June 06, 2006

Angry Bitter Man

I am a little angry this week. First, I want someone to tell me why we continue punishing people after their crime has been paid for? Let me explain the basis for the question. Megan and I mentor a young woman who made some bad choices in life and ended up with a felony drug conviction. After serving her sentence in prison, partaking of prison programs to become clean and to better herself, she was released into the community. A team of three of us, Megan, myself and another young woman, met with our "mentee" once a week for six months, and then once a month for another six months. She would tell us about her successes and her concerns, and we would try to help any way we could. Mostly, we could just offer her a sympathetic ear.

What a prisoner faces when they come out of prison, regardless of whether they want to reform or not, is a lifetime of discrimination and neglect. Prisoners are turned out of the prison with little more than what they came in with. They must try to find a place to live that will meet the criteria set out by their parole or probation officer. They must make periodic meetings with their parole or probation officer, regardless of their transportation situation. They must try to find a job to earn their keep. If the former prisoner is serious about trying to stay clean, sober, and out of jail, they often go to regular meetings and try to further their education.

Yet these people suffer a lot of discrimination, and as far as our federal and state governments are concerned, that's just fine. Employers can refuse to hire them. Landlords can refuse to rent to them. Often their only recourse is to run right back into the hands of those people that will prey on them. Many times, after trying to maintain themselves to conform to society, they find that the cards are stacked against them, and go back to crime. Of course, this simply perpetuates the notion that they were not to be trusted in the first place. Yet we (as in society) never gave them a chance.

This has been on my mind since I learned that our mentee, who has kept herself on the straight and narrow since getting out of prison, was let go from her job in a nursing home after a federal review of the employment records of the place. Let me give you some background. Our mentee, since coming out of prison, has maintained a rigorous schedule of NA/AA meetings. She got a job at the university food service, and was an excellent employee, but did not want to stay in food service because she wanted more pay and more satisfying position. She got an apartment in startedin an apartment complex for returning prisoners, and participated in their activities and met their weekly requirements for meetings. Later, she found a boyfriend and moved in with him, and they are in the process of buying a house together. During this whole time, her whole focus has been to turn her life around. She has a sister who is still caught up in the throes of drug and alcohol abuse, and she has minimized her contact with her sister in order to not be tempted by being around. For all intents and purposes, she has been fully embarked on the road to true reform and recovery.

Recently, she landed the job that she wanted -- a nursing home assistant. The people who hired her were fully aware of her past, but she came with high recommendations from everyone and the supervisor was excited to hire her. Of course, working in a nursing home entails some risks for a former drug/alcohol addict -- there is access to drugs in a nursing home. However, as she had shown no sign of wanting ever to return to her former way of life, the nursing home took a gamble and hired her.

However, a federal review of the nursing home led to a review of her application after she was hired. My wife and I and a number of other people wrote letters on her behalf to the agency that was conducting the review. None of this mattered, and she lost her job.

My question is this. How long can we continue to marginalize people who have paid their debt to society, but continue to pay long past their sentences have been served? So many of our historical and religious traditions tell stories like "The Prodigal Son" where someone who has made previous bad choices has been able to redeem him or herself. It takes the person who has made the choices to make a new choice that changes his or her old behavior. It also takes the forgiveness and compassion of those who he or she may have wronged. However, it seems we forget these old tales. Our society basically tells people coming back from prison that they are worthless scum, dumps huge obstacles in their way when they try to reform, and then shakes its head in satisfaction and says "I told you so," when they fall.

I'm not arguing that there aren't people who are unredeemable. Certainly, some people will never overcome their problems -- and a few people are simply too dangerous to society to let free. But how many would change if they were just given a chance? If they were allowed to continue a job, or get an apartment? How many simply fail because our lack of pity and understanding drive them back into the vicious circle of destructive behaviors? We often say if they prove themselves we'll trust them, but then we do everything we can to ensure that they can't succeed.

I hope that our mentee has the mental, spiritual and physical fortitude to continue her amazing progress despite the obstacles. Right now, she is working in a call center which she absolutely hates, but she must to survive. Her punishment continues.

Second, someone please explain this to me. My wife had a minor surgical procedure earlier this year. She got a bill from the hospital -- it seems that our insurance refused to pay part of it because the anesthesiologists that were brought in were not in the network. You have got to be kidding. On the bed, as they are pumping drugs into her to knock her out, my wife is supposed to ask "Hey, are you in network? Because if you aren't, you can't be my anesthesiologist!" WTF? How many of you would think of that?

What nobody has explained to me is just how a nationalized health system would be so terribly terribly bad. As far as I can tell, it can't be any worse than what we have now. Every medical visit for 20 minutes becomes at least a week of straightening out insurance screw-ups. If you like trading your precious time and sitting on the phone with your insurance company instead of spending that time more productively, all the power to you. But the problem is, not only does the insurance company screw up, they then blame it on you, and make it extremely difficult to fix. I'd trade my choice of doctors that only see me for 20 minutes (actually 15 if I'm lucky) for not having to deal with insurance problems.

Third, Megan got dinged on her credit report. Why? Because Entergy in New Orleans sent us a bill about a year after we moved from there, saying that it was overdue. Evidently we were supposed to get it sooner and it never arrived, therefore this bill was the first notice we ever got. We talked to Entergy, made payments on the bill, and forgot about it.

Every year or so, Megan pulls her credit report, and discovered that she had been downgraded. Evidently, despite the fact that we worked in good faith with Entergy once the error was realized, they reported it to the credit reporting companies as a "charge off." Which means, essentially, that they told the credit reporting agencies that we never paid the bill. Megan talked with Entergy and with Equifax, one of the credit agencies, and the error was corrected. But Experian, the other credit agency, refused to correct the error. When Megan tried to call them, she could never get a live person to talk to. When she filled out the forms on line for an investigation, Experian simply sent her a form saying that they had reviewed the complaint and they weren't changing it. Now, Entergy has to tell Experian that they made a mistake, and they seem to be dragging their heels on it.

Who are these faceless corporations that hold our credit ratings in their hands? They are sure quick to respond to a company's report of something wrong with a customer, but they refuse to correct mistakes on behalf of a customer even when documentation is presented. How does one ever get their credit ratings adjusted?

You've got to wonder if a backlash will ever happen...


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