A Letter From Obasi Joshua #297043

During the course of the twenty-nine years of my life on earth, this have been the most uncertain time of it all. First and foremost, I am an African immigrant just starting a new life in the USA. I am currently facing felony charges and off course we have the first pandemic that I have witnessed in my lifetime. However, in the midst of these trying times, I have been opportuned to learn and address critical issues I was oblivious to in the past.

Before now, I never took the issue of racial and social inequality seriously even though I am married to an African American woman who prior to this constantly tried to draw my attention to these issues. I guess I never addressed it because I never came face to face with it or maybe I did and just didn’t pay close attention to know it had occurred. It all changed once I got locked up. I was following the news religiously, I got into the Second Opportunity program, I talked to fellow inmates in a bid to understand how the prison system function. What I found out compelled me to consider what the future has ins tore for me. How does social justice and equality affect my new life in America? The Second Opportunity classes offered me insight into the hurdles I will have to jump over upon my release to be reintegrated into society. Then the pandemic struck and chaos ensued. People were dying, protests were happening nationwide with people demanding social justice and equality after seeing the disparity in the rate of infection between different races. The issue of police reform or complete rethinking of the concept of policing in almost every state by activists demanding social justice further re-enforced the thought in my head that we can change the way people who have a background are viewed and treated upon release, that it is possible to ensure that they are supported, encouraged and incentivized to keep being law abiding citizens after being rehabilitated and paying their debt to society. That we can rethink ways to ascertain that they are not left to fend for themselves after being away from society for a long time, that they don’t have to keep jumping societal barriers that are continually placed in front of them for the rest of their lives post release.

Support can come in the form of access to information, education and mentorship while locked up. There is also the need to combat misinformation within the prison walls that the only career path after being incarcerated is a likelihood of crime. In essence, there should be hope in every inmate’s mind while locked up that America is willing to give them a second opportunity and will truly support them if they choose to walk that path. There should also be access to jobs with the potential to rise up the career ladder and lastly the opportunity for formerly incarcerated people to be able to be a part of a cause where they can contribute back to society hence giving them a purpose. Now, this brings me to the question at hand: What kind of a world will I like to return to?

I will like to return to the America that advertises “The American dream.” This is an America that makes everyone across the globe want to live here. It is an America that gives everyone the opportunity of a second chance at life regardless of if you have been a victim of war, oppression and persecution. It is an American that offers true freedom, equal opportunity to everyone without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It is an America that has bad decisions embedded in its history as a country. Decisions thought to be right at the point of execution. Decisions like the enslavement of blacks, decisions such as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However it is an American that has learnt from its past bad decisions and has continually endeavored to rehabilitate itself while educating other countries to learn from its own mistakes and fight for freedom in those countries that do not share America’s view and ideologies of freedom and equality.

So if this is the world America paints and lead people to believe, why are people who made poor decisions, have been punished, presumed to be rehabilitated and released stereotyped and stigmatized? Why are there more stumbling blocks instead of stepping stones put in place in previously incarcerated individuals’ quest to rebuild a normal life where they become law abiding citizens? These are questions that continually haunt me. Are private prisons intentionally keeping information from inmates to increase the probability of recidivism upon release? Do government made policies that make it difficult to find a job after release and collaboration from the prisons that do little to nothing to disseminate information and education lead to higher rate of recidivism? What chances to an incarcerated individual have at success of rehabilitation in the prison and recidivating upon release without adequate support from the government? Why does a bad decision from 20 years back have to inhibit you from living the American dream? Why won’t America truly give them a second opportunity?

I will like to return to a world where all the above mentioned questions are answered and problems absent or solved. I will like to return to a world that accepts the saying of Heraclitus that “change itself is unchanging,” hence, it is constant and inevitable, that an individual can be reformed and be a changed person. A world that believes in second chances. But the next question posed is how do we do it? What can I do to contribute to this change? The next section outlines some recommendation to help effect these changes.

