Recently, at a Howard League event, I met another of the UR Boss Young Advisors. She has come so far since being convicted and comes across as a very accomplished young woman. She was a friendly, intelligent and bubbly person with a firm head on her shoulders. As we spoke I really respected the positivity which she has in the wake of her prison experience, and the direction she is going in with her life as she seeks to have a positive effect on others with a similar background. That’s why, in the midst of all my admiration, I was shocked to hear that she gets nervous about disclosing her conviction too.
Part of me thought that my anxiety when going into situations where I might have to tell people I was in prison, or what I was convicted of, was a personal weakness. Something that a stronger individual would not experience or would manage better. It was refreshing to hear that it is not just me, but at the same time really disappointing to know that even someone who has made such a turn around and is so obviously kind-hearted should still suffer a degree of angst over disclosure.
My first post-prison employers were aware of my record, but it took me about five months before I tentatively opened up to one of my co-workers. Having felt sick with nerves, I felt even sicker when she immediately told me that she already knew. Apparently, my criminal record had been gossiped about in the offices before I had even come in for my very first day. Nobody had said anything out of hand and everyone at the offices liked me, but it was still an uncomfortable feeling - that people who had not known me at all at the time had felt well within their rights to judge me and criticise me behind my back. that a stronger individual would not experience or would manage better. It was refreshing to hear that it is not just me, but at the same time really disappointing to know that even someone who has made such a turn around and is so obviously kind-hearted should still suffer a degree of angst over disclosure.
Something similar happened again when I chose to tell someone with whom I had become friends after my release from prison. Once I had told her, she kept it to herself for a while. The next of our mutual friends that I told was completely unaware that I had been to prison. However, the next time I told some of our friends, everyone gave me an embarrassed look before they confirmed that she had told them months before.
These situations were not in any way traumatic. The people already knew and liked me as an individual, fully accepting of me irrespective of my background. However, they mostly view me as a shocking exception to the rule, rather than altering their opinion of people who have been passed through the criminal justice system, and it has made me reluctant to share my history with new people. This secrecy, unfortunately, exposes me to other people’s unfiltered opinions of what an offender or ex-offender may be.
Law school has to be the hardest place for this. Many of the students sit around me joking about the idiocy of their would-be clients, exposing their own class-snobbery and prejudice about criminals, plus rambling on and on about the need for harsher punishments. Instead of getting angry I try to keep myself contented with the fact that they are totally unaware that an ex-offender sits in their midst, adding a little ironic humour to their know-it-all rant. It does make me despair, however, that it is some of these individuals who are possibly going to stand before courts and defend those people that they are so aptly tearing down.
With all this in mind, I was asked excitedly by people who care about me whether the alterations to Rehabilitation of Offenders Act would benefit me. While the shortening of this time period is beneficial to me, I can’t help but think that a sentence is never going to be truly spent while people’s prejudices live on. Even though I would no longer have to disclose my offence to employers, the attitude of a number of people in our society to “criminals”, past or present, the lack of understanding, continues the stress of whether to disclose or not to disclose to friends and acquaintances. While these strong prejudices exist, rather than driving ex-offenders to do positively with their life, society drives home a message that any post-rehabilitation positive actions are easily eclipsed by the stigma of a criminal past which brings up a recurring question for me… with these attitudes around, is a prison term ever truly spent?