Skip to main content

An Interview With a Former Inmate

As the United States Justice Department plans to release about 6,000 non-violent drug offenders from federal prison, we talk with a researcher and former inmate about what should happen next.
Darris Young. (Photo: Ella Baker Center for Human Rights)

Darris Young. (Photo: Ella Baker Center for Human Rights)

Darris Young was ecstatic when he heard the news that United States officials will set free about 6,000 inmates, all non-violent drug offenders, by November 2. The release is part of an overall, bipartisan push to reduce the harsh sentencing of those caught up in the war on drugs in the 1980s and '90s.

At the same time, Young is worried. What will happen to the inmates once they're released? Young is a community organizer at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a non-profit that advocates for decreasing prison spending and lowering incarceration rates. He hopes to see the released receive the support they need to find jobs and housing.

We talked with Young about the challenges former inmates face when they go home. His opinions are informed in part by a series of interviews he conducted with 50 formerly incarcerated people, for a recent report on the costs of incarceration—called "Who Pays?"—jointly published by the Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, and other advocacy groups last month. It's also a personal issue: Young served 17 years of a 20-year prison sentence, nabbing a job with the Ella Baker Center while he was still on parole.


What did you think about this news from the Justice Department, saying they'll release about 6,000 non-violent drug offenders from federal prisons?

I think it's wonderful any time we let any person out of prison that should have been out of prison years and years ago, like most of these individuals should have been. At the same time, I'm also dismayed I didn't read about anything being attached to it. I think that's shortsighted. We're letting 6,000 people out of prison, which is great and I advocate for that, but letting them out of prison without any resources guaranteed to them is akin to, after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, when we kicked all the slaves out of the plantations and said, "You're free," and yet they had nowhere to go and no way to make a living.

So there needs to be something attached to that, to make sure these 6,000 people will return to housing; to make sure these 6,000 people will be able to get employment; to make sure these 6,000 people will be able to get their basic needs met, so that whoever it is will have a chance to integrate into society.

Do you have suggestions for new programs that would help people integrate into society better after they're released from prison?

What we found here, in Alameda County, is that [the prison system] has good programs, but they're underfunded by the counties and the state. One of the issues we're facing now is that we have education and employment service providers, but we're not subsidizing an individual's employment for long enough periods of time so that a person can stay on a job and learn the soft skills that he or she needs to maintain a job. If we're not directing more resources to finance those types of employment opportunities, they're not going to place a lot of people in employment.

It's great that President Obama did [the planned federal inmate release]. Nevertheless, I didn't see anything attached that would give individuals some type of stipend until they can find a job. Here in California, the day I walked down to get processed out [in 2012], they gave me what's called gate money. I was given $200. Keep in mind, I had to buy a bus ticket to get home. That was $70. While I was waiting at the bus station, obviously, I got hungry. I had to buy food. By the time I touched ground, that $200 was gone.

We need to do better than that. It's not enough to release people from prison, but we have to release people with resources so that they can get back into society without falling back into a pattern of criminality to survive.

You recently conducted interviews with 50 formerly incarcerated people. What did you learn about their experience after they were released?

I realized that most of the individuals that I was talking to were having trouble when it came to housing, jobs, and those types of services, because the services were so limited. The job opportunities were so limited, we were actually competing against each other for the same jobs.

Most of the people didn't have a lot of the education or credentialing that I was fortunate to have; I was actually outside of the norm of things. I was fortunate that, before my life fell into the abyss of mass incarceration, I did get some type of formal education. Albeit, it was only a two-year degree, but while incarcerated, I was able to get my substance abuse counseling certification, and then, once I got out, I added to that certification by becoming certified as a domestic violence counselor and as a youth interventionist.

But it wasn't such a direct transition for you, right?

For the first year and a half, I couldn't find a job. For a while, I thought that all of my efforts to do everything right were null and void because no one would ever take a chance on me, to put me in a job that would pay me a livable wage, and not just some job that would exploit me like some of the programs they put people in.

What's an example of an exploitative job offer you saw?

One of the jobs that an agency sent me to was for the Goodwill Industries. At that time, their wage was $8 an hour. I live in the Bay Area. It wasn't sustainable.

One of the things that our report pointed out was that formerly incarcerated individuals would return home and the only employment options available were these low-paying and unstable jobs that provide no potential wage increase. Studies have found that criminal convictions and incarcerations have a lasting impact on both employment prospects as well as income mobility. Prison time reduces wages up to 20 percent.

[The "Who Pays?" report found] that, often, there is wage theft and wrongful termination. You work at a place maybe three months, four months, and then after the person has paid you this very low wage, they terminate you. We found that 25 percent face that type of termination from their jobs.

The report talks about how, when somebody goes to prison, that often means their family loses an important source of income. Was that true for you?

Yes, it was true for my family. At the time I was arrested and sent to prison, my ex-wife wasn't working because she was staying home to take care of my daughter, who was three or four years old. Once I left, that took away the family income.

I think that there's this misconception that people out there who are in jail or prison—especially when it comes to African-American men—weren't taking care of their families or providing for them, but a lot of them were. Albeit, it might have been outside of the bounds of the law, but they were doing what we call "by any means necessary" in order to provide for their family.

Did you have housing to go to when you got out of prison?

I was accepted into a re-entry program before I got out. They provided housing for me and they had a contract that paid my rent for six months while I was on parole. I lived with 15 people in a four-bedroom house with one kitchen and two bathrooms, but it helped set a tone for how my life would go when I got out.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of that. There are waiting lists. And a lot of re-entry housing is starting to disappear because landlords aren't contracting or renting to people that want to run programs for people coming out of incarceration. The housing market is up once again, and they can get better value for a house with a person who's moving back from the suburbs into the city.

Do you mean gentrification contributes to the trouble people have in finding a place to live after they get out of prison?

We had so many organizations contribute to gathering the data [for "Who Pays?"]. One topic that kept coming up was the cities that had become so gentrified that people who left their communities maybe 10, 15 years ago, who are getting out of prison, they're returning to communities that don't represent them anymore.

Those people who were arrested in "the 'hood," they're returning to "the 'hood" and it's not "the 'hood" anymore, so housing is a real issue.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.