Imagine wearing an orange prison jumpsuit walking around town for forty days straight. In Texas. Kent McKeever, a lawyer at Mission Waco Legal Services, decided to do exactly that for Lent.
For those of us who have not gone through the process of reentry, we can never know what it is like to have social stigma and rejection attached to yourself and your name when facing a society reluctant to help you out. But Mr. McKeever’s social experiment at least brings to light the stigma placed upon those released from prison and on parole. Mr. McKeever wore the jumpsuit when spending time with his daughter, grocery shopping, and even at work, garnishing stares, questioning glances, and avoidance from those passing by him. He felt dehumanized wearing the jumpsuit – even though it was his own choice, he felt that his individuality had been taken away from him. During a vacation he took, he found himself full of social anxiety when he went out to eat and see a movie with his daughter. On his blog, he described asking himself, “Will they accept who I am in spite of my ‘uniform’? Are they afraid of me?” His anxiety about how he would be received by the world were common thoughts throughout every day.
Although formerly incarcerated people in the community no longer don orange jumpsuits, they carry the “orange jumpsuit” stigma with them wherever they go. Their names and records carry the weight of past wrongdoings, no matter how they have changed since their committed offense, and how different they are today from the people they were years ago. As we have discussed on the blog here and here, having a criminal record is particularly challenging—and carries huge stigmas—when a person tries to get a job. People are forced to “check the box” on initial applications, the scarlet letter that then prevents them from getting their foot in the door. Because of his experience, Mr. McKeever is working to urge employers around the country to stop asking about applicants’ criminal histories before they have a chance to interview with the company. A study cited by the National Institute of Justice shows that while employers are reluctant to hire those with criminal records, employment prospects improve when applicants actually interact face-to-face with the employer. That is because, beyond the stigma, beyond the orange jumpsuit, there is just a person, like the rest of us, with strengths and weaknesses, skills and passions, who wants the chance to tell their story.
Mr. McKeever’s 40 day experiment, we hope, will push more people, especially employers, to look past the orange veil of a criminal record and focus on who the individual is now –their morals, values, and if they have redeemed themselves. Those in the reentry process who want to work will show determination to do so; employers just have to reach out a hand.
– The R&R Team
Written by Samuel Conovitz. Volunteer