In director Ava DuVernay’s gripping Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” the injustices are piled as high as Trump Tower.

The four-episode retelling of the real-life stories of the wrongly convicted Central Park Five is a cautionary tale about race and stereotypes and fevered rushes to judgment by police, prosecutors, the public and the media.

But it’s also a story about the painful aftermath of imprisonment. As if their coerced confessions and conviction for the brutal beating and rape of a jogger in 1989 aren’t enough, there is the virtual imprisonment that haunts four of the teenagers even after they finished their sentences in juvenile detention. (The fifth, Korey Wise, was sentenced as an adult because he was 16 years old when convicted, and was still serving his prison term.)

There is the stigma. The disorientation of rejoining a fast-changing world that has moved on without you. And the difficult search for a job with the added burden of a criminal record. In this case, a notorious record that has made you a celebrity. And a pariah. Each of them, in one way or another, is considered damaged goods. A marked man. A “super-predator.” The system seems cold and unforgiving by design, and the young men (who at the time had not yet been exonerated by a confession from actual rapist, Matias Reyes) appear consigned to destinies of failure.

It is the ex-offender’s dilemma writ large and extreme — only in this case, the “ex-offenders” hadn’t committed a crime.

We say they’ve paid their debt. We say we want them to have chances to live lawful and productive lives. But in practice we make that nearly impossible.

This is why we welcome and heartily support Congressman Mark Walker’s proposed Prison to Prosperity Act. The Greensboro Republican’s bill would increase access to apprenticeships for ex-offenders and others. It builds on the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation passed earlier this year by Congress and signed by President Trump, in a brief, if now distant, flourish of sanity and reasonableness in Washington. (Ironically, Trump took out full-page newspaper ads in 1989 calling for the Central Park Five to be executed.)

In an endorsement of the Prison to Prosperity Act, the NC Justice Center noted some of the obstacles faced in the job market by people who have been incarcerated, especially people of color. The Justice Center points out that a job applicant with a criminal record is half as likely to receive a call back for a job opening and that a criminal record affects African American applicants twice as much as others. Small wonder that 60% of the roughly 650,000 inmates annually released from U.S. prisons remain jobless a year later.

The Prison to Prosperity Act is an attempt to reverse those numbers by using apprenticeships to provide job training that can lead to permanent employment. The bill would direct the secretaries of defense, labor and education, as well as the attorney general to collaborate on ways to promote apprenticeships “for inmates, the formerly incarcerated, high school students, those not in an educational institution, members of the Armed Forces, and veterans,” a release from Walker’s office said.

The apprenticeship model is durable, if underused in the U.S. The text of the bill notes that 91% of apprentices are hired for full-time positions after completing their training at an average salary of $60,000. Certainly, North Carolina could use the help. According to Justice Center, 1.6 million North Carolinians have criminal records. The state’s three-year recidivism rate is 40%.

We wouldn’t expect that most of the Prison to Prosperity jobs would pay $60,000, but the concept of teaching people to take jobs that may go unfilled for lack of experienced applicants deepens and improves the labor pool even as it empowers ex-offenders to build new lives. Rather than to have to resort to old ways that can lead them back to prison because that’s all they know. And all there is.

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the News & Record's Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Load comments