‘Why am I still being punished?’: how a 1996 law makes it harder for former drug felons to get food in the US

When Eugene Glover was released from prison in the summer of 2017 he believed he was starting a new chapter in his life, and leaving an old one behind him. After serving more than 14 years behind bars for a drug felony conviction, Glover moved into a halfway house and applied for food assistance.

If he could get some help covering food expenses, he reasoned, it would be one less thing to worry about as he set out to navigate the myriad challenges that come with rejoining society: housing, employment, rebuilding relationships with friends and family.

But when Glover applied for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap), colloquially known as food stamps, he received a notification from the Arizona department of economic security.

It was a message that unsettled his belief that the end of his sentence represented a clean break with his past: because his felony conviction was drug related, he was not eligible for Snap, and his claim had been denied. “我想, wait a minute, I finished my sentence. Why am I still being punished?” said Glover. “You shouldn’t miss a meal because you were incarcerated or have a history of drug activity. That doesn’t seem right.”

在 1996, 一种 bill titled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, known simply as “welfare reform”, was signed into law by the former president Bill Clinton. It promised to tighten restrictions on welfare programs, making assistance leaner and more difficult to access.

The bill included a little-known provision known as Section 115 that imposed a lifetime ban on federal food and cash assistance for people with drug felony convictions. It was debated for only two minutes, but over the next several decades, the provision would have a devastating impact on formerly incarcerated people. In the five years after the bill passed, Section 115 resulted in 多于 90,000 formerly incarcerated people being purged from welfare rolls.

There is little evidence that such restrictions deter criminal activity. 一种 2017 学习 by Crystal Yang at Harvard’s Olin Center found that access to welfare programs such as Snap decrease the likelihood of returning to prison during the first year of re-entry by 10%.

Food insecurity is common among formerly incarcerated people, who have a median income of just $10,000 一年 and suffer from high levels of unemployment. 一种 2013 study by the National Institute of Health found that 91% experienced food insecurity upon re-entry. Some 37% reported having gone an entire day without food at least once in the previous month.

“When we talk about food justice in the legal system, it’s usually in the context of poor food options inside the prison system, and the many health problems that come with that,” said Kimberly Dong, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University. “But because of these bans, those problems follow them into the outside world.”

Section 115 represented a political orthodoxy of the 1990s, when the war on drugs was raging, welfare use was heavily stigmatized through racialized attacks linking assistance to sloth and criminality, and policies that inflicted punishment on people with histories of drug activity were popular across the aisle.

Few politicians embodied the politics of that era more than Joe Biden, who authored the 1994 crime bill that targeted communities of color and put mass incarceration into overdrive, and lambasted “welfare mothers driving luxury cars” in a column he penned for the Newark Post 在 1988.

In a change that reflects the country’s shifting political landscape and growing calls to reckon with the racist history of America’s criminal justice system, Biden now stands poised to roll back Section 115.

Both the American Families Plan (AFP), a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda focused on enhancing assistance to families, and Biden’s budget for 2022 would eliminate Section 115. In a statement from the Department of Agriculture, which oversees Snap, a spokesperson said that Section 115 “exacerbates inequities in communities that are disproportionately affected by incarceration due to structural racism in the criminal justice system”.

然而, with such thin Democratic majorities in Congress, the prospects of the AFP passing is an open question.

最近几年, the momentum has been in the direction of moving away from the ban. Section 115 allowed states wide discretion over how they implemented the ban, and even allowed them to opt out altogether. 自从 1996, 24 states, the Virgin Islands, and Washington DC have done so. Only one state, 南卡罗来纳, and the American territory of Guam, still have the full original ban on the books. 但 25 states still have modified versions of the ban in place that erect numerous barriers for people with drug felony convictions trying to apply for Snap.

“There’s growing acknowledgment that denying people food access is not a good way to approach re-entry,” said Ed Bolen, a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s strictly punitive, and it exacerbates all the other challenges people face during re-entry.”

