Incarcerate, Release, Repeat
By Matt Ligio
Nearly half of all inmates released from the American prison system will be incarcerated again within three years. For hundreds of thousands of Americans, the criminal justice system is like a revolving door; individuals move seamlessly from arrest to conviction to incarceration to release. Very often, release is a mere respite before the next cycle through the criminal justice system. Most offenders lack the education, social support and job skills necessary to obtain steady work, a problem compounded by the fact that few companies are interested in hiring employees with a criminal record. These formidable barriers brought on by ex-offender status compel many people to return to crime not because they want to, but because they feel as though they have no choice.
This cycle of incarceration and recidivism tends to flourish in impoverished communities where unemployment is high, opportunities are limited, and the temptation to earn money through illegal means is ever-present. Perhaps no one knows this better than Kennard Ray, the former candidate for Deputy Chief of Staff in the Hartford Mayor’s office. Growing up in a single-parent home in one of the poorest areas of Hartford, Ray witnessed firsthand the forces steering individuals towards a life of crime. “There are so many limits, so many barriers that have been put up institutionally,” he says. These include substandard education (Hartford Public Schools graduated just 59.9% of students in 2011), limited access to healthcare, and scarce job opportunities. “The unfortunate thing is that for impoverished people, prison is a cultural norm.”
Ray became involved in crime at a young age. “I was a teenage drug dealer,” he recalls. “That was one of the easiest, earliest job opportunities you could get.” For people who are unable to overcome barriers to legitimate employment, crime becomes a more realistic option. “We can talk about the ethical, moral, and legal aspects, but then there’s just the reality. I need to feed my family and myself. What am I going to do?” At only 17 years old, Ray had his first brush with the law. Just days after the 1998 New Year, police observed Ray and two accomplices engaged in suspicious activity near Pope Park in Hartford. A closer look revealed a substantial quantity of rock and powder cocaine in their possession, individually wrapped and ready to sell. Convicted of possession of narcotics with intent to sell, Ray was sentenced to four and a half months in a state prison.
Over the next few years, he found himself in and out of prison for drug and weapons charges. A 2004 conviction for felony gun possession got Ray a two-year prison sentence and made him decide that, once released, he would leave his criminal behavior in the past. “I was lucky enough to have support; I could go back home and take a little while to sort out my dreams. I was lucky to have some skills and I was able to go out and get work.” Many others are not so fortunate. Having spent months or years in prison rather than gaining employment experience, released inmates are often hard-pressed to secure even entry-level positions in a competitive job market. Unlike Ray, many convicted felons don’t have any place to go. They are prohibited from residing in public housing and cannot visit family members living there due to their criminal histories. Without a steady income, a place to live, or the support of family and friends, it becomes very difficult for those with criminal records to successfully integrate back into society.
Following his release from prison, Ray worked at a number of corporate jobs in New York City before deciding to get involved in politics. “I got bit by the political bug while living and w orking in New York,” he says. By 2010, he had joined the Connecticut Working Families Party as their political and legislative director. In this position, he advocated for a number of social causes including increased funding for public education, voter outreach, and a higher minimum wage. One person who took notice of Ray’s work was Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra. In November 2013, Segarra nominated Ray to be his Deputy Chief of Staff. Ray accepted the nomination and prepared to begin his new position immediately. “There was a lot of fanfare. People were happy that I was coming on board,” he recalled.
The following day, the Hartford Courant reported on details of his criminal record, igniting a statewide controversy over Hartford’s hiring policies. Soon after the story broke, Ray unexpectedly announced that he would not be accepting the nomination after all. His decision came after discussions with Mayor Segarra and others in the administration. “I felt that I would have been a distraction more than an asset to the job, and that’s not what I was coming in for. It would have created an awkward if not unproductive work environment.” In a public statement, he acknowledged having a criminal record but added that “over the past decade, I’ve put more time and effort into doing right than I ever have in doing wrong.” Hartford has seen more than its fair share of suspicious political dealings in recent times (ex-mayor Eddie Perez resigned in 2010 amid corruption allegations), and the nomination of a convicted felon did not sit well with the public. Many residents demanded to know whether Segarra had known about Ray’s legal troubles and, if not, why no background check had been performed.
In fact, Ray had not disclosed his criminal history, and to those who asked why he neglected to do so, his answer was simple: no one asked. Not prior to his nomination, not during the application process, not ever. Most employment applications contain a section asking applicants to check a box if they have ever had a criminal conviction, but since 2009 the city of Hartford has not included this for public employees. Hartford became one of over 45 cities and counties across the country with a “Ban-the-Box” ordinance, meaning that it does not require candidates to disclose their criminal background until an offer of employment has been extended. Prospective employees are initially evaluated solely based on their skills and qualifications to eliminate any bias that may arise due to an applicant’s criminal convictions.
Even the hint of a criminal history is enough to frighten off some employers. A 1962 study by Richard D. Schwartz and Jerome Skolnick revealed that individuals who had been tried for assault and acquitted still received just 1/3 as many job offers as an identical candidate with no record of arrest. Hartford has taken the position that this type of discrimination is detrimental to the long-term health of its community. Nearly 50% of the city’s residents are living with criminal records, and everyone suffers if this segment of the population is deprived of opportunities. Steady employment is a stabilizing force that fosters human connection, self- esteem and respect for authority, and is thus a powerful deterrent against recidivism.
Kennard Ray and thousands of others continue to pay for crimes committed years or even decades in the past. Despite serving out his sentences and embracing a life of public service, his criminal history continues to haunt him. Ray is fortunate that he still has a job to fall back on. “I’m gainfully employed, so that’s not a problem,” he said in reference to his position at the Connecticut Working Families Party. A supporter of Ban-the-Box, Ray continues to advocate for ex-offenders from outside the mayor’s office. “I’ve been working with folks around the country,” he said. “Baltimore, Maryland is currently looking to improve their Ban-the-Box policy by extending it to the private sector, and I’m actively working to expand and strengthen the laws that we have on the books here in Connecticut.”
Nevertheless, policy changes and legislation aimed at protecting ex-offenders may not be enough. When the media published details of Ray’s criminal history, they may have inadvertently exposed a flaw in Hartford’s Ban-the-Box policy. It becomes nearly impossible to protect ex-offenders from discrimination when their past crimes become public knowledge. While Ray believes that Ban-the-Box and similar legislation represent steps in the right direction, he cautions that more still needs to be done. “No matter how many policy changes you make, there is also the cultural aspect of change that needs to be made,” he said. For Ray, that cultural change means arriving at a collective recognition that ex-offenders deserve a second chance. “Until we completely erase the perception of ex-offenders being ‘different’ from other people, we will continue to have this subset of people who don’t have opportunities and remain steeped in poverty.” For many individuals stuck in this grim predicament, a return to crime may seem like the only answer.