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Restoring Lives: Now That’s Justice

Forty years since prison, Patrice Gaines still fights to get free.
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PEEK INSIDE THE SUMMER 2011 ISSUE OF YES! MAGAZINE

It was the summer of 2009. I was on my second day of work for the U.S. Census Bureau, knocking on doors in rural South Carolina.

My cell phone rang. It was my supervisor.

“Patrice, headquarters called me and told me to send you home immediately and to take back all government property,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

The more time I spent in prisons, the more I came to believe that there had to be a way to keep our streets safe without throwing people away.

She knew me as a 61-year-old gray-haired mother, a former Washington Post reporter, an author and motivational speaker. She knew nothing about me 40 years ago, when I was a 21-year-old heroin user. I knew exactly why they were sending me home: I am a convicted felon.

In 1970, I spent part of a summer in jail for a drug charge and received five years probation. But that was just the beginning. In the decades since, I have learned what it’s like to try to change your life in a fearful society that believes it’s safest to lock up or discard anyone who has ever made a criminal mistake or had a problem with addiction. And I have learned that there’s another way—a way that offers the possibility of restoring dignity and hope both to the people who make mistakes and those victimized by crime.

Gaines booking photo

Patrice Gaines shows her booking photo from Mecklenburg County Jail. Now, decades later, she teaches there.

Photo by Diedra Laird for YES! Magazine.

Throwaway People

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that one in 32 adults in the United States is behind bars or on probation or parole. One quarter of the prison population is locked up for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Each time a person is locked away behind bars, it leaves a void in a family, neighborhood, or community. Most often, the burden of incarceration falls on communities of color. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a leading organization promoting alternatives to incarceration, writes, “The war on drugs has become a war on families, a war on public health, and a war on our constitutional rights.”

“We are exiling millions of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters—making them missing persons,” says Carol Fennelly, director of Hope House, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps children stay connected with incarcerated parents.

I was lucky. I was becoming an addict when I was convicted. The system that sent me to jail did nothing to address my drug problem: It put me on probation and ordered me to pay more than $2,000 in fines, which only made me more bitter. I was a single mother who could not find a job because of my criminal record. I did not see any connection between the high fines and my behavior. I did not see how I was expected to dig myself out of the hole I was in.

Anyone labeled an “offender” or “ex-con” has a difficult time finding employment. Even though I served a short sentence, once I got out of jail, I could not find a job. I didn’t know how to answer the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Some days I lied; some days I told the truth.

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Ban the Box for a Fair Chance

Breaking through "tough on crime" policies to give all Americans a chance at employment.

If I lied, I usually got fired within two weeks when the results of the background check came in. If I told the truth, I didn’t get past the interview.

I searched for a job for at least three months before I finally received a break: A woman at a mental health center took a chance and hired me to work as a clerk in the business office in spite of my criminal record. Over the next several years, I took creative writing courses at night, got accepted into a journalism training program, and eventually became a newspaper reporter.

But I have never forgotten that those doors probably would never have opened without the woman who was brave enough to give me a chance.

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