When Marlon Chamberlain left federal prison more than 10 years ago, he thought he had paid his debt to society. But today, after a decade as a law-abiding and successful husband, father, and political advocate, he says he still is paying interest on that debt.
Shortly after he reentered society, Chamberlain says he was shocked to find that there were many aspects of his daily life he still did not control. He encountered hundreds of laws that impose hundreds of restrictions on the activities of all formerly incarcerated people. Even now, because of these laws, there are jobs that Chamberlain cannot hold, things he cannot do, and even places he cannot go.
In the criminal justice system, these lasting strictures are often referred to as "collateral consequences" of incarceration. But Chamberlain and the Chicago-based organization he leads, Fully Free, have given them another name: "permanent punishments." Because these limitations never go away, Chamberlain says, they amount to a kind of perpetual interest charge that continues long after a person's societal debt ostensibly has been paid in full.
Chamberlain believes this system not only exploits formerly incarcerated people but causes unintended consequences that put the general public at risk. His ambitious, and sometimes controversial, goal is to wipe all these laws off the books.
"The reason we decided to call them ‘permanent punishments’ and not ‘collateral consequences’ is because ‘collateral’ implies that these laws were simply an afterthought or even accidental. We know that they were intentionally drafted to target people with records. So, we decided to call them what they are–lifetime sentences, which means you're permanently punished." — Marlon Chamberlain
"It's almost like transitioning from one set of physical bars that you can feel and see to these invisible bars that we've called permanent punishments," he added. "What they really are is this prison after prison."
Chamberlain’s path to political advocacy has been accidental and unlikely. It began, he said, when he was a teenager with a pregnant girlfriend and no plan for supporting a family. "I started hustling and selling drugs," he said, and soon "I got addicted to the lifestyle." In his 20s he was sentenced to 20 years for selling crack cocaine; he eventually served 13.
While in prison, he said, the death of his mother changed the course of his life. "Even while I was incarcerated, I started doing whatever I could to prepare myself for my release," he said. But when freedom came, it was not what he imagined.
"In February of 2021, my father passed away and appointed me the executor over his estate," Chamberlain said. "I saw this as an opportunity to carry out my father's last wishes. But because of Illinois law, which prohibits anyone with a felony conviction from being the executor or administrator of an estate, I was unable to do this. So, that hurt. That hurt."
Chamberlain soon discovered that he and other people with criminal records were constantly negotiating a maze of laws that prevented them from going where they wanted. He helped found the Fully Free organization and began lobbying the Illinois state legislature for change. And Fully Free produced a report that documents the extent of the "permanent punishments" imposed on the formerly incarcerated.
"In Illinois people are eligible to vote as soon as they walk out of a carceral system," Chamberlain said. "But your ability to be involved civically is limited. People with felony convictions can't join local school councils or gaming boards. We can't be library trustees. We can't run for municipal office as an alderperson."
Other laws severely limit employment opportunities. "And some that we found were almost absurd," he said. "We learned that we, as persons with a felony conviction, can’t be on the premises of a bingo game. We also learned that we can’t own falconry birds."
Chamberlain and his colleagues soon realized that they would never be able to eliminate “permanent punishment” laws one at a time. They are now pushing for “wholesale packages” that would wipe out large groups of laws that restrict the formerly incarcerated. “We are arguing to do away with all of it,” Chamberlain said. “If a person has completed their time – probation, parole, or whatever – that person should be able to move forward in life.”
He leaves open the possibility that some convictions might justify certain types of post-prison restrictions. But “the north star of this campaign,” he said, “is that a criminal record shouldn't follow anyone for life.”
Chamberlain argues that eliminating “permanent punishment” laws not only benefits formerly incarcerated people but enhances public safety. “In most cases, people are returning (from prison) to communities that have a limited amount of opportunities,” he said. “And then you have these statutory barriers that follow people for life. So, it's almost like we put people in positions where they make bad decisions because they're trying to survive.
"If we don't give people the opportunity to add to the tax base, then ultimately they become a burden to taxpayers. If folks continue to go in and out of the system, who pays for that? The community. When people begin to thrive, it feeds your community. Everybody wins when you create opportunities for people to thrive." — Marlon Chamberlain
To learn more about Marlon Chamberlain and "permanent punishments," listen to his interview on the Justice Today podcast.