Do It Yourself…

A few of my co-workers here at Georgia Justice Project have laughed at me once they’ve discovered that Davidson College did our laundry. 

                “You mean they wash it?”… yes

                “…and dry and press?” … yes

                “…and hang, for real?”… yes.

I remember touring Davidson my senior year of high school as a prospect walking with my family through campus as the tour guide, walking backwards, pointed and exclaimed, “and this is the Lula Bell Laundry Service where students can drop off their clothes and have their laundry washed and folded at no additional charge!”  All of the prospective students and their parents, eyes open, looked at the laundry service in amazement.  I’ll admit it; I gawked at the sight considering that up to that point in my life I was responsible for that chore.  

Contrarily, my mother felt another way.  To my embarrassment, she shot her hand in the air and asked, “annndd…this is supposed to teach them responsibility how?” 

Four years later, standing in the basement of my new house in Atlanta pounding on the panel of the washing machine as foam sloshed to the floor from the lid, I can say that my mother may have been right to an extent.   However, I had to admit to myself, to stand perplexed pounding away at a machine is a privilege, not only because it’s a machine doing the work for me, but because I had spent the past four years of my life not having to worry about the responsibility of learning how to do it myself

Almost every day since my arrival in Atlanta, I have seen some of the most impoverished, least educated, but nicest men and women in Atlanta walk through the front doors of the Georgia Justice Project explaining how even the most miniscule of mistake they’ve made in the past still prohibits them from getting a job.  Misdemeanors.  Lawyers here have explained to me that some individuals have been profiled, arrested, and accused of crimes by mistake resulting in dropped charges and dismissed cases…and they still cannot find employment due to the initial arrest showing up on their criminal histories, despite innocence. 

While there are ways that directly affected individuals may remove these old and often incorrect cases from the GCIC (Georgia Crime and Information Center) database—that did not result in conviction—through a tedious expungement/restriction process, they have no assurance that these past records will not appear on a private company’s criminal background report.  Even harsher, when the most impoverished, least educated members of our communities—those most prone to our cycled system of incarceration—wish to correct their records in order to gain employment they are forced with the responsibility of doing it themselves, i.e. submitting the proper paperwork within a certain amount of time with a certain amount of money to the correct authority.       

A few days ago, I went to a Georgia Senate Expungement Study Committee hearing where various organizations involved in criminal justice reform were given the opportunity to explain their missions and propose/promote legislative initiatives that may lessen the collateral consequences of those affected by our “criminal justice” system.  Towards the end of the meeting, the chairman explained that the committee had segmented a portion of time for the testimony of two individuals who had been impacted directly by Georgia’s inefficient expungement process.  I turned in my seat to see an older man, in his mid-sixties I believe, walking toward the front of the room to be seated in front of the committee.  With a comb over hairstyle of bright-greying blonde hair and an exceptionally nice suit – I had to correct myself internally.  I guess I had somehow expected to see someone different; I guess I didn’t expect to see someone of equal stature to the class of politicians seated before him.    

He looked down at his notes and began recite his daughter’s accolades explaining that she had attended Westminster schools, one of the most expensive private schools in the state, had gone to University of Virginia, and is currently a successful accountant.  However, one night his daughter had been wrongly accused of not paying a taxi driver.  The driver explained that she ran into her apartment once the cab stopped in front of her house. 

Looking up from his notes he stared at the committee and explained that when he found out his daughter had been arrested, he did the first thing that any parent would do…he took the first flight down from his business in Ohio to pay the bail to get her out and then proceeded to hire the best attorney he could find in Atlanta.  Six months later, despite having been falsely accused and charges dropped, the charges still remain on her record.  He stated that in these last six months since her arres, he and his family have been in absolute hell, mentioning that he believes his daughter’s incarceration for that short period of time to be the “equivalent of emotional rape.” 

It would be unfair for me to discredit his daughter’s tale of incarceration for its privileged circumstance and exaggerated emotionality.  His presentation is a key example of how all struggle and perceptions of injustice are relative.  No matter how shocked I was to see the abnormally attentive nature of these politicians to this particularly tragic story, I had to face the realization that even my particular frustrations that I have with my washing machine are just that:  particular.  When it is broken…I fix it by paying somebody else to fix it.   

I called a repair company to come to my house to fix my washing machine because I had the resources and I can’t stand reading instruction manuals.  To be honest, after going to a school like Davidson, how important is it that I learn the ins and outs of the machine once I make the same mistake in the future?  For the falsely accused daughter of the testifying man, how important is it that she testifies on her own behalf to some of the most powerful men in Georgia about her own issues when her powerful father can?  For her father, how important is it that he actually learns the expungement process and paperwork when he can afford an attorney to do this work?  However, for the indigent man or woman or child, how important is it they truly know the expungement process once it is time to apply for a job after facing similar circumstance?  These men, women and children will be, and have been, forced to fix their problems themselves.  Without the resources.