Society puts labels on some people the from the moment they are born. Sometimes it takes a little longer. For the most part, we no longer accept some of the cruel epithets we apply to people who are different from ourselves. Except for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

Walk through the gates of any jail, and most of your human identity will be stripped away. You are no longer “you,” a person with a name, history, family and friends, home and education. You’re a six-digit ID, a cell number, living in a cookie-cutter cell block, unit, or pod. Now you’re a convict, a prisoner, inmate, felon, lifer, and every LGBTQ+ insult and swear word imaginable. Your crime/s — that’s your identity. Junkie, crackhead, death-dealing scum of the earth. Thief, rapist, kidnapper, murderer.

These labels will follow you everywhere. Employment applications want to know if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Really? Tough luck. Now you’re untouchable, cast out, rejected, an untrustworthy pariah. Jobs and places to live can be impossible to find. Lack of DOC-approved residence can keep you in jail years past your minimum sentence. Hundreds of people in Vermont jails have remained incarcerated due to this unfair burden. If you have been released and lose your residence for almost any reason, you will most likely be sent back to jail.

Yet the housing shortage in Vermont is acute, even for those not stigmatized with a record. Where is the help for the previously incarcerated who are stymied by this Catch-22? Applying for desperately needed food stamps and other federal help comes with more barriers and strings attached than the average citizen can imagine. Are you “average”? Ever done time? Do you feel stigmatized to the point of almost being a non-citizen? Tempted to re-offend?

Nothing is gained by slapping a belittling, punitive label on anyone. Every person is much more than the sum of their mistakes. We need, one and all, to acknowledge this. Helping people return to regular life has huge potential benefits for all. Helping people to step up, and not be stepped on; to not just be good, but become better; isn’t that why we’re here?

— Richard Gagnon

The writer is currently incarcerated in a Vermont facility

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Vermont Just Justice is an all-volunteer organization. Help us continue to support Vermont’s incarcerated people and change our state’s criminal legal system.