In my opinion, people vary in their thoughts, opinions, views and ideologies and they rightfully should, if not I guess the world will not be interesting as it is. Also this difference we have is the foundation of a functioning democracy. I likewise believe that as pertaining to the criminal justice system and prison reform that there are generally two types of people: those who believe that formerly incarcerated people can change and deserve a second chance and those who don’t. We also all have biases and it is my standpoint that it is not a question of “if” we have biases, it is a question of “which” biases we have. I believe that upon recognizing we have these biases, we can become more conscious of them and limit their control over our everyday decisions.

One of these biases will be the general stenotype that people have towards individuals with backgrounds. From my discussions with inmates who have previously been locked up, most of them were of the consensus that people are most times untrusting of them. They said “employees are reluctant to give them a chance to work in their establishment.” When asked what they believed was the reluctance, some of them were of the opinion that it could be due to outdated company policies or just employer bias towards people with criminal backgrounds. It is my standpoint that if employers deny employment to an individual with a background solely on that fact then it is wrong but on the other hand what if their decisions are influenced by a bias that they do not even recognize is present? I think there is a need to educate people about these biases so that in the event that they encounter an individual with a background, their decisions about that person can be based on logic, fats and information and not solely on bias or old policies that do not take into consideration the times we are in presently. I believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to prove themselves. A perfect example will be a scenario where an individual needs to obtain a license in order to drive a car. The DMV will not judge the said person based on their previous failed first attempt or last five attempts at passing the driving test but rather on the current driving test and if they pass, they are issued a license. That brings me to the next recommendation, which is how do you test to ensure a person with a criminal background has been rehabilitated? Well, they should be tested as well. I think we should have an incentive and point based system just the same way you can prove to a lender your ability to pay back a loan that is afforded to you by giving your consent for them to perform a credit check.

Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous use this strategy where they reward individuals who were alcoholics and want to be rehabilitated with coins as a reminder of the progress they have made towards complete recovery. This reward system coupled with a mentor helps keep alcoholics from relapsing and that is not the only organization that utilizes the reward system. We see the same strategy used by online social media sites to increase time spent online by showing user data counts of people who have liked, shared or retweeted something they posted. The credit reporting bureau also uses this incentive point based system by allocating a credit score which increases or declines based on repayment consistency. We see that borrowers are motivated to keep payments on time and be consistent.

Furthermore, we know that the point based system is not a novel idea to the criminal justice system serving as a recommendation to the judge during sentencing. This point based system takes into consideration an individual criminal history, offense level and other variables which then guides a judge’s decision as to what amount of time to dish out. So let’s pause for a second and flip the coin. If the criminal justice system is truly about punishment and rehabilitation then why can’t the same measure be used towards rehabilitation purposes?

Why is there not an agency that captures an inmate’s progress through the criminal justice system from time of arrest to every positive or negative decisions made towards rehabilitation? Actions like degrees, certification, apprenticeships and general positive behaviors while incarcerated can be computed and at the end of an inmate’s time, a rehabilitation score is issued. This score will also be affected by negative decisions as well. This data capture should not stop upon release. It will continue through the term of supervised release where positive actions are rewarded with point increase and negative actions with point decline. Upon completion of supervised release or parole, if the individual meets a stipulated point or exceeds it then they should be considered completely rehabilitated. At this point, limiting factors that impede the ability to lead a normal life or get a normal job should not show up when getting a job, of course, this is with the exception of crimes where you have to be registered such as sex offenders. If the individual does not meet the lowest stipulated score for complete rehabilitation, then they have to keep building their score just like a credit score and in the case where an individual recidivates, their points go down and the consequences of this is that certain privileges previously afforded to him/her are lost until points are built up again. This system will not totally wipe away the fact that an individual has a record, rather it serves as an incentive to be truly rehabilitated and keep being a law abiding citizen. Also it eliminates the pressure a formerly incarcerated person faces when he can’t get a job or a good job that can support a good life that they feel the only option is to relapse. In essence, the strategy will break the cycle of recidivism.

So yes, I want to live in a world where I am not only judged by my past bad decisions, a world fair and just where everyone is treated fairly. This is a time of reform: police reform, social justice reform, and prison reform. It is a time to rethink it all. If the traditional way of crime punishment and rehabilitation has not worked in reducing crime and recidivism, it behooves us to rethink a different strategy.

Sincerely,

Obasi Joshua #297043

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