Today we’re gonna talk a little bit about our personal experiences around mass incarceration and how it hinders, or at least oppresses family connections, not only while we’re inside, but then when we return back to the community. I have a ton of stories about like a family, because I have a large family, as you all know, and just the proximity, like I’m literally shipped all the way up the coast of California, and all my family lives in Southern California. So, just being away from the distance away from them was was really difficult. And feeling like isolated and alone. Especially at a young age, you know, when I’m still trying to figure out like, who I am as a person, and not having like that familiar guiding hand. Not that they were like, guiding me in a positive direction, at least my siblings, but um, yeah. I think with the, the process of like, going through the system I know, Ra and Taina, you both have different experiences with that process, but what is one of the big things that stick out to you when you think about like family and being incarcerated?
I think for me, the biggest issue is access. To your point like proximity, but also just ability to fall into these habits of like letter writing, and learning all the structures that are necessary to even get a visit and-
phone calls, navigating that.
I mean, and my family was lucky in the sense that financially those things weren’t barriers, but they were still monster barriers, you know? So much paperwork, so many learning curves. Like you, I have a big family, lots of little kids in the family and explaining to them which of their artworks could get inside a prison is like, not the information I wanted to be spending my time teaching my seven year olds, you know? The seven year olds in my life. Yeah, just access, learning how to stay in a sad mimicry of contacts, because it’s nowhere close to the actual, actual effect of being out in the open.
That’s a bar right there, right? Sad mimicry of contact.
Ra is full of-
um, when I think about the subject of community connections, and how those connections are broken because of incarceration, like, this is probably one of the main reasons that I’m an abolitionist. So, you know, my story’s a little bit different than than you all. I’m not formerly incarcerated, but I’ve had literally every single person in my immediate family has been to jail and my ex husband was in prison for seven years. And that truly, truly has shaped my life. And I think about not only my own experience, but every weekend being in the prison, watching how families were just, you know, like disintegrating in front of my eyes watching everybody’s pain sitting and visiting rooms, where, you know, this is the only place where you have the opportunity to have face to face conversations, and you’re in a room full of cops and other incarcerated people and visitors. You know, it’s it’s just incredibly, incredibly traumatizing. So you know, the prison system doesn’t just impact the folks who are inside, it impacts their family, their friends, their loved ones, and their community. And I think something that I would want to like us to dive into a little bit more is all of the different and like, intricate ways that this system like really makes it difficult, if not impossible for people to maintain, like loving relationships with their loved ones. And, you know, anybody who follows the the science or even just common sense, I think, can understand that people do not do well, when they feel disconnected when they feel lonely. When they feel like you know, they’re they’re going through something really tough and don’t have the ability to access love and support from the people who care about them. That is completely counterintuitive to what would assure safety. So, yeah, I think I want to talk about that a little bit more like what does it actually like, look like and feel like to be someone who’s in prison and is disconnected from the people that they love? What does it look like to be like someone on on my end trying to access someone that they love? Who’s inside of a concrete cage? And, you know, what are those barriers look like? And I don’t know, like, what can be different? Yeah.
I don’t know, I was just thinking that I was gonna mention being like stripped out being stripped out is when you get naked, basically, for the correction officer, there’s a system to it, it’s like, you know, a shoe goes off, shaken out, put to the side, the socks go out, get turned inside out, the pants go off. And then I was a I was a firehouse girl. So we have greater access to materials. So our strip outs are more thorough than other people’s because because we have access to a you know, sets of tools and things like that. Yeah, so pennies off. If you’re wearing a pad that also comes off, it gets twisted. And then you can put it back on or put on a new pad. No, no tampons allowed at visiting. And then pennies, go back on, pants go back on. And then the shirt goes off, bra goes off. And I missed cough and squat, that’s somewhere in there, too. And then they check your hair, which you kind of like bend over and they kind of rummage through your hair. So
super humiliating. It’s embarrassing, like, and especially somebody that is survived sexual assault. Like it’s a again, it’s, I don’t want to overuse the word triggering, but it definitely is a reminder, right? It’s a trauma reminder of what we have gone through. And then we have this person that is in control of us. And by the way, like, my whole time of being inside, which was 25 years, never once was there an incident in visiting, where there was any type of assault, or there was any type of attack, other than the arguments that would ensue when the guards would try to be like overly like, I guess, power hungry or trying to control or, you know, admonishing people about like holding hands or their, you know, their five year old daughter would jump on their daddy’s lap because they haven’t, you know, been with them in so long. And they’re like, you can’t do that, like, you can’t comfort your daughter when she’s crying and you can’t hold her. You can’t do that. And it’s like, wait a minute, what is what is going on? And those were the only times that I ever saw, like, arguments ensue, or, or like any type of computation. And then they would say, Okay, oh, you want to argue, let’s go into the back and talk about this. And you wouldn’t see that person again. Like they would end up either back in their cell, the visit is canceled, they’re going, you know, maybe end up in AD sag, because you don’t know what happens back there, either. And they’re like, oh, some incident happened where I felt threatened. So this person is going to go on, you know, ad sag and, and that type of process.
