January 7, 2014 /
Bill Moyers and Michelle Alexander on the Racist Plague of Mass Incarceration and America’s Future
Michelle Alexander from attorney and professor to an activist and advocate for an end to our dehumanizing penal system.
Michelle Alexander, welcome.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: When the book came out one reviewer called it the bible of a social movement. Have you seen the apostles and the disciples and the church spreading? Have you seen the signs of a movement?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. And it has me so encouraged. As I travel from city to city, and I’ve been speaking in churches and at universities, I’ve been speaking inside prisons and reentry centers, just an incredible range of venues, I see over and over again people who are dedicating their lives now to ending the system of mass incarceration, to raising consciousness. People of faith who are organizing their church communities, organizing within mosques, holding study circles, holding film festivals and then organizing and mobilizing their memberships. Or their congregations.
I’m especially encouraged by formerly incarcerated people who are finding their voice and organizing to man the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. Organizations like All of Us or None which has successfully, you know, achieve Ban the Box legislation.
BILL MOYERS: Ban the Box?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Ban the Box on employment applications, the, you know, box on employment applications that asks that dreaded question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” And of course it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been convicted of a felony a few weeks ago or 40 years ago, for the rest of your life, you’re labeled a felon and then subject to legal discrimination, for the rest of your life.
BILL MOYERS: What do those ex-felons, what have they been telling you about what it’s like to come out and try to get back into the society to which they have paid for their sins?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think it’s just an extraordinary challenge. And I think most people have this sense that when you’re released from prison, well, yeah, life is hard. But if you really dedicate yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you know, knock on enough doors, you’ll get that job, you’ll get your life back together. It may be hard but if you really try, you can do it.
But what I’ve learned, you know, over the years from working with many formerly incarcerated people, and forming close friendships with many people who have been released from prison, is that it’s not just hard, it’s often impossible. You’re released from prison, often with, you know, maybe $20 in your pocket. Have nowhere to sleep.
You try to return home, maybe to your family who lives in public housing. Your family risks eviction in many places if they just even allow you to come home. Felons can be excluded from public housing. Whole families can risk eviction if they allow people with felonies to come home to them.
Trying to get a job can be next to impossible. You know, people say, “Well, they could get a job at, you know, Burger King or some, you know, minimum wage job.” No actually, you know, many low-wage jobs are, for all practical purposes, off-limits to people who have felonies. Hundreds of professional licenses are off-limits to people who have felonies.
In my state in Ohio, until just recently, you couldn’t even get a license to be a barber if you’d been convicted of a felony. Food stamps may be off-limits to you if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. You know, what are people released from prison expected to do? Apparently what we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulative back child support, which continues to accrue while you’re in prison.