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SNAP Judgment: Why No Food Stamps for Felons is a Bad Idea

A sign for food stamps at the farmers market

When Sara Kruzan was seventeen, she was convicted of first-degree murder of a man who had subjected her to sexual abuse and forced prostitution. Earlier this month—18 years after her conviction—the parole board finally found Kruzan suitable for parole.

After spending more of her life inside prison than outside of it, Kruzan is going to face a tough time putting her life back together. If Louisiana Senator David Vitter has his way, she'll have yet another obstacle to surviving outside prison: a ban on ever receiving food stamps.

The proposed ban is an amendment on the larger Farm Bill Congress is currently considering. The Farm Bill authorizes the next five years of funding for most federal farm and food policies, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or, as more people know it, food stamps). Vitter's amendment was unanimously and unquestioningly accepted in the Senate.

The amendment enacts a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of aggravated sexual abusemurderdomestic violence and stalking, or a federal or state offense involving sexual assault.  

At first glance, the above list may not warrant much sympathy or outrage. But keep in mind that the ban does note take into account whether the person was convicted of the crims years or even decades ago. In addition, Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities points out, "Given incarceration patterns in the United States, the amendment would have a skewed racial impact. Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit." Vitter's amendment is retroactive, and unlike the existing ban on food stamps for drug felons, it provides no provision for states to opt out, nor does it provide a chance to get a waiver by demonstrating rehabilitation.

I've worked around prison justice issues since I was in high school. I've worked specifically around issues affecting women in prison—and with actual women incarcerated in different parts of the country—since 2000. Several of the women I've worked with have since been released from prison. One or two were lucky and had supportive family waiting for them. Others did not. They had to struggle to find housing, find employment, feed themselves and, if they had children (which over two-thirds of women in prison do), work to fulfill criteria that would allow them to regain custody of those kids. When I say struggle, I mean really struggle. Only nine states have legislation which bars employers from asking applicants if they have felony convictions on initial job applications. (the question can be asked in a follow-up interview, thus giving the applicant a chance to explain the circumstances).

And, given the financial situation of many women before they entered prison, they may have had to rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families even before arrest and incarceration. Federal studies have indicated that only 40 percent of all incarcerated women had been employed full-time before incarceration. Of those, most had held low-paying jobs: a study of women under supervision (prison, jail, parole or probation) found that 60 percent had never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour. Another study found that approximately 37 percent of incarcerated women earned less than $600 per month before their arrests. Other studies have found that mothers in prison tended to be the primary heads of household before their arrests and incarceration. In other words, making it difficult for them to put food on their table doesn't just affect them, but also their children and other loved ones.

Although most women in state prisons are convicted of violating drug, property or public order laws, some, like Sara Kruzan, have been convicted of murder. But remember: the penal code makes very little differentiation between the cold-blooded killing that we usually think of when we hear the word murder and killing in self-defense, whether it be from an immediate attack or after years of abuse. Even in this day and age, judges often need to be convinced that the woman acted in self-defense. (If you don't believe me, see the case of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years for firing a single shot at the ceiling to deter her husband from further beating her.) Official statistics on reasons for incarceration also fail to note how many women convicted of murder acted in self-defense.

I've had the honor of working with one woman who spent 20 years in prison on a second-degree murder charge. Since her release in 2010, she's worked tirelessly to help women returning home from prison with the myriad reentry issues they face—helping them find resources for housing, employment, job training, etc. She provides a listening ear and, whenever possible, a helping hand. She tells them what rights they have (and may not be aware of) and helps them navigate institutional bureaucracies to access those rights. But Vitter's amendment would prefer that she starve than ever be able to access food stamps.

After years, or even decades, behind bars, food stamps could mean the difference between being able to put their lives back together or having to depend on abusive, exploitative or criminalized means of feeding themselves and their families. Shouldn't the right to food should extend to anyone—regardless of gender or past actions? 

The House of Representatives is currently considering the bill. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) hosted a national call-in day to protest cuts and harmful amendments to SNAP earlier this week. It's not too late to add your voice to the discussion.

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