You know, Lee and I think that you raise like a really good point, the experience of visiting like, treats visitors and incarcerated people as like we are somehow like a threat to the safety of the institution, you know, everything from the from the very, very beginning. So for folks who don’t know, even to be approved to visit someone, you have to go through like a really extensive background check. A lot of people don’t get approved to even have access to visits in the first place. Visiting is something that can be taken away at any point for a rules violation, or, you know, the cops really don’t need a good reason to cancel your visit. And to say that you can’t come back for 30 days, 90 days, six months, a year, two years.
They loved seeing that. Right. It’s a privilege, not a right.
Yeah, right. Right. But it’s also making me think about like how this is gendered. You know, for, for the most part, women who come to visit even at women’s facilities, you know, it’s it’s women who were there supporting their incarcerated loved ones and issues that I had every single weekend. And to be clear, I was in a prison visiting room pretty much every weekend for seven years. So I have lots and lots of visiting experience and lots of stories, and have identified a lot of patterns. And a pattern that always happened was the women coming in were sexualized by the guards every single time, we are always told that our clothes are too tight, or we can’t wear something that exposes our shoulders. And I was told to my face by correctional officers multiple times over the years, that it was for my quote, safety. And I said, You know, I don’t feel unsafe walking into a room with a tank top on, I feel unsafe when you’re telling me that I have to stand outside so that you can see if my dresses see through in the sun, I feel unsafe when I have to turn around so that you can stare at my butt and decide if my skirt or My pants are too tight. I feel unsafe when I’m constantly threatened with a fully like unclothed search all of the time, when I have to walk through a metal detector and have you know, metal detecting wind, like put over sensitive areas of my body. So it’s incredibly traumatizing. And I could understand why so many people don’t visit, especially for people who have kids, you know, like, I’m not a mother, and I can’t imagine bringing a child into that experience and you know, having your child be searched. And so it was, like just always a common conversation amongst myself and other visitors like, you know, every weekend, it would be the same issues with the, with the officers, and we would talk about it and and say out loud, will they do this, because they don’t want us to come back. They do this because you know, they want to discourage us. And some people, understandably, were discouraged and wouldn’t come back. And it really just goes to show like, I don’t know, I’m just bringing this back to the conversation around abolition, like, we can’t just, you know, tinker with this system, we can’t just fix it, we have to completely tear it down and build something different, because this isn’t just hurting folks inside. It’s hurting folks who you know, love folks who are inside and it doesn’t just punish the individual, punishes the family, punishes the community and punishes everybody who cares about that person. And like these cycles of harm, just they just build out in ripples and ripples. And then we wonder why, you know, this isn’t solving the problem of violence, like, this system itself is violent, it hurts all of us. And we need to come up with something where these loving ties are not broken, where people are not punished, just because they care about somebody in their life.
Yeah, for sure. The process of like, what you just described about going through the system is, is a or the checks and balances that they put in place for folks to come in and see people that are incarcerated. For me personally, I didn’t want my family to come up there, because I didn’t want to subject them to that type of humility. And I felt ashamed and embarrassed for what they were going through. Because it’s like, with no other it’s asinine. Like it really is, it’s just a continuance, like you could describe it a continuous cycle of harm, that is being, you know, kind of pushed upon our community members, people that are literally paying their salaries. And I think it’s super important that when we do name it, or claim it, that we also provide the voice of alternatives, solutions that could be put into place. And like you said, it’s abolition is really what it is, it’s based on community care, it’s based on healing. And it’s based on making sure that everybody is accounted for, in not only their experiences and their feelings, but also what is what is important to them, and how we can improve the way that we interact with one another as community members. So you know, as we like, continue to move forward with like our talks and our the subjects that we’re that we’re kind of bringing up, like, we have solutions, maybe not all of them, right. But that’s the whole point is, like, we’re three members in the community right here with three different experiences, and three different ideas on how we can actually address the harm that is happening within our communities.
