Rep. French Hill (R-AR): Former Inmates Need Education — Not $35.00 And a Change of Clothes
Recently, DailyClout took a bus to Washington D.C., for an exclusive interview with Representative French Hill (R-AR). It was our first invitation to meet with a member of Congress on Capitol Hill.
We were drawn by the innovation of Rep. Hill’s proposed “Shift Back to Society Act of 2017.” This bill aims to fight back against recidivism — the rates at which prisoners re-offend and go back to jail — in a new way. Rep. Hil’s bill proposes to give out Federal grants to create educational programs for former prisoners at “Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)” such as Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, and Benedict College in North Carolina. You can read the bill for yourself below. While there are 107 Historically Black Colleges in the United States, this bill, if it passes, would only send funding to ten of them at first — it is a pilot program.
Currently, when an individual is released from prison, points out Rep. Hill, he or she is released back into the world with little to no support. Rep. Hill expanded on this point in our exclusive interview with him on Capitol Hill, in his offices: in the Longworth House Office Building:
“We have large prison populations, Federal and State, and we have prisoners that every year come out of parole, and depending on State law it’s very typical [for inmates being released] to get a change of clothes and thirty-five dollars. And how are you going to be successful in shifting back to society with that?”
The amount of thirty-five dollars to which Rep. Hill refers, is known to those in the prison system as “gate-money.” And in many states the policies about how prisoners are released, can let prisoners go back into society with even fewer resources. According to the Chicago Tribune, prisoners in St. Lewis, MO, for example, are offered ten dollars in “gate-money,” as well as a bus ticket, “dress-out clothes,” and no particular destination provided to them on their release. Prisoners in Missouri often even have to spend their “gate-money” at a pay phone if they want to make a call to ask a family member or friend to pick them up from the gates of the prison. Indeed, almost one-third of states don’t provide any gate-money to former inmates at all. This bill, by offering an educational alternative, is a dramatic departure from these norms.
Does this situation — former prisoners being released to almost no transitional support — affect many Americans? The NAACP’s “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet” reports that: “[f]rom 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.” And sixty per cent of those millions of Americans are either African-American or Latino.
But some might say that in a time of budget cuts, this bill is a waste of resources. It is hard enough for students who are law-abiding to afford college these days; and after all, these are people who have broken the law. “Why should they get special treatment?” critics might ask. But, Rep. Hill describes former inmates as being just as important of a part of his community as is anyone else:
“I’ve always been part of a family that believed that community was important, […] and communities don’t grow, and are not successful, where you don’t lift up the whole community. And this is absolutely a part of our society that has been ignored by too many people and too many institutions.”
I asked Rep. Hill what inspired him to write such a relatively forward-thinking bill. I noted that some might think that the stereotype of a white Republican male from the South, would not suggest this strategy of educating former prisoners. I mentioned the extreme partisanship one sees online, for instance.
Rep. Hill replied:
“It does seem like occasionally it’s a stage play of Les Miserables or something, where we all have our pitchforks and our flint-locked muskets. […] And I think it’s about a better society, but [this bill] has excellent long-term economic consequences for the country. And I think that’s something both Democrats and Republicans are certainly both supportive of.”
It seems that Rep. Hill has crafted an approach that attracts both Republican and Democratic enthusiasm: so far, this bill has indeed received surprisingly transpartisan and multiracial support. Eight ethnically and politically diverse Representatives from both sides of the aisle have come forward to cosponsor the bill. One of these cosponsors is Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana who is an active member of the Black Caucus.
However, the bill is currently sitting in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and it needs more than transpartisan appeal; it needs the support of citizens who like the bill to push it forward. Of course, those who oppose it should speak up as well.
Below is the complete list of this Committee’s members, who decide if the bill moves to a general discussion in Congress. If you do support this bill, and want options of education for released prisoners, who are disproportionately young men and disproportionately Americans of color, pick up a phone and call the members of this Committee. Tweet this article to your own state’s Representatives to ask them to push the bill forward, or to let the bill die. To support or oppose Rep. Hill’s “Shift Back to Society Act,” visit his website, or tweet this article to him with your remarks, at @RepFrenchHill.