Some people’s lives change forever in a single moment, and for Carol, it happened 22 years ago. Before she tells her story, she prints a “do not disturb” sign and tapes it to her office door. Her past life still isn’t one she likes many people to know about.
At age 26, Carol was dying. Years of booze and drugs had turned her skin gray. Her bones stuck out from her thin frame. Friend after friend died around her.
And then it happened: She got arrested. A cop pulled her over and found cocaine and a gun in her car. Carol spent the next 30 days in a county jail, sick with drug withdrawal.
“I really believe those people saved my life,” says Carol, now 48. “They really nursed me back to health.”
She ended up in court-ordered rehab in Spokane, and there she began putting her life back together. She wanted to be a better mother. She wanted to go to school. Start a career. Maybe even start her own business.
She studied to be an insurance agent. But when it came time to be certified, Carol’s old arrest popped up.
“I went and took the test and passed it with flying colors. I had a job with an insurance company,” she says. “But after my test results came back, the insurance commission said, ‘We’re not going to give you your license.’”
So Carol decided to go into nursing, and before she started, she told Spokane Community College that she had a criminal record.
“They said it wouldn’t be a problem,” Carol says. “I spent a year and half doing the prerequisites for the program.”
Then she found out that — again — she wouldn’t be able to get a license. A felon can’t be a nurse.
“This is already after I put a year and a half of money into it,” she says. “I started this big circle of chasing my tail.”
Carol may have left her past behind, but it kept coming back to haunt her. It was as if she had been marked with a scarlet letter. Like society had decided that she could not be anything but a felon.
“You keep getting told what you are,” she says. “And what happens is you have this identity of being a felon.”
Her story is hardly unique. From 1970 to 2000, the United States’ rate of incarceration jumped by more than 500 percent. Today 2.3 million people live behind bars, and an estimated 13 million Americans have felony convictions on their records.
While half are violent offenders, half are like Carol — people with drug offenses or property crimes. And long after their sentences are served, debts paid, rehabilitation completed and lessons learned, they’re still branded as felons.
Felons are, perhaps, the last group that can be legally discriminated against: A felony can automatically disqualify someone from a job, from getting a safe place to live, from being eligible to vote. Many felons end up living in poor neighborhoods and raising children in crime-riddled areas — where their children get caught up in the same traps.
Elliott Bronstein, who works with the City of Seattle Office for Civil Rights, says reformed felons like Carol who regret their crimes and want to change can’t. And that’s something everyone should care about, if for no other reason than money: Housing a person in prison for a year costs more than $25,000.
“If we set up a system so that when somebody gets out of jail, it is practically impossible for them to find a place to live or find a job,” Bronstein says, “then that doesn’t just impact them — it impacts me. Because if you can’t find a job and you can’t find a place to live, there’s a chance you’re going to be driven to other measures.”
Todd Clear, one of the nation’s most prominent scholars of criminology, says it is impossible for someone like Carol to get a fresh start. The system is not only set up to make felons fail, but to keep them coming back to prison.
“We want to make it really hard for them to live normal lives,” says Clear, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. “It’s a completely counterproductive argument.”
But some people, like Carol, never go back to jail. That month behind bars was enough for her.
Yet more than 20 years later, she still lives with the shame of her crime. She feels like a lesser citizen: someone who broke the law. Even today — employed, a homeowner, a grandmother, a college graduate with her criminal record expunged — she worries that her felony will yank the bottom out from under her. For that reason, she asked The Inlander to not publish her last name. She fears she could lose her job.
“How long does a person get to pay for their sin?” she says. “I have paid a desperate price for my sins, and so have my children.
“I am a dirty felon.”
Lock 'Em Up
Since the early 1970s, the number of people behind bars in the United States has exploded. In 2008, one in every 134 Americans went to prison or jail — a rate higher than any other country in the world. Aside from the millions incarcerated, another 5 million people are on probation or parole.
Minorities — particularly African Americans — are even more likely to see the inside of a cell in their lives. Nationally, for every one white person in prison, there are 5.6 blacks. And Washington state’s ratio is even higher: 6.4 blacks for every white person.
The inflated prison population is a direct result of tough-on-crime laws, mandatory sentencing and the War on Drugs. Especially since the 1980s, we have shuttled more and more people into the system.
“What’s happened in the last few decades are two overlapping trends that have made these issues much more significant: tremendous expansion of the prison system and the number of people with felony convictions,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.
The belief that throwing more people in jail will reduce crime is false, Mauer says. In fact, between 1991 and 1998, the states that put fewer people in jail than the national average experienced a greater decline in crime rates than other states.
