National issues

Houser Academy Guest Blog: Reviving the American Family

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As a member of the inaugural class of our Houser Academy, RJ Griffin focused on advocating for housing for those who are leaving the carceral system. After completing the Academy in May 2021, he will continue to work toward Fair Housing for individuals who have served their time and are looking for a second chance in his work with the Liberty Proclaimed Ministry. Here, RJ describes a bit of that work.

In modern American society, men of color are sometimes stereotyped for not acting like “real” men because they may not be providers and protectors of their families like in past generations. But digging deeper into our history, a major cause for this phenomenon is the population of men who were removed from the family structure during the War on Drugs. This civil war led to the targeted imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people, particularly men in Black and Brown communities. The end result was the children of those men were left to grow up missing a parent, in particular a father in the home, and we must invest in restoring that complete dynamic.

Liberty Proclaimed Ministry (LPM) is a nonprofit organization that was created to provide a holistic remedy to the effects of mass incarceration, but the ultimate remedy is in need of a whole community effort.

The first roadblock following mass incarceration is addressing the lack of life skills necessary to return back to society. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, over 25% of the formerly incarcerated do not have a high school diploma. Other issues, such as not knowing how to clear one’s driving record or properly file taxes, can cause an individual to rack up warrants or back taxes and continue to fall into legal and financial trouble.

Family and supportive loved ones can best help those coming home by filling in the gaps that were missed while they were locked up. They need information about where each office is, what documents are needed, and how to fill out forms. A prevalent example of this is seen with individuals who do not have a driver’s license. LPM prepares for testing, sets up appointments with the Department of Public Safety (DPS), and offers raises and promotions to those who pass.

It is a big achievement because they can finally feel free from looking over their shoulders while they drive and not fear being pulled over. The process of becoming documented is daunting and these individuals need someone to walk beside them with patience, advice, and direction.

The next issue is finding employment. Many workplaces still have discriminatory hiring practices against the formerly incarcerated, which prevents these men from being providers for their homes. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that the formerly incarcerated are unemployed at the rate of 27%, which is higher than the rate during the entire Great Depression. We need business owners and hiring departments to give second chances in the workplace. When people who have been constantly rejected finally get an opportunity, we’ve seen they are grateful and work harder than most.

Everyone in prison is assigned a work detail, and in some cases hard labor, to which they are paid nothing. When those same individuals are freed, just receiving a paycheck for work is a relief and encouragement to work hard. At LPM, the aim is to not only put these individuals to work, it is to equip them with tools and skills to be successful in the workplace. It starts with soft skills like being punctual and workplace professionalism, to leading a team and finally to serving clients. Being a provider is essential and these individuals need some grace-giving business owners to offer them the opportunity to do so. 

The last and possibly most damaging issue is housing. Mass incarceration has created a tremendous hole for the formerly incarcerated to climb out of. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, national research suggests that 15% of formerly incarcerated experience homelessness leading up to their admission into prison. Today, there is no protection for the formerly incarcerated from housing discrimination.

Current tenants need to petition their apartment management to permit leasing to the formerly incarcerated. Management works for the tenant, and if tenants express openness to coexisting, management will be more apt to be open to it. LPM is looking to partner with independent landlords and apartment complexes to offer affordable quality housing to its individuals.

The current option of quality living for these individuals is crashing with a loved one, trying not to overstay their welcome. It’s a temporary solution at best, not an environment to raise a family and lead as the head of the household. One of the biggest contributions a provider of a home can do is actually provide a home. These individuals need redemptive property managers and owners to help them assume that responsibility and offer them the opportunity of housing.  

There is a responsibility that comes with being the head of the household and that weight is even heavier when the system has set you back. In an attempt to eliminate drugs in this country, the ends ravaged an entire generation. If that was not the intention of the original effort, then there should be an intentional effort to clean up those effects. There are hundreds of thousands of men who need our help to restore their lives to become the men we need in our families, our communities, and society as a whole to help raise future generations. Although there are many problems created by mass incarceration, the remedy can be achieved if we all band together. 

Reference: Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org

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