Barriers To Success

These oppressive barriers and sanctions—the collateral consequences of conviction—support the stigma and represent the building blocks of modern-day inequality:


For most men and women released from prison, the most immediate needs are money and gainful employment. Yet they are confronted by formidable and wide-ranging roadblocks in their search for a job. Studies show that they are less likely to be hired than any other disadvantaged population—and that when they are hired, they are the lowest paid. Prospects are even bleaker for African-Americans with criminal histories, since studies show that it is easier for a white person with a felony conviction to get a job than for a black person who has never been arrested. And formerly incarcerated African-Americans are four times less likely than their white counterparts to get an initial interview, despite having comparable credentials and offenses.

The bramble bush of obstacles includes both legal hiring bans and de facto refusals to even consider the employment applications of people with convictions. Over the last 20 years, the number of major employers who screen for criminal records has mushroomed to as high as 90 percent. And access to hundreds of trades and professions is virtually off limits because of occupational licenses that require license holders to be of "good moral character," a phrase widely interpreted as excluding people who’ve been in prison. Because of these licensing restrictions—which are often in no way related to the offense for which the applicant was convicted— those returning home may find themselves barred from jobs they held before going to prison, or from occupations for which they were trained while in prison.


Stable and affordable housing is critical to successful reintegration. But private landlords require what many formerly incarcerated people do not have—credit references, employment history, previous rental experiences. Many landlords ask point-blank whether prospective tenants have ever been arrested or convicted. If they have spent time in prison and are honest about it, they threaten their chances for getting housing.

Years ago, when the doors of private housing were slammed in the face of the formerly incarcerated, public housing was a dependable option. But in recent decades, the federal government has cobbled together policies that place rigid restrictions on access to public housing for people who have criminal records. However minor the offense, they can be prohibited for some time from returning to their families who live in public housing, or from renting a public housing apartment on their own.

Cut off from both public and private housing, the formerly incarcerated often end up living on the streets.

Educational Opportunities

Higher education is increasingly a fundamental tool for anyone seeking to build a secure and sustainable life. But federal laws and de facto policies have seriously limited access by the formerly incarcerated to college and to funds for high education.

A survey by the Center for Community Alternatives shows that many colleges collect criminal justice information and use it in their admissions decisions. They adopt additional steps in the admissions process when considering an applicant who’s been incarcerated, including consulting security personnel, requiring the applicant to submit either a letter of explanation or a letter from a corrections official, and requiring completion of probation or parole. A broad range of convictions is viewed negatively, from drug and alcohol convictions to misdemeanors and youthful offender adjudications. If someone with a conviction is ultimately admitted to college, he may be placed on disciplinary probation—which means that he cannot participate fully in campus life—and be required to go through a special annual review before being allowed to return each year.

For anyone convicted of a drug offense, amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965—it established Federal financial aid programs—suspend eligibility for student loans, grants and work assistance. Because so many state grants and scholarships are tied to federal financial aid, the impact of this sanction is incalculable. And it weighs most heavily on African-Americans. It is their urban communities that have been the targets of this nation’s War on Drugs, which has driven millions of people to prison for drug offenses.

Public Benefits

When all else fails, social and welfare benefits hold the promise of a compassionate safety net.

But for people convicted of a drug felony, Congress has passed federal laws that place a lifetime ban on food stamps and cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). While states can opt out of or modify the ban, most states enforce it in full or in part.

The ban on welfare has a particularly crippling effect on women of color, particularly those with children. African-Americans and Latinas are disproportionately represented in the exploding growth of women in prison, and they have landed there in large measure because of racially biased drug policies and enforcement. Because of historically entrenched racial and gender-based discrimination, these mothers were already dependent on the welfare system, long before their crimes.

In short, the ban on public benefits is making already poor families and communities even poorer.

Voting Rights

This nation restricts the formerly incarcerated from one of the most fundamental activities of American democracy, the right to vote.

An estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied this right because of laws that prohibit voting by people who have felony convictions. Depending on the laws of individual states, a felony conviction can bar people from voting while incarcerated, while they are on probation or parole after completing their sentence, or, in some states, for the rest of their lives. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote.

As they were created to do during Reconstruction, disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect African-Americans, with an estimated 13 percent of black men currently disenfranchised. If incarceration trends continue, African-American communities will experience a snowballing loss in political power and influence. Added to this troubling picture is the fact that, with so many of their residents away in prison, largely black urban areas are not properly represented in census counts, causing an even further decline in political strength.

Family Reunification and Stability

The stigma crosses into the lives of the families and loved ones of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Many of these families have long been familiar with struggle—the struggle to put food on the table, the struggle to pay the bills, the struggle to find a job, the struggle to protect their children from getting swallowed up by the menacing environment on the other side of their front door. With the incarceration of a family member who was a breadwinner, the financial struggle intensifies and adds new components.

With everyday contact gone, there is now the struggle to maintain family ties and some degree of intimacy when the distance to the prison where their loved one is housed is thousands of miles, or when exorbitant telephone rates—the result of kickback deals between phone companies and corrections departments—make calling home collect prohibitive. After release from prison, the formerly incarcerated may be swamped by rules and regulations that limit access to the very assistance they need to take care of their families. For the children, the stigma of having a father or mother who is or was locked away is an emotional struggle and a particularly complicated weight. Incarceration can translate into parents losing custody of their children. And statistics show that children with parents in prison are more likely than other children to become snagged in the criminal justice system.

Financial Penalties Imposed Because of a Criminal Conviction

People with criminal convictions are entangled in an ever expanding web of fines, penalties, surcharges and other financial charges imposed as a result of those convictions. For example, people on parole may be charged a monthly "supervision fee." As these men and women struggle to make a way for themselves and their families, these penalties add yet another burden and disadvantage.