As an ex-con, I was thrilled to witness Pope Francis take in an impromptu lunch with 90 inmates — 10 of whom were invited from an area of the jail that housed gay, transgender or HIV-positive prisoners — at a detention center in Poggiorale, Italy, last March. Exhilarated further when, a week or so later, he supped with still more convicts at a prison located in Rebibbia, a suburb of Rome, and had even, in what has become an Easter ritual, washed their feet.
But as I gazed back home my elation disintegrated. I cannot picture a single American public servant — neither President Barack Obama, nor former Attorney General Eric Holder, and certainly not Bill nor Hillary Clinton — having lunch with convicts or even ex-convicts for any reason other than publicity, or any traditionally conservative Christian leader wholly embracing a gay person. Not today. Not next Easter. Not even next election year.
I recently saw President Obama interview David Simon, creator of the HBO show "The Wire." It was a huge step forward for ex-convicts: Imagine, our president talking policy with an actual person who has made contact with bona fide felons! Bridges are being forged before our very eyes — not real bridges, of course. America really doesn't erect structures like that anymore, although it will build you a prison at the drop of a leg iron. Or how about a shiny new tank?
I don't think Eric Holder has ever dined with ex-cons, either, although in 1999 he authored a memo on how to prevent corporate criminals from becoming ex-cons, so that's kind of a tangential connection.
Both Messrs. Obama and Holder, by the way, have been talking a good game when it comes to prison reform. The former has pardoned a few non-violent drug offenders while the latter wrote a new memo in 2013 seeking to eliminate some federal mandatory minimum sentences for the same class of criminals. Their talk is not only cheap, however, it's partisan, and so, by congressional standards, impotent.
What both men are missing is that doing time is the easy part. It's adjusting to society upon our release that's the real challenge, particularly as reams of legislation has been passed mandating discrimination against ex-cons — in housing, social services, student loans, employment, even our right to vote in many states.
And as to the Clintons, the former president unapologetically vilified millions of nonviolent drug addicts during his tenure. But then, just last month, he miraculously admitted that he had "put too many people in prison for too long." His confession was quickly followed by his wife suddenly affirming that, "It's time to end the era of mass incarceration."
Their timing, however, is suspect. Indeed, I'm willing to bet that, given Ms. Clinton's presidential aspirations, the prospect of being seen, let alone lunching, with authentic ex-cons must petrify them both.
Admittedly, lunch would be great, but what ex-cons really need are folks who believe in us.
What happened to second chances, redemption and forgiveness? It's high time that public servants and commentators stop claiming to want real re-entry reform while insisting that ex-cons maintain a healthy distance. That "ex" means something; we've paid our debts to society and shouldn't have to keep living like lepers back in the community. Ex-cons are people too.
But I've not given up hope. Perhaps Loretta Lynch, our new Attorney General, might know of a decent place to get some lunch.