Drug felons take fight for food stamps to the capitol

Frankie Fardella, a former drug offender, lobbies to lift the lifetime ban that makes drug felons ineligible for food stamps

You may have heard by now that California’s prisons are overcrowded. Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must decrease its prison population by over 30,000 inmates in the next two years. Lawmakers are debating exactly how to go about doing this, but it’s clear by now that if any prisoners are released on early parole, many will be non-violent drug offenders. But re-entry resources like job training, affordable housing, and healthcare, are already in short supply for people leaving prison.

One potential resource is outright banned. In California, people with prior drug-related offenses are banned from receiving food stamps. Some say this makes it even more difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate into society. KALW’s Nicole Jones has more.

*     *     *

NICOLE JONES: Selena Winn was in her early twenties when she was first convicted of selling drugs in Oakland. She was in and out of prison for more than a decade and has been on parole since 2007. She says she still has trouble supporting herself.

SELENA WINN: It’s really hard for me right now. And I’m doing the best I can.

Winn says the $296 she gets from the county’s welfare program every month barely pays her rent. She’s also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and can only afford her medication thanks to help from a friend.

WINN: There’s nothing left for me to buy food. And being that I’m a felon for sales I can’t get food stamps.

The food stamps ban dates back to the mid-‘90s when President Bill Clinton introduced the Welfare Reform Act. It gave states the choice to make former drug offenders ineligible for food assistance – a move meant to discourage them from exchanging food stamps for drugs.

Most states that decided to enact the ban have since removed it. But California’s law is still on the books. Oakland Assemblyman Sandre Swanson says for ex-offenders like Selena Winn, trouble accessing food stamps is just one more barrier to starting a new life.

SANDRE SWANSON: We have to come up with reentry strategies that help us address recidivism. When someone has paid their debt to society and are attempting to return to the community they need basic tools to survive, and food is fundamental to that.

Swanson has authored a bill to lift the ban. His argument isn’t just a moral one.

SWANSON: We have seven out of 10 of the inmates in California return to state prison – that’s at $50,000 a year – we need money for education.

Advocates of lifting the ban say food stamps benefit local economies through sales-tax revenue and increased business at grocery stores. And Swanson says the fear that ex-offenders will misuse food stamps is misguided.

SWANSON: The old notion of having food stamps as the paper food stamps that could be traded for drugs is very much outdated. The security around these are much improved. I would say that 99% of those receiving food stamp assistance are using the money for food stamps.

This isn’t the first time Swanson has made attempts to repeal the food stamp ban – he proposed similar legislation in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 – but without any luck. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger explained his veto to assembly members explaining back in 2008:

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (from letter to the Assembly): Extending food stamp eligibility to drug dealers or traffickers, upon the condition that they engage in drug treatment, will not ensure these individuals will stop selling or trafficking illegal drugs.

This past spring, lawmakers voted to move Swanson’s newest food stamps bill to the state senate, again.

ECATERINA BURTON: Any kind of way that we can decrease barriers to food stamps is incredibly important.

Ecaterina Burton is an organizer with the Alameda County Food Bank. On May 17 of this year, she and other activists traveled to Sacramento to lobby legislators to lift the ban.

BURTON: We think that this particular ban on drug felons hurts families’ abilities to feed themselves because ultimately the families that do have people who are formerly incarcerated with these kinds of felonies – they are splitting less amount of food among more people.

Frankie Fardella, a former drug offender, was one of the people at the capitol that day.

FRANKIE FARDELLA: I’m not a criminal anymore.

Fardella was 21 when he went to prison for a drug sale conviction. He’s now 27, has stayed out of trouble, and recently graduated from a drug rehabilitation program. He says the food stamp ban unfairly targets drug offenders.

FARDELLA: Even people who are murderers or rapists or child molesters – they’re eligible for food stamps. And it’s heartbreaking when you think about it. People need to eat. Even when you’re in jail or prison, you get “three hots and a cot.”

SABRINA LOCKHART: This would allow people convicted of felony drug trafficking, drug dealing, and drug manufacturing to be eligible for food stamps.

Sabrina Lockhart is a spokeswoman for Republican Assembly member Connie Conway of Los Angeles. Conway was one of 23 legislators who opposed moving Swanson’s bill to the Senate.

LOCKHART: We need a safety for Californians in need but expanding programs especially during these difficult budget times puts services at risk for other families who truly need them.

But Ecaterina Burton, of the Alameda Food Bank, says former felons are among the people who need food stamps the most. And she’s hoping legislators will share her view.

BURTON: We have high hopes for this year, that we actually will get rid of this ridiculous policy that makes it hard for someone after having done their time to become a fully functioning member of society.

Since her release, Selena Winn has completed courses at Laney College, and followed all the rules of her parole. She’s looking for a job and volunteering with the Alameda County Food Bank. But she’s still worried about her future.

WINN: I got one more month on parole and I’ll be totally off. I’ve got no violations or anything, but I’m still going to be punished.

Meanwhile, Sandre Swanson’s bill to repeal the food stamp ban is currently in committee. It may not get a vote until the fall.

In Oakland, I’m Nicole Jones for Crosscurrents.

Nicole Jones is a reporter with the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. We want to hear your thoughts on the prison overcrowding issue – give us your comment on our Facebook page