In The U.S. Reform After Prison Is Rarely Afforded to Black Americans by Calvin Eaton

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In the U.S. Reform After Prison Is Rarely Afforded to Black Americans

“Don’t judge me by my past because I don’t live there anymore”

For black Americans judgement, bias, and racism is a daily occurrence. For those that have served a prison sentence no matter how long ago this judgement more often than not turns into stigma, lack of access to jobs, unemployment, homelessness and a disproportionate rate of recidivism compared to their white counterparts.

Anecdotally, we have to look no further than our local Rochester community. Yesterday it made headlines that activist and community member Miquel Powell was selected as one of nine members to the newly formed Police Accountability Board (PAB). What the media and many racist comments on social media focused on instead of Miquel’s credentials and experience was that Mr. Powell served a five year stint in prison after a conviction of second-degree assault in 2003.

Miquel has been an open book about his past, his time in prison and most noteworthy; how the experience was the catalyst for him to transform the trajectory of his life. After serving his prison sentence Miquel enrolled in Monroe Community College, earned an associates degree (making the Dean’s list) and became a state certified counselor. He eventually founded the Reentry and Community Development Center on North Street, a facility that helps newly-released convicts readjust to civilian life. Miquel kept his commitment to leave a life of trouble, violence, and bad decisions a relic of his past and has been a role model, mentor, advocate, and community leader that hasn’t had a brush with the law since. However, for some in the Rochester community this transformative story hardly matters. What many see is a black man, a felon unworthy of redemption or a second chance.

Miquel’s story is hardly an anomaly. Systemic poverty, racism and a lack of access lead many black young men into a life of crime on the streets and into the racist beast that is the criminal justice system. This system has systemically devalued and not valued the lives of black people. Contrary to what the media and a white supremacist culture wants us to believe, black people do not commit crimes at a higher rate than white people and Mr. Powell’s story of redemption, reconciliation and transformation is hardly an outlier.

What the data tells us:
Table 1. Unemployment rates of people age 35-44 among the U.S. general public and formerly incarcerated population, by race and gender. For a comparison of unemployment rates among Hispanic women and men in the general public and formerly incarcerated population (without controlling for age), see footnote 13.
Unemployment rate
general population
Unemployment rate
formerly incarcerated
Black women 6.4% 43.6%
Black men 7.7% 35.2%
White women 4.3% 23.2%
White men 4.3% 18.4%

For many black men and women a brush with the criminal justice system and prison leads to a figurative and in many cases a literal life-long prison sentence. Black formerly incarcerated individuals have a higher rate of unemployment and a difficult time finding housing. Formerly incarcerated Black women in particular experience severe levels of unemployment, whereas formerly incarcerated white men experience the lowest.

The public stigma, bias, and judgement that follows a black formerly incarcerated person only heightens the racism, prejudice and bias that black people already have to deal with. This system will find any way to bring up their past in an attempt to discredit any attempt that person makes to improve their own life and the lives of others in their community. The comments, the headlines, and the data tell us that for black people no amount of good deeds, reconciliation, or time served is enough. For us a prison sentence is met to be life-long and a way to prevent us from voting, smear our names when we run for public office, and prevent us from taking the bar exam. When you are white even if you murder an unarmed black man in his home; redemption and forgiveness is afforded to you. When you are black, prison is a indictment of our character, a brand and a headline that will haunt us forever no matter what we do. Even when we do good.


  1. City Council members defend Police Accountability Board appointee who served prison time, 13Wham
  2. City Council stands behind reformed ex-convict for Rochester PAB, Rochester City Newspaper
  3. City Council stands behind reformed ex-convict for Rochester PAB, WXXI News
  4. Out of Prison & Out of Work:Unemployment among formerly incarcerated people, Prison Policy Initiative
  5. Daily multidimensional racial discrimination among Black U.S. American adolescents, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology
  6. Black Teens Face Racial Discrimination Multiple Times Daily, Suffer Depressive Symptoms as a Result, Rutgers
  7. There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof., Washington Post
  8. Reentry and Community Development Center opens in Rochester, Whec 10
  9. Should Ex-Convicts Be Lawyers? Bloomberg
About Calvin Eaton

(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a community educator, digital content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, inclusion, equity, curriculum writing, and higher education.

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Published by Calvin Eaton

(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a disabled community educator, content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, equity, justice, instructional design, and program development. In 2016 Mr. Eaton founded 540WMain, Inc. a non-profit online and community-based organization for accessible education and events that promote justice for all.

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