Drahill writes: I’m a third-year law student from a rockin’ redneck town in Montana (pop. 510). I currently live in Pennsylvania, where I attend law school and live with an awesome Republican dude and a politically unaffiliated cat. I’m a Caucasian-Native American, rural, vegetarian baker with a surprisingly large amount of free time and penchant for shooting guns, knitting and cruising the internet.
Several years ago, I plead no contest to simple assault. At the time, I was on medication for bipolar disorder, but the medication was not effective. I was in the middle of a manic episode when I met up with some friends and some acquaintances of theirs. At some point through the night, one of the girls present (who I did not know well) said something to me I took as insulting. Words were exchanged, a heated argument happened, threats were exchanged. Then, I hit her. She did not swing at me, there was no provocation. I just hit her. And she fell on the floor, and I kept hitting her, repeatedly. I remember very little of it, which I attribute to my overly hyper, manic, angry state at the time. I remember somebody calling the cops and being taken away. The cops who escorted me out told me that an ambulance had to be used to take the girl out, and she had some noticeable and substantial injuries. I don’t recall everything from this time. I remember being in a holding cell, then transferred and arraigned on a simple assault charge.
Long story short, because of my mental illness and because I was taking my meds at the time, it was agreed that if I wanted to plead no contest, I would not go to a traditional prison for a while, but would serve an abbreviated sentence at a secure mental health facility to get me psychiatric help. So that was what I did, because everybody involved agreed it to be best. I will not bore you with the details of a psychiatric hospital, but I will say that it was the best thing for me and the people I encountered there were wonderful. But that’s not what this post is really about…
It’s about when my sixty days were up, and I re-emerged from the hospital. Free as a bird again. And what one is really supposed to do after having been on “the inside.” Although I met a ton of people who were supportive and wonderful and kind towards me, I also became acutely aware that to some, having a criminal record or history (no matter what it’s for or under what circumstances it came about) makes you a pariah and a social outcast who should never be integrated again. It quickly became very clear to me why so many people who have been in jail once ultimately go back – because jail has become the only “society” that will accept them and permit them back into it.
My life has dramatically improved since all this happened. I will shortly be graduating law school (and yes, I am slightly concerned about the character and fitness portion of the bar, but has received assurances that as long as I’m honest and open about the circumstances, I shouldn’t be denied admission). I have a fantastic boyfriend who knows all about it and still supports me. And my family stands behind me. Despite all of this, I still know damn well that many people believe that I should not be permitted to have this kind of great life, because I am a criminal. The implicit assurances that people can be convicted of a crime, be given a sentence, serve it fully, and come back out and resume their lives (within reasonable limits) doesn’t mean much anymore.
I know this raises really complex and icky issues about whether society owes former inmates and people with criminal histories a new start. Obviously, the kind of crime committed is a consideration here (like permitting violent sex offenders to simply move among the population again) or those whose crimes are considered abhorrent (like those convicted of rape). However, there is also a need to re-integrate former prisoners – if for nothing else, then to minimize the risk that they re-offend. And because that is the implicit promise of the criminal justice system – serve your time, do what we ask of you, and you will be free to go home and start over.
So, I said in the beginning that I wrote this little missive in response to the controversy around Michael Vick. Why? Because in a weird way, I understand the arguments being made about him. This isn’t a post about whether you believe the sentence he served to be sufficient to what he did (that’s a whole other topic, for another day). But I do understand the arguments about whether it is “proper” for Vick to get another chance at football or another chance to earn millions of dollars. The fact of the matter is, somebody you know has been to jail (whether they choose to disclose it to you or not). The fact also remains that jail is a punishment reserved for certain segments of society and not others (there are very few older, white, high-income people in jail right now). So taking these facts together, it becomes apparent that the way we treat former inmates says a lot about how we treat a large segment of society. I got very lucky with my experience. I intend to never return to the criminal justice system (at least on that side).
So at the end of the day, what do I want to leave you, dear reader, with? Do I want you to feel bad for Michael Vick, or myself, or any of the other former inmates out there? Hardly (sympathy does very little in a situation like this – and frankly, I doubt Michael Vick needs any). I do want you to remember that whether you know it or not, you probably know at least one person who has been on the inside and is labeled as criminal—and how you choose to treat them matters. A lot more than you think it does.