcerated. He is quiet, an easy person to like, and a hard worker. He is a man who wants little in his life other than to be able to support his family and live a life that is responsible to society and respectful to those around him, and a little time to fly his falcons and run his dogs.

But on Friday, despite being a free man for eleven years, he was denied that privilege again.

Chris is lucky because he can talk it through with me. We can put our heads together and try to figure out where to go from here, where to look, who to ask. Chris is very lucky because he has a support system.

But what about the next parolee who only wants a future?

Cait Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. She has worked as a legal professional and advocate for prisoner rights for over thirty-five years.

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