I’ve been posting book reviews on the themes of egalitarianism, common good, and restorative justice since 2014. Click on the above “Book Reviews” heading to see all of them.
Author Jason Hardy worked as a probation and parole officer in New Orleans in the middle part of the previous decade. The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope after Prison (Simon & Schuster, 2020) details his interactions with a handful of his charges. Most everybody deserves a second chance, don’t they?
Hardy and his overworked fellow officers, each responsible for more than 200 cases, checked in with their “max risk” cases by visiting them at their places of residence. Some of these slept on family members’ couches, other tented under bridges at homeless camps, some resided at halfway houses, and others – drug dealers – lived in decked-out apartments in poor neighborhoods and drove Range Rovers.
For fresh parolees, Hardy writes that drug dealing and gang membership – much more so than slapping mayo on a customer’s footlong at Subway – “offer immediate relief from poverty, loneliness, and harassment” in those places like New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward “where other opportunities for upward mobility are scarce” (p. 65, paperback).
Hardy, in his debut book, tells it like it is.
The book is not a hopeful read as it goes deep on the bleak realities faced by those re-entering society from prison. It is, however, a must read for those interested and those conversant in the criminal justice reform debate in the US, the home of the brave and of the mass-incarcerated. For twenty years, the US has had the world’s highest incarceration rate. We have only 5 percent of the world’s population but more than 20 percent of those incarcerated worldwide.
Prison boards, wardens, and guards have a dual mission: protection of society by separating inmates from civilians, and rehabilitation of inmates. (Critics and some supporters of the status quo assign a third purpose to the overall mission – punishment.)
Parole and probation officers are tasked with the same mission by seeing that their charges, still in the correctional system, follow the stipulations of their tenuous freedom.
Rehabilitation? Jason Hardy writes that the goal of his public service job is rather best described as “disaster prevention.” Criminal re-offense and drug overdose are the two prevalent disasters that Hardy and his co-worker officers most worried about.
Hardy, who grew up white and privileged in the New Orleans suburbs, followed in his parents footsteps and taught high school English right out of college. That lasted three years. In another three years, he had earned a Master’s degree in creative writing from LSU and produced a 300-page novel. He claims, however, that the novel was of such quality that even his mother didn’t like it. It didn’t get published.
“The Probation and Parole position,” he writes, “seemed like the best chance to make myself useful before I turned thirty.”
Hardy did his homework and knew the numbers going in. In the early ’70s, some 250,000 were incarcerated in the US. Today, that number has exploded to more than 2.2 million, with Blacks and Browns disproportionally represented. And of these 2 million plus, 90 percent will one day leave prison.
Which brings us back to rehabilitation and second chances. If only it was a simple as holding down that minimum-wage job at Subway and then working oneself up the ladder. Reading Hardy’s book is a reality check against such simplistic thinking.
Many states restrict voting rights for ex-prisoners, along with deeming them ineligible to receive SNAP (food stamps) and other benefits. Sometimes job applications ask, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” or “Have you ever been treated for drug addiction?”
Good rehabilitation programs for prisoners and parolees are far and few between. People who work and volunteer for restorative justice programs like the Texas prison system’s “Victim-Offender Dialog” and prison ministries like Bridges To Life – which I’ve written about – truly understand how the “90 percent issue” makes prisoner re-entry a vital social concern.
At the end of the book, Hardy advocates for two things. The first is prison re-entry programming tied to job-training. “Good jobs will always be the single strongest crime reduction measure there is” (p. 241).
The second is restorative justice practices. Hardy admits that he initially he “rolled his eyes” upon reading about – especially – face-to-face meetings between perpetrators and crime victims. Remorse, he’s seen, is not hard for a perp to fake either to a judge or a crime victim. Hardy came to see, however, “that alternative sanctions don’t have to work on everybody to be worth implementing” (p. 243).
If restorative practices work, he writes, to reduce recidivism among even a small percentage of violent offenders, the economic savings alone – keeping these from returning to prison – could in turn fund programming designed to prevent young people from becoming violent in the first place.
Hardy now works for the FBI as a special agent, focused on white collar crime.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”