The last panel, Reentry and Returning to the Community, was a mixture of somber observations on the correctional process and of rays of hope. It started out with Dorsey Nunn, Program Director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, who put much of the financial crisis into perspective. The current concern over the national 13 percent employment rate, he said, would be cause for rejoice among the prisoner population; with thousands of formerly incarcerated men and women looking for employment, only a precious few will be able to rebuild their lives. Part of the problem, argued Nunn, is structural in nature; when released inmates are denied basic survival needs, such as jobs that provide medical insurance, the problem is propagated. Even simple, technical things that middle-class citizens would not notice, discriminate and marginalize, such as a "have you ever been convicted?" box on life insurance forms. Much work still needs to be done around discrimination; and the middle-class person's paranoia when confronted with "someone who looks like me", said Dorsey, is only half of the picture; released inmates experience a parallel sense of paranoia when asking for houses and jobs. The good news are that formerly incarcerated people are organizing, and questioning much of society's structure, including their exclusion from the very institutions and enterprises designed to "solve" their "problems".
A good example of this might be San Francisco's Safe Communities Reentry Council, about which we heard from Jessica Flintoft. The Council is meant to be a collaboration of formerly incarcerated people with various community figures such as the sheriff's department, county probation, and human services. In true San Francisco fashion, the idea was kicked off with two councils, one headed by the chief Public Defender and a sympathetic supervisor, the other by the District Attorney and the Sheriff. One of Flintoff's priorities is combining the two, which requires some compromise regarding their roles and conceptions. The purpose of the Council is to develop local oversight over reentry services and options, which so far have been provided sporadically and on a local level.
Flintoft shared some of the principles and challenges guiding her in her work. First, she mentioned, there is an emphasis on transparency and on allowing everyone to come to meetings and speak up. Second, there have been struggles with her intention to allow parolees to serve (and, as of now, they cannot vote, but they can be council members!). Third, she discussed the need to generate collaboration between the DA and the PD as participants in the process, and to transcend the courtroom adversariness for the purpose of advancing reentry. And, finally, she highlighted the importance of making city services available to people regardless of their offense; this requires educating various segments of the community, who express reluctance to offer housing to drug offenders, services to sex offenders, and the like. Flintoft extended an invitation to seven formerly incarcerated people to join the Council.
The closing speaker of the panel - and the conference - was Professor Gerald Lopez from UCLA, who provided us with sobering reflections on the historical dimensions of criminalization, marginalization, and reentry. Contrary to correctional lore, said Lopez, criminalization and the war on crime are not a product of the 1980s and the Reagan era. The same communities and neighborhood were targeted in many of the same ways; minorities and low-income people were routinely hassled, prosecuted and locked up even in the supposedly more benign days of the 1950s and 1960s. It is also important to remember that rehabilitation programs - what we now call "re-entry" - are also not a new invention.
The transformation in the 1980s, and the worsening of fear-mongering and mass hysteria, operated, said Lopez, in utterly predictable ways. Certain populations suffered disproportionate impact. While there hasn't been a single "master coordinator" of the war on crime, the system we currently have was ultimately the product of design and choice. Policymakers could predict that the same people who were historically targeted by the criminal justice process would be targeted again; the policies were an utterly racial, and racist, perspective on who was safe, who was not, and what to do with them. Moreover, they reflect an immense indifference to the plight of the communities from which the targeted people came and to which they would eventually return.
Fighting these campaigns of fear and cruelty has been an uphill battle, and in the course of the last few decades activists have encountered situations that seemed imaginary - such as the release of people in NY to random places without an ID. It is, said Lopez, sadistic and stupid to design answers for these problems without involving the people themselves in designing their own fate; they must have a voice in the process, and they must have at least access to information on the available services, let alone some measure of how effective and helpful these services are.
Some of the problems with this sort of activism have to do with our tendency to invent the wheel and make up new words (such as reentry), ironically precisely when we have so little that would count as re-entry. Other issues relate to the bureaucracy, meetings, and talk without action that is often a feature of this work. But, as Lopez said, among the cops, parole agents, correctional officers, lawyers, and academics, one can find truly rebellious people, who will cut through red tape and meaningless words to get stuff done. It is these folks who are the true hope for change, and their energy can and must be harnessed to generate that change.