What we definitely can do is look at the system and say, This is not working. If the goal is safety, this is not working. I don’t think that the goal is is healing. I was gonna say if the goal is healing, this is not working. But I don’t think that’s the goal of this system. But I think I also want to talk about not just like the emotional cost and the shame and the trauma that folks have to experience visiting but also like the financial costs. When my ex husband was in county jail. As you mentioned Lee earlier, the way the laws work in California, it’s more expensive to receive calls from county jails than the state prison system. I was paying more on phone calls every month and I was for my rent while he was in county jail. And then more on phone calls, then her rent. And he was in county for just under a year. So that was a lot of money. And for context, I was a graduate student, I was doing unpaid internships. So it was a lot of my student loans that were paying for that. And you know, this is 10 years later, and I’m still paying back student loans, and probably will be for a very long time. So this is something that has an impact on your life, you know, for years, if not decades. And yeah, even when he made it to state prison, phone calls are very expensive, visiting is very expensive, you have to send packages inside for folks who don’t know, like people inside, get like the bare minimum when it comes to like food and things like that. So oftentimes families will send packages with food and other like basic necessities. The prisons are always like in a rural area far away from everything else. So it’s never convenient to visit, you have to go to some middle of nowhere town, find a you know, reasonably priced motel to stay at. And in my experience, like visiting the prison was traumatic in and of itself. But usually being in the towns was also like a very scary experience. I’m thinking specifically of Susan Ville, which is all the way up in Northern California. The closest city is Reno, Nevada, actually. So I’d have to drive out of California to Reno, and then drive back into California to get there how to go through Sierra Nevada through Donner pass, which, yes. So, so many experiences of getting like stuck in the snow hitting black eyes, like spinning out, like, literally, I’m not exaggerating, every time I drove to Susan Ville, like I was scared, I was gonna die in the car when it was snowing because it was so dark. And yeah, a couple of times I like really had near misses. At that time, my car didn’t have a working heater. So I had a system where I’d wrap one blanket around myself like a burrito while I was driving and just stick my arms out on the steering wheel, and then throw another blanket over my arms. And that would like keep me warm while I was driving. And then when I would get to the prison in the morning, at that time, that prison didn’t have appointments that you could like schedule ahead of time. So it’s like first come first serve. So I’d pull up in front of the prison, like five in the morning in the snow, and just like wrap myself up in the blankets and wait for them to open up at 730. And then, you know, that’s just the beginning. And then the whole thing of going through the metal detectors and having them look at your clothes, and then you get in the visiting room. And you know the way that they’re watching you and literally timing how long you hug and kiss your loved one. When you get in there. The food is disgusting, and overly price. So it just had such an experience on my like physical and mental health, I’d be tired from the drive, I’d be emotionally exhausted from dealing with the cops. And then it’s hard to see your loved one like that knowing they have to strip out before they they come out to see you knowing that, you know you’re walking away and they’re going back into that system. And there’s nothing that you can do to free them when that’s all that you want. You know, with everything in your heart, you just wish that you could take them with you and you can’t. So it just it hurts so bad. I would just I remember after every visit, I would just go back to my hotel and just stay in my bed and like take a nap. I couldn’t like do anything else like mentally or emotionally I was so tired. And sometimes I would be like sick from the food. It’s just a lot. And I just can’t imagine that anybody who is like actually invested in like community wellness and safety is like this is the best way that we’re going to do. This is how we are going to ensure that incarcerated people don’t cause any more harm. Like we’re gonna literally torture their families. And this is a great way to do
in $80,000 per person a year 15 What was it 15 point 4 billion I think the budget is for CDCR this year.
Oh yeah. And they requested more to in the legislature just approved it.
And I imagine that they’re using Oh, because of COVID protocols. When we know exactly how that kind of unfolded this last year and how they were just cross contaminating folks and putting folks that were COVID positive with other ones and the financial cost like you brought up at the beginning. It’s it’s ridiculous because they added the arm behind CDC to make it rehabilitation but the amount of programs that are actually provided and how they’re provided in what is being done inside to assist folks in their mental and emotional intelligence in development and getting them from a place of harm to a place of healing. When the system itself as harmful as like counterintuitive to what they’re describing That’s going on inside.
