Every year in America, hundreds of thousands of individuals are released from prison and attempt to rejoin society as productive citizens. Such a transition is difficult for a number of reasons, including systems and policies that prevent these individuals from accessing food.
According to a 2013 survey, 91 percent of released prisoners in America report living in food insecurity. Food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” and 1 in 9 Americans face it. Ex-convicts are thus over eight times more likely to be food insecure than the average American. There are multiple barriers to access, but two of the biggest challenges that stand between former prisoners and food are unemployment and SNAP benefit restrictions.
Finding and keeping a job after being released from prison can be next to impossible; 87 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks on job applicants, making it difficult to even make it to an interview. About 20,000 additional job-related regulations exist in America, severely limiting the number of jobs available to those with criminal backgrounds. For example, in many states, having a criminal background automatically disqualifies someone from becoming a licensed emergency responder. This is particularly troubling because many prisoners gain experience as emergency responders while in prison but cannot use that experience in their post-release job hunts. As wildfires blaze across California, over 2,000 inmates have been employed to help fight the fires. Despite this work, after being released, these individuals will be denied the possibility of earning an EMT license and doing the same work professionally.
Further, even if one finds a job, it can be difficult to keep. Requirements for those on parole – such as meeting with parole officers, participating in certain programs, and travel restrictions – can interfere with work schedules and opportunities.
Thankfully, federal assistance exists for those who are facing food insecurity due to unemployment or other financial setbacks. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as Food Stamps, “provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency.” This seems like it would be helpful to ex-convicts as they search for a job, but unfortunately, there are restrictions on these benefits for those with criminal backgrounds.
First, individuals between 18 and 50 years old with no children are limited to three months of services if they aren’t employed for at least 20 hours a week. As we’ve seen, finding such employment can be difficult, and maintaining a certain number of hours of work may not be possible depending on parole conditions.
Even if a former prisoner secures work, they still may not qualify for SNAP benefits. Drug offenders face a federal lifetime ban on SNAP benefits. While 30 states have opted out of this ban, several states still prevent drug offenders from receiving food assistance of any kind.
This Should Bother Christians
This should really bother those of us who claim to follow Jesus. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus prophesies about the judgment that will be pronounced when he returns: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus declares that caring for the imprisoned and the hungry are necessary to inherit the Kingdom, and to those who did not care for the imprisoned and the hungry he will say, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Clearly, this is an issue that God does not take lightly, and therefore neither should we. Yet we allow 91 percent of those being released from prison to go hungry. And whatever we do to them, we do to Jesus.
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