Sunday, January 27, 2013

THE LIFE OF A CONVICTED FELON: CAN WE GET TO A LESS MISERABLE WORLD?

[Spoiler alert: I reveal some of the plot.]

This post is about a movie based on a novel based on some historic happenings. But it is also about life today.

We recently saw the movie Les Miserables. Once I got past the fact that people are singing instead of always talking, I settled in and enjoyed the film. The story line, acting, production and costumes were excellent. The story of conditions in France in the early 1800's evoked a lot of empathy for the poor, downtroden underclass of the time. The hero, Jean Valjean, was imprisoned for a minor crime - stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's hungry children - and served many years at hard labor in a prison camp. After 19 years as a prisoner (5 for the crime of stealing bread, 14 for an escape attempt) he was releaased with nothing in his pocket and a prison record. As a released convict, Jean Valjean had no rights, lived on the streets in abject poverty, and was required to report frequently to the authorities. He is caught after stealing silver objects from a bishop who takes him in and feeds him; however, the bishop tells the police that he gave the silver to Jean. In an act of defience, he tears up his prison papers and starts a secret life, using the stolen silver to start a new life as a business man. He becomes a wealthy factory owner, but has a social conscience and treats his employees with kindness and respect, always looking out for their welfare. His true identity is finally discovered by the bad-ass policeman who had tormented him in the prison camp. However, in a few twists of plot, Jean Valjean helps the cop escape from the revolutionaries who had captured him, and then declines to kill the cop when Jean is once again captured. The cop, his mind blown by this extreme act of kindness, takes his own life.

Ultimately for Jean Valjean and his family there is a happy ending.

In the United States of America today, the early 21st century, there are millions of people who live in a situation analogous to that of the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Convicted felons in this country often have fewer civil rights than the general population; this varies by state. Voter disenfranchisement is one result of a felony conviction. Approximately 5.85 million eligible voters were barred from voting in the 2012 election because of a felony conviction. In four states, people with a felony conviction are barred from voting for the rest of their lives. In the remaining 46 states the laws vary, some states allow released felons on parole or probation to vote; some states allow felons to vote once they have completed their sentence. Only 2 states allow felons to vote while in prison.

Persons with a felony conviction face numerous other challenges in the USA. Many cannot get public housing. Most have difficulty getting employment because they have to indicate on employment applications if they have ever been convicted of a felony, and many employers will not hire them. In some states persons with a felony conviction cannot get food stamps. And in some states, released felons have to pay back the cost of their imprisonment, a difficult task if one cannot find employment. As a result, large numbers of people are forced to live  in a Catch-22 world, as if they are playing the role of the ex-con Jean Valjean when he is released from prison. These people, released from prison once they complete their sentence, are still imprisoned economically and socially by cruel laws.

Unfortunately for the people trapped in this prison with virtual bars, the establishment does not kill itself and allow a happy ending. Instead millions of people, many with families, who think they have paid their debt to society, are actually burdened with a debt they can never repay unless the laws of the land are reformed.



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