Taystee’s return inspired so many feelings: sadness that she got locked up again, happiness that she was back on the show, delight that her and Poussey could be besties again. But the conversation between Taystee and Poussey in the library was perhaps the series’ most intentional indictment of the system in the entire season, in which Taystee recalls the impossibility of “starting over” after prison. She had no place to live, clothes to wear or food to eat. It was impossible to find a good-paying job, and check-ins with parole officers loomed ever-present.
As described in depth in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, former prisoners with drug offenses on their record face insurmountable challenges. They may find themselves ineligible for food stamps, public housing (or any housing), federally funded health and welfare benefits and federal educational assistance — demerits which hit especially hard for mothers with children and for women of color, who already suffer discrimination in those sectors with or without a record. “Once labeled a felon, the badge of inferiority remains with you for the rest of your life, relegating you to a permanent second-class status,” Alexander writes. “Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.” Many will lose the right to vote or to hold a driver’s license.
Taystee, who owes the prison “$900 in fees,” is not alone with that type of debt — upon release, former inmates often are required to pay fees for parole or probation, jail book-in fees, jail per diems for pretrial detention, pre-sentence report fees and so many more. Missing a payment could land you back in jail.
Securing post-incarceration employment is really really really really hard. Employers are biased against applicants with criminal records, and prison time leaves gaps in employment history, training and education. Jobs requiring minimal training, like factory work, are sparse in this economy, leaving only the service sector. Those who fail to get a job or return to the underground economy in desperation will usually end up back in prison.