Megan Hunt, a state senator in Nebraska who has introduced legislation that would lift the ban completely, says that while there’s widespread acknowledgment that the ban is cruel and ineffective, even among her most conservative colleagues, the political will to change it has yet to materialize.

“A mother in her forties applied for Snap during the pandemic, but because she had a drug conviction from when she was a teenager, she was denied. Everyone knows it’s totally broken,” said Hunt. “But the pressure to be seen as tough on crime is still a powerful force, and politicians don’t want to take a risk to help a group of people who have been stigmatized as criminals and systematically disenfranchised.”

What form the restrictions take can vary by state, from submission to drug testing and periods of ineligibility, to disqualification after multiple convictions and bans for those with crimes of distribution but not possession.

Their unifying impact is to make Snap more difficult to access. Ashley St Thomas, policy director at the Arizona Food Bank Network, estimates that repealing the ban entirely would have made Snap more accessible for at least 10,000 applicants in Arizona between 2018 和 2020 . “These requirements come with a lot of logistical challenges,“ 她说. “Instead of putting your life back together, you’re spending time jumping through these bureaucratic hoops.”

Tina Phalen, who was released in May after more than 13 years behind bars for a drug felony conviction, was able to apply for Snap immediately after release. Although she was in Arizona, the same state as Glover, who was immediately rejected, Arizona had amended its ban in 2018 and under the new rules they were both able to apply.

“It takes a weight off my shoulders knowing that my food is taken care of and the money I came home with could be used to restart my life,” said Phalen.

Because of their charges, Phalen and Glover had to consent to drug testing and submit documents proving they were in treatment programs. “During the pandemic, all the offices were closed, but you had to hunt down all these documents and find a way to submit them,” said Phalen.

Glover noted that the process feels heavily stigmatized. “You have to submit to drug testing and all of these things. So they’re still treating you like a criminal, and it makes you feel humiliated,“ 他说. “It’s just how it is. I try not to let it bother me.”

Phalen experienced further difficulties when Arizona cut her benefits under the mistaken belief that the halfway house was providing her with meals. The mistake took weeks to rectify, and required the submission of more paperwork, including a letter from the house confirming she was not receiving free meals.

When her Snap stopped coming, Phalen says she didn’t go hungry because her housemates provided her with food from their own pantries. But her benefits being cut had a cascading effect: the amount of food the house needed had not changed, but the money available to pay for it had. To feed Phalen, everyone had to cut back.

“The impact of this ban isn’t limited to those with drug felony convictions. It affects everyone in the household because there’s less money for food,” said Matthew Swinburne, a policy analyst with the Network for Public Health Law. “It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that communities of color, and especially women, are disproportionately effected because of inequities in our criminal justice system.”

The future of Section 115, much like the lives of those it has impacted, is filled with open questions. Will the American Families Plan pass? If it did and Section 115 was struck down, would the modified versions of the ban in states across the country be struck down with it?

Bolen, the analyst, seems to believe so. “Snap is a federally-funded program. If the federal government says that you can’t restrict access based on drug felony convictions, states have no recourse to deny that,” said Bolen. “My understanding is that most of the modified bans would be nullified.”

But even if that does occur, the punitive approach to criminal justice encapsulated by Section 115 continues to be a force to be reckoned with, and the rehabilitative approach pushed by reformers has yet to truly take hold. “There’s growing pressure, especially from the left, pushing back against this tough on crime approach,” said Hunt. “So that’s a promising sign. But it’s still an uphill battle.”

“The ban being removed would be a great step,” said Khalil Rushdan, an organizing director with ACLU Arizona. “But the median income of a formerly incarcerated person is $10,000 一年. Where in the country can you afford to live on that amount? How are you supposed to rebuild your life?”

It’s a question that continues to follow Phalen, who says she has been applying nonstop but has not had any luck finding a job. She is worried that she may soon lose her housing in the halfway house. “I would like to repair my relationship with my family. They were hurt because of my addiction and incarceration,“ 她说. “But right now I am not ready to approach the situation. I want to be fully back on my feet with a job and my life in order to show them I am not the person they believe me to be.”

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