The Battle Has Already Been Won

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Whoever would have thought that a bad decision at an early age, could result in an American no longer being viewed as a citizen. After an American citizen is convicted of a felony offense, certain rights are rescinded. Also, there is a negative stigma that goes farther than the rescinded rights, and makes reentry into society virtually impossible.

I took a group of LifeLine to Success clients to the National Civil Rights Museum on Monday afternoon. We viewed the exhibits and watched the video. I have been several times, but this time I was a convicted felon that has been attempting to successfully reenter society. I was shocked by the realization that the rights the Civil Rights Movement was fought for, were the very same rights that have been stripped from the ex-offender population.

In one exhibit, there is a group of statues that are portraying a march. The statues are carrying picket signs. The three signs all had different statements. The issues were Voting, Housing, and Wages. I was stunned because all of those are issues that I face today, as an ex-offender. The right to vote, the right to affordable, descent housing and the right to a livable wage are all rights that an ex-offender no longer is privy to after a felony conviction.

The right to vote is one of the most significant rights an American citizen has. But after a conviction, that is one of the rights that a person loses. “The system” has been notorious for hindering segments of our society as it relates to voting rights. Women and blacks were both denied the right to vote and the fight to change that resulted in bloodshed. It took amending the United States Constitution for those groups to enjoy a benefit that was intended for all citizens.

The federal government provides housing assistance and allows local jurisdictions to disperse it. Many municipalities will not allow a convicted felon to receive any governmentally funded housing assistance. One of the requirements for a probationer or parolee is stable housing. If an individual has served any length of time, odds are that person will not have a place to live upon release. So how, then, is it possible for a citizen that has been convicted to obtain housing when the government that classifies him as a citizen will not assist him with housing that is available to its citizens?

The last of these issues is not an actual right that was stripped, but it comes as a result of the negative stigma that comes with a felony conviction. Convicted felons lose 40% of their earning potential simply because of the conviction being on their criminal record. Employment is very hard to come by. Minimum wage jobs are now conducting background checks. What is a person to do? Does the American dream die with the conviction?

When will we, ex-offenders that have done what society required, be allowed to be full-fledged citizens again? Yes, we did it. We broke the law. But is there no remedy? Do we have to live as refugees in our own country for the rest of our lives? Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t just march for garbage workers. He didn’t willingly go to jail for bus boycotts only. He didn’t give his life for blacks only. He died for us all to have the rights that come with citizenship to the greatest nation on earth. The battle has already been fought- and won! Why do we have to continue to fight for rights that bloodshed and lives have been given for?