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Bridgette Simpson had nowhere to go when she was released from prison in March 2018. Following her decade of incarceration, her family members felt like strangers, and Simpson soon became homeless.
She found work at a chicken processing plant in Georgia but wanted a better-paying position in addition to stable housing. She struggled to find either; her criminal record stood in the way. Applying to job after job and apartment after apartment led to repeated rejections, each one like a blow pushing her further into distress.
Simpson vividly recalls having to clean herself in a Quiktrip bathroom and living out of her car for months. She reached out to local nonprofit organizations for help, and even wrote to media moguls Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Nothing worked.
“I just remember that time being a very desperate time for me. I remember contemplating suicide,” Simpson told The 19th. “I think people really just completely discount our humanity and it’s sad and it hurts, but it feels like we have no permission to hurt.”
Simpson’s life changed later on in 2018 after she was hired to work with an advocacy group, which put her on a path to build a career supporting other formerly incarcerated people. Since then, Simpson and her friend Denise Ruben have co-founded Barred Business, an organization based in Atlanta that provides funding, housing and training aimed at people affected by the carceral system.
In October, the organization successfully campaigned for an ordinance passed by the Atlanta City Council to prevent discrimination against people with a criminal history. This month, Barred Business is also pushing the council to officially add this protection to the Atlanta Bill of Rights, which already prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, gender identity, political affiliation and other categories.
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Atlanta’s Human Relations Commission is tasked with overseeing and investigating discrimination claims made by those within protected groups, including formerly incarcerated people. Down the road, Simpson and Ruben said, they hope similar protections can be extended both state- and nationwide.
“It’s very hard and overwhelming, the barriers that are put in place to keep us from being stable and a productive citizen. So creating the ‘protected campaign’ and getting that legislation passed was a solution to a need,” Ruben said.
Barred Business began its work in 2020 by creating a small-business relief fund to support formerly incarcerated business owners who were excluded from receiving loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic. They raised more than $100,000 to provide 115 grants to business owners.
That fund continues, and the organization also started a 12-month program offering formerly incarcerated Black women stable housing, work and technology training, assistance enrolling in GED or college courses, and mentoring and other services. Around 50 women have participated so far.
These services help them secure what they need for the next step.
The long-term consequences of having a criminal record or experiencing incarceration are wide, affecting access to voting, education, government assistance and more. Formerly incarcerated people often face discrimination searching for housing and work and have an estimated unemployment rate of 27 percent. For context, the country’s unemployment rate during the COVID-19 pandemic peaked at 14.7 percent, which was the worst national rate since the 1940s. Formerly incarcerated people are also 10 times more likely to experience homelessness, according to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
All of these concerns regarding housing, employment and health are exacerbated for women and LGBTQ+ people.
“Women going into prison have a higher rate of what we call ‘economic marginalization,’ so they’re more likely to not have a high school education or GED, they’re more likely to either be unemployed or come from part-time employment prior to incarceration. They’re more likely to be primary caregivers of children under the age of 18. These factors are still present when they are released,” said Alesa Liles, an associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia College & State University.
Cynthia White, 54, was incarcerated for 30 years and currently lives with her daughter in Decatur, Georgia outside Atlanta. She has been rejected for an apartment at least four times since her release five years ago, she told The 19th.
“It’s very, very hard to get an apartment,” said White, who now has a cleaning business and works with Barred Business. “They would never say why I couldn’t get the apartment. All I know is that once I did the background check they would come back and tell me ‘no.’” White said she is now saving to buy a house instead.
Economic hardships like those experienced by Simpson and White increase the likelihood that someone will return to prison and can also contribute to negative health outcomes. Rates of chronic disease and mental illness are higher among incarcerated people, particularly women and queer people. Those who are released often face challenges connecting with the necessary medical services, Liles said.
Transgender people released from correctional facilities additionally struggle to find reentry programs and housing options that are equipped for their specific safety and care needs.
Barriers for people reentering society can be caused by the discrimination they face in society, as well as the restrictions placed on them while they are on parole or probation. For example, when Ruben was released from prison, Simpson didn’t want her friend to experience the same housing challenges she had and wanted Ruben to move in with her. But Ruben could not stay with her because they were both on probation. Ruben had to seek out other housing until Simpson could complete her probation. Ruben moved in with Simpson in 2020, and they still live together today.
Conditions of a person’s release from incarceration vary but can prohibit them from living with a person who has a criminal history. Violating these restrictions can result in returning to prison. Services for formerly incarcerated people can be scarce depending on the area where someone lives, and advocacy organizations like Barred Business offer the bulk of support, Liles said.
“Services not only vary drastically from state to state, but also within a state,” she said. “You have larger metropolitan areas like Atlanta where there are multiple nonprofit organizations that are able to provide more support versus where I am in middle Georgia near Milledgeville. We have maybe a handful of organizations within a 45-mile radius, but we also have two prisons.”
Simpson noted the importance of having transitional services available to people in rural areas. In the meantime, Barred Business’s work in Atlanta continues. Its proposal regarding the city Bill of Rights is expected to be introduced by Atlanta city councilman Matt Westmorland on Monday. Simpson said she is aware that protections for the formerly incarcerated will not solve all the structural barriers, but she sees the measure as an important first step.
Simpson and Ruben will also push the city to invest in housing communities and resource centers for people affected by mass incarceration.
“As long as I have breath, I will be deeply committed to this,” Simpson said. “It gets to a point where we have to figure out how to be a community because there are too many of us affected by the criminal legal system.”