Returning Citizens: Returning with Much to Learn

Returning Citizen Brumfield from Christen H. on Vimeo.

Paying $750 per month for a small room in Washington, DC’s Brookland neighborhood for Milton Brumfield is no problem considering he spent the majority of his life in a Texas State Penitentiary sharing equally tight quarters with a fellow inmate. Now 47, Brumfield was 21 when he started a 23-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

His history as a convicted felon has helped him come to understand the trials of reintegrating into society, he said. Living on his own now is gratifying and rewarding, he said. “It’s an addictive feeling when you can walk into a store and buy what you want,” he said.

“I would like to be accepted as a citizen,” Brumfield said, “when you’re a convicted felon, you’re treated as an outsider and society tends to be apprehensive of you.”

“It’s the tattoos that scare ‘em,” Brumfield says, about the sleeve he garnered inside. “Being incarcerated you always have this mean look on your face. I am learning how to smile more,” he said.

Many Americans go to prison experiencing harsh penalties. And they often find it hard to find work after they leave.

“To reduce crime, we must invest in people, not incarceration,” said Marc Carr, a fellow with Just Leadership USA, an organization dedicated to advocating for policy reform reducing mass incarceration in the US.

“You know how I can tell Brumfield is a good guy?,” Michael Walker said, a friend of Brumfield’s “His family was still there for him when he got out. Family don’t usually wait on you that long,” he said.

“The U.S. spent more than $212 billion in the prison system in 2011. What if even a portion of these resources were invested in low-income communities through job creation, increasing the minimum wage, and making education more accessible?” Carr said.

Today, Brumfield works full time as a custodial worker in Anacostia and has supported himself for almost three years. Thanks to a second chance program called Project Empowerment that helps convicted felons ages 22-54 obtain gainful employment.

An arm of DC Department of Employment Services, Project Empowerment is a transitional employment program that provides job readiness training, work experience, and job search help to DC residents who would face various barriers to employment otherwise.

After participants complete a three-week training they have the chance to be placed in subsidized employment for up to six months. One of Project Empowerment’s main goals of the program is to combat recidivism.

“Sometimes you may be living with a family member and you have to report to your parole officer who doesn’t know how hard it is to find work,” he said.

Education and Job training have allowed convicts like Brumfield the opportunity to stay away from continuing a life of crime after they get out of jail. “Other inmates told me how things would be after I got out, so I expected to have that itch.” The itch Brumfield refers to is repeat offending – committing more crimes when felons can’t support themselves from legitimate work.

“We live in a country where there are glaring inequities,” Carr said. “Partly because we have not dealt with racism in this country, but more so, because of discriminating policies,” he said.

Underlying variables such as inadequate health and education opportunities are pieces of the puzzle in mass incarceration. 70% of black males who drop out of high school end up in prison by their mid-thirties.

“Growing up my mother bought me what I needed, instead of what I wanted so I began to steal,” Brumfield said, “I wanted the Star Wars action figures so I would go to the store and steal them, my mother didn’t know.”

Fast living got Brumfield into a lifestyle of stealing. Stealing soon turned into robbing. Although no one was hurt, he still contemplates the consequences of his actions. “Yea they were afraid, I think about it every day,” he said, “the looks on them peoples’ faces when I did what I done.”

Upon entering the criminal justice system in 1990, the advances in the outside world became a time warp, Brumfield said. Using computers, ATMs, and self-checkout counters were some the biggest hurdles for him when he returned. These are the types of technological skills that he never learned while he was locked up. He read lots of books but was never able to apply any of the skills in real life.

According to, Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program, for every $1 million spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy.

“In this country, we talk about taking personal responsibility but these people have, and they still get penalized. If they have proven themselves and want to contribute to society, why not give them a chance?” Carr said.

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