“Prison is clearly not the remedy for failure. But we keep using it,” Rutgers’ Todd Clear says. “This religious belief in the value of the taste of prison is not confirmed by evidence.”
The employment restrictions facing felons upon release are complicated and vary from state to state. In Washington state, anyone with a felony drug conviction must wait five years before working with children or with anyone who has a developmental disability. Theft crimes will prevent someone from working with anyone vulnerable, such as people in a nursing home.
Felons cannot work in insurance, hold a position in a labor union, provide health care services for anyone receiving Medicare or work as a pharmacist. In some states, a felony might even prevent someone from becoming a licensed barber. And a drug conviction automatically disqualifies someone from getting government student loans. In Idaho, a woman convicted of a drug offense may be denied welfare benefits for life.
Clear says the multitude of rules and regulations that ex-felons must comply with are also a major reason that American prisons are so overcrowded. It’s not because there’s a glut of offenders — it’s because penalties are harsher and sentences are longer.
Indeed, Clear’s studies show that it isn’t new crimes that usually land someone back in jail — it’s a parole or probation violation. And felons living in poverty — ones without a support system or the cash for a good lawyer — are hit the hardest.
“Most of the people who go back to prison go back for violating rules,” he says. “The size of the prison population is a matter of penal policy. And over the last 36 years, the U.S. has built a policy designed to grow prisons.”
For years, Carol strung together enough money from odd jobs to support her four children. She bagged groceries at Safeway. When that wasn’t enough, she took a second job as a cook at Dolly’s Cafe (a restaurant she would later own).
After her husband died in 1995, she raised her children alone. She feared that they would make the same mistakes that she did.
And in 2001, her fears came true when her youngest daughter, Carrie Collette, robbed a hotel of $200 with a toy gun. She was 14. (She has a different last name than Carol.)
The cycle that Carol’s family was caught in — of crime and poverty — is one that has been studied at length. Clear has written several books about the cyclical nature of crime and poverty, including Imprisoning Communities, which examines the relationship between incarceration and the deterioration of communities and family life.
“By making it such a lifelong debilitating experience, we have sentenced all the children, too,” Clear says. “You produce this cycle of disadvantage. And right in the center of it is imprisonment.
“People who say, ‘Don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time … are also saying, ‘Don’t be a child born to [a felon],’” he says.
Carrie Collette is now 23 and wonders constantly if her family’s history will be passed onto her son and infant daughter. Because, today, Collette says, she’s staring down all the same guns that her mother once did. She can’t find a safe place to live. She can’t get a job. No matter how much she tells employers and landlords about her past — about the crime she committed at 14 and the sentence she served — she can’t seem to get a break.
“Simple things everybody should have, you don’t get to have,” she says. “Everyone should have enough bras and underwear and socks to wear a clean pair everyday, but you don’t so your children can have some.”
Collette felt neglected as child when her own mom was struggling to get by. At 14, she was involved with a bad crowd. She craved attention. She tried Ecstasy. And she robbed a hotel.
“My friend said something about ‘I used to work at this hotel and it’d be really easy to go take the money,’” she says. “One thing led to another, and the next thing you know I’m trying to prove myself. I showed them the little handle of my plastic gun and said to give me the money.
“We got like $200 and we spent it on bullshit.”
When she was caught, Collette was sent to Spokane Juvenile Detention Center for several months and later to a group home in Benton County. Because it was her first offense, Collette took a deal to get out early, agreeing to have her felony on her record until she was 28.
“When they offered me that deal — felony on my record forever — I didn’t even think twice about that. That didn’t mean shit to me,” she says. “I’m not even thinking about the consequences of what this title means. I was like, ‘I’m going to come out and rock ass and people are going to love me and I’ll be this great person because this is who I am. It won’t matter.’”
She soon learned otherwise. Collette is studying to become a nurse (just as her mother once did). She knows she can’t get a nursing license as a felon, so she’s hoping to stretch her time in school out past her 28th birthday, when she hopes to expunge her record.
But school is the least of her worries today. She’s more concerned about where she will live in less than a year. Her house — which is owned by her mother — will be bulldozed next summer to make way for the North-South Freeway. And already the burden of finding a safe place to live is weighing on her.
“I’m still going to have to move into a place that’s dangerous for my children,” Collette says. “I should be able to run a home that’s safe for my children. My children now have to grow up around the same things that influenced me to become a felon.
“No matter how hard we tried to reverse the process, we were born into it,” she says. “When [my mom] finally got to a place to better herself and to better her family, she couldn’t save us. And how am I going to find somewhere safe for us?”