Speaking on Race and Incarceration
Ja’Quon landed a job two days after his release from a seven-year prison sentence. Starting a month before his release, his family sent him job applications in the mail that he would fill out and return. Other times, his girlfriend would call him to fill out applications on the internet.
“I’m just really fortunate to have a good family,” Ja’Quon said. He notes that before his arrest, he had not broken the relationships in his life. He always looked out for his family and nurtured those around him, he says, so they were ready to do the same in return.
With his family’s support, Ja’Quon left prison with a $5,000 check in hand and already had his own car and apartment set up.
He has had a bit of windfall, too. Shortly after his release, he took his girlfriend out to eat. When they walked into the restaurant, the manager, mistaking him for someone else, asked “are you here for the interview?”. Ja’Quon replied “no”, but he mentioned that he was looking for a job.
“Well, come sit down,” the manager said. They had a job interview right then and there, and Ja’Quon was hired that day.
Once he got that job, other offers came rolling in. Eventually Ja’Quon moved into working construction.
Anyone who knows about reentry understands that Ja’Quon’s experience is not the norm. Not everyone has the benefit of familial support, whether due to the family’s own financial hardships, trauma that breaks up the family, or perhaps due to the individual’s lifestyle that burned bridges prior to incarceration.
Despite all this support, the odds are still stacked against Ja’Quon as a young black man. Arrested at age 23, he spent the better part of a decade in a system steeped in racism, a system that challenges a prisoner’s identity at every opportunity.
“When you’re in prison, they [the prison staff] don’t care about you,” Ja’Quon explains. “They make you feel like nobody cares about you. You’re in a whole other world, by yourself: deal with it.”
Ja’Quon recounts experiences with guards who spat out insults against his mother, told him his children would never amount to anything, and tauntingly insisted he would be back in prison soon.
“They’re real quick to beat you up because you’re black. They call you n*****, out your name…they call you ‘boy.’ They disrespect your mother, your whole origin,” Ja’Quon says. “They will handcuff and beat you up. They won’t feed you. They’ll put you in a cold room, handcuff you to a wall for mad long…It’s really degrading. It’s no place any man or woman should be.”
Ja’Quon surmises they do this “to strip you of who you are so you can be who they want you to be.”
Beyond that, many prisoners are not getting visits or calls from loved ones. No one is sending reinforcements. The line is dead, their calls are unanswered, their existence is challenged; it is enough to make someone feel like he isn’t human.
“A lot of people get discouraged,” Ja’Quon remarks, but perhaps that is an understatement.
Ja’Quon was often in trouble with the prison officers. “I was still dealing with anger. I was mad all the time,” he recounts. It seems there were plenty of sources to fuel that anger, too. Ja’Quon is vigilant and is not afraid to point out the racial disparities in prosecuting and sentencing. In our conversation, he painted a comparison of two drunk drivers: one, a black friend of his who got into an accident that killed his girlfriend in the passenger seat, and another, a white man who drove on the wrong side of the highway and killed three black college students. The former received seven years until parole with a 15 to life sentence. The latter received a two to four year sentence.
Racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system are blaringly evident yet so often swept under the rug. It is no wonder a black man spending his 20s in confinement would feel restless, jaded, and angry.
On the outside, the same story is on repeat, just in different forms.
Even without background checks, prospective black employees are often lumped into the same category. “For black young males coming home from prison from whatever charge it is – gun charges, violent charges, drug charges – [employers] look at us as like we’re already criminals. We already fit the description. So it’s hard to put yourself out there.”
One study in New York City found that white former offenders are denied jobs based on their record only half the amount that black people with similar backgrounds are. Another study conducted showed that white applicants with a criminal record were more likely to be called back for a job than black applicants without a record.
By the time of his release, Ja’Quon was determined to push through these challenges and defy the odds no matter how many tries it took. “In my mind, I had it stuck in my head: I am going to give myself a chance…A lot of people don’t give themselves a chance because they’ve been denied [from jobs] three, four times…They’re just like, ‘fuck it…it’s never going to happen.’”
While training was provided in prison, Ja’Quon notes that the environment was not conducive to learning. “Jail didn’t teach me anything. I had to teach myself half that stuff,” he says.
Prisoners are forced to work for approximately 16 cents per hour. “You have to work or they’ll beat you up or send you to the hole [solitary confinement],” Jaquan explains.
In many of the training courses offered, Ja’Quon saw the teachers as unhelpful. “The teacher doesn’t teach you nothing. All he does is give you a book and tell you to read it. Instead of being hands-on.”
Ja’Quon clarifies that the quality of instruction depends on the prison you are in. He did have one teacher who was hands-on and actually showed him how to use the tools he needed. That was when Ja’Quon actually felt like he was learning.
At the very least, in prison he had the opportunity to teach himself. He developed skills he would take into his current career as a construction worker.
“Jail just taught me that time is valuable,” says Ja’Quon. Before his sentence, he says, he had the mindset of, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Today, his mantra has changed to: “I’ll do it now.”
While he starts his own construction company, he lives his life as if in homage to the value of time. He goes kayaking, horseback riding, jet skiing, and go-carting. He is saving up to buy himself a house to give his child. He dreams of building a house for his mother, who works in Georgia as a travelling nurse, and wiring it with automatic lights in each room.
He wants to prove to his family, “I did this. You can do this.”