Advocacy From Experience: Centering the Stories of the Formerly Incarcerated
Most Americans can agree that keeping our communities safe is of the utmost importance. However, we live in a society that aims to protect communities of privilege, and our current carceral system only ensures recurring cycles of crime and violence. It could not be clearer that our criminal justice system is failing us all, yet research and data continue to be ignored, and little to no change is occuring. Some people who continue to commit crimes once they are released do so because they are set up to fail. These facilities are dangerous, in poor conditions, and cause people who need help to suffer even more. Unfortunately, this system is not designed to help anyone.
I know this because I lived and witnessed it for many years. I was a young woman battling my trauma, mental health issues, and alcoholism/drug addiction without any help for over a decade. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure it out on my own, and I seemed to only make matters worse. I had made up my mind; I was a defective human being who wasn't capable of getting better, and I was in and out of a carceral system that supported that belief.
In November 2016, after a few years of going in and out of county jail and living on the streets I was given a two-year sentence in a state jail facility. I told my judge I needed help and was ready to go to treatment, but was instead told that I would complete my entire sentence without consideration for early release. Everything about being locked up challenges you mentally and emotionally and makes it more difficult to focus on “rehabilitation.” Conditions of confinement aside, which is deserving of its own conversation, the dynamics that exist between correctional staff and “inmates,” is not one that is discussed enough. The authority, power, and control bestowed upon one group over another fosters a kind of darkness and negativity that is difficult to convey. While the purpose and goal of being incarcerated may be to assist one in “correcting” their behavior, the manner in which we were treated made it difficult to find any sort of light or strength within. Many times it felt as if their goal was to make us miserable and defeated; breaking us down but doing nothing to build us back up.
On a daily basis I was subjected to harassment and ridicule, especially when I was doing something that was proactive to my recovery, like doing yoga, meditating, or skipping in the sunshine during my brief exposure to the outside while walking in between buildings. It was not uncommon to have my bunk tossed upside down for no reason and, at one point, I was even put on display after I refused to be fully clothed in my own bunk during a 100+ degree heatwave. For many of my bunkmates, these interactions were much worse. In addition to the daily degradation that they experienced, they also experienced the inexplicable stress and worry that comes with having kids on the outside. The constant worrying of their safety and health is something that never left their mind. Who was watching them, who was taking care of them, feeding them, clothing them, keeping them safe. All things that they ultimately had no control of but thought about every minute of every day.
The regularity and frequency of this treatment leads you to internalize the judgments and labels passed and placed upon you. I talked with so many women who were in and out of the system for most of their lives, and 9 out of 10 times, they expressed this “defeat.” They tried many times to change and turn their lives around on their own/without support, and when it didn’t work, they decided that everything negative they’ve been told by both people on the outside and within the system must be true. As for me, I knew deep down the hateful words weren’t true, yet still those judgements and labels stuck with me through my recovery every time I felt doubt, shame, or fear.
Now, if the system had not beaten someone down completely and they had a desire to recover, it’s important to note that there were only a few voluntary programs available to them. While some were okay, there were others that were so terrible and ineffective that they were later discontinued. The under-qualified "counselors" did their best with the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) class that I attended, but I can say after receiving CBT on the outside, their program is profoundly ineffective, and spots were limited. Unless someone had a longer sentence, they were not likely to get into the class. Thank God for the recovery coaches that came to tell their stories and offered me legitimate rehabilitation services when I was released. Otherwise, I don't know if I would have stayed sober and gotten the help I needed.
When I was released in 2018, my recovery coach picked me up and took me to a 90-day treatment facility away from home. There, I started to do the work by peeling back the many layers of my trauma. I got an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsor and was assigned a case manager and a therapist, who also referred me to see a psychiatrist. It became clear after 60 days that I needed long-term treatment. I had been through so much and had no idea how to live life as a sober, healthy member of society. All the time I spent locked up sure didn't teach or heal me. So, I made the difficult decision to spend another year of my life in an institution because I knew that was what I needed.
I continued down the recovery path and struggled a lot along the way. Getting a decent-paying job as a woman with my record seemed nearly impossible. I stuck it out in the service industry for several years and decided to go to college, hoping that would help me get a professional career in the future. Housing, on the other hand, I still struggle with and probably will for many years to come. I can't imagine the struggle for all of the formerly incarcerated people without family support.
So why does the process have to be so much more difficult than it already is? I'm not special. I'm not different from any other person struggling with addiction, mental illness, or abuse/trauma that contributes to them committing crimes. We ALL have the ability to recover, but unfortunately, many don't make it this far with all the hoops they have to jump through and the lack of resources or support on the outside. The solution to this seems simple; start rehabilitation on the inside. Most people who are locked up are not well, and they need help! The best way to keep everyone safe is to provide support and services to those entering back into society. The perspective needs to shift from punishment to rehabilitation, and the belief that some people can't recover needs to change.
I stand today, someone who was once labeled a junkie, drunk, hobo, thief, liar, cheater, and an abusive/violent person, as someone who is now sober, responsible, honest, trustworthy, hard-working, kind, smart, capable, loving, and strong. Against all odds, I made it! I'm sober, healthy, and happy, and my outrage over how the system operates has little to do with me. It is about all the people who don’t have the support or resources that I did and need the system to help them!
In my role as Policy Advocate for Texas Appleseed, my goal is to make sure that everyone inside gets that help. I am excited to use my experience and voice to fight for the needs of those in, or at risk of entering, the system. I went through it; I overcame it, and I know what kind of help I needed to get here.