Of all the things a prisoner thinks about when he or she is incarcerated, what will happen when old age arrives is likely not one. The entire panoply of finance and personal economics – saving, credit cards, taxes, interest rates, mortgages – involves so many concepts that may be foreign to incarcerated individuals, with day-to-day survival so immediate, that we push those topics away. And the results can be devastating.
When I went to prison the first time, I was 17. I had worked since I was eight, doing stoop labor with my family in the West Texas fields. When I was 13, I was a busboy at a local café where my mom cooked, and during high school I worked at a fast food eatery. I spent two years in the U.S. military before going to prison in 1977 at the age of 20, which began an odyssey that would not end until 2008, during which I spent a total of five years in the free world. Of those 31 years, 27 were spent in Texas prisons, which do not pay incarcerated individuals one cent. So, not counting the time I’ve spent since my 2008 release, I have perhaps seven years of productive employment that was taxed under my belt, and I am too afraid to even begin to look at what Social Security will calculate I have coming when I finally am unable to work anymore.
The thoughts that cascade through the mind of someone who has spent an appreciable amount in prison upon release, unfortunately, revolve around immediate concerns – how are we going to pay for an apartment? How are we going to get to that job interview? How are we going to pay for clothes to look presentable? How are we going to pay for food, help our children with school supplies, pay for medical emergencies? We are frantic with worry, and the far-off exigencies of retirement we push away, as we have all thoughts of freedom for so long. Now that it is upon us, just living is so difficult that we delay planning, delay saving, delay our preparations for our retirement, because we internalize the idea that we will work until we die.
This is an important conversation. With 600,000 prisoners entering American society each year, many of them unskilled, saddled with felony convictions all facing immense obstacles just to find employment, it is almost certain that they will impose a huge economic burden on their families, contributing to the cycle that keeps those mostly minority families poor and despairing. I’m not sure if we can in fact persuade state governments to take the steps to ensure minimum financial benefits to incarcerated individuals, but the consequences – to state and local economies, to those individuals, and to their families – are too dire to simply ignore.