Yeah, it’s absolutely the reverse. You know, the the effect that it has on the families is, is definitely one part, it definitely has a huge effect on reentry, because those are the relationships that you’ll count on to get back on your feet. And, you know, when I was inside my husband passed away, and his visiting form was approved a week before he died. So I got to see him for the first time. I saw him regularly in county jail, but because of prison form mishaps and transfers and things
When you say you saw him in county jail through glass, or
glass or plexiglass, and those are short visits, those are, you know, they can be as short as five minutes if, if that’s what the cops feel like that day, but it was a little a little bit easier. At least, you know, he lived closer, Chowchilla was 300 miles plus away from my home and CW was several hours away. And the form process was exhausting, I think for anybody, but particularly my husband was neurodivergent and suffered from, you know, multiple mental illnesses that were you know, struggles to, to get through any type of form, let alone the the ups and downs of the prison process. So when we finally got the forum settled, I was able to see him for my first time being in prison. And then a week later, he passed away. And that process was another process of like, just distancing people from their communities. You know, the only reason I was allowed to go to the funeral was because of my standing as a firehouse girl, which is to say I had a gate pass a gate pass being part of my job saying that I’m at an access level that allows me to go outside the gates. And generally, that means I mowed the lawn outside the prison, you know, took the trash out from the towers, that type of thing. But just that ability to say, Okay, well, if she can go half a mile outside the gate, or help fight a fire five miles outside of the gate, then I guess she can go to a funeral. But a lot of those things were because my father in law lived not too far. So the funeral was relatively close to the prison, I had a gate pass, and my family was able to pay for the correctional officer, you pay their salary, their hourly salary as they take you out. So you have to find a correctional officer who was trained in this on their day off, which is kind of a zoo as it is, you have to just go around and ask people, you know, do you happen to be off on this Thursday when my husband’s funeral is I know, you don’t know me, but also, I know, are you trained in these funeral services, and then whatever their hourly wages, your family pays that so from the second they pick you up through the funeral, whatever else, they they cover, the cost of that. And all of those things are really prohibitive. I’m very lucky that I was able to attend the funeral. I don’t know what sort of family relationships I would have, if I hadn’t been there, you know, a wife of 10 years misses the funeral with all the family together. And for anyone who’s experienced that type of loss, that particular type of grief. It’s very common to just really never see those people, again, the people at those funerals, you know, families drifted apart when there’s a trauma that connects them rather than a person. And so being able to be in attendance is really kind of an important thing. It gives you a place to come back to reminds people that you are part of this family even without this person. Yeah, these are just important things that I think the system doesn’t have any plan for. And the plan that it does have is wonky at best, and definitely doesn’t center, public safety, wellness, healing, rehabilitation, any of those things.
That’s so hard and like, the worst fear and like worst case scenario of like so many folks, and sighs I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. But it’s just so true that so many folks have to deal with like an incredible amount of loss while they’re on the inside. My ex husband lost his grandfather, while he was inside, he lost his best friend to drug overdose. His best friend was 25. And it was like, completely unexpected. And then I lost my mom while he was inside. So there are all of these like incredible, like life changing events. And he had just like really terrible things that happen when you’re inside. And you don’t have the ability to be there. Like when you you know when you want to be there. I remember when I got word that my mom overdosed and that she was in a coma and that she was probably not going to recover. You know, when you’re on the outside, you don’t have the ability to just pick up the phone and be like, hey, let me talk to my husband about this. I think I had to wait until the next day or maybe a couple of days for him to call me. And then again, it’s only 15 minute conversation. You don’t know if they’ll be able to call you back after that call is over. So I just remember like one the experience of being like okay, like I’m alone and I have to deal with this out here by myself. And then to like when I was talking to him, trying to figure out like the best way to communicate. Hi your How are you hope your day is going right also your best friend overdosed and died. A couple years ago, also my mom overdosed. And we’re not sure like what her outcome is going to be. It’s it’s really, really rough. I remember being in the visiting room one time, and I looked across the table, and this man just started, like, hysterically, like crying, broke down at the table. And then he went to the back and, you know, went to the back of the visiting room and went back inside, where were the folks come out. And I ended up talking to his wife and asking, like what happened, and she said that she just had to let him know that his mom had passed away, I just can’t stress enough, like the way that this system like, you know, it’s so it’s so incredibly harmful. And then you have to experience like these grief, like, in front of other people, you don’t have any privacy, like whatsoever. And the sad thing is that, like those in person visits, like, really are your ability to have the most privacy. We talked before about county jail visits, which are behind the glass, and you’re holding on to like a telephone receiver and everything that you say over that phone is recorded. So there’s no privacy in those meetings. And that was actually how I got married, I got married in the the county jail behind glass. You know, he’s, of course not allowed to have any guests. On his end, I just have like, the person who married us and a couple friends there, my family was not able to be there because of their own, you know, records, or whatever. And the way that the system is restrictive for who’s allowed to come in and visit. So I know family, there are a couple of friends. And he’s saying his vows over the receiver that I’m saying my vows over the receiver. And I just remember the whole night before just crying and like I couldn’t sleep the whole night before. And I was like I just kept telling myself like, this is not how I want to be married. This is not how I want to do this, like, at all. So yeah, my wedding was an incredibly traumatizing experience. And we weren’t allowed to have, you know, a wedding kiss or anything like that. Or exchanged rings. I actually ended up talking to one of the cops and being like, Hey, can you give my husband now? His reign, we just got married. So they ended up giving it to him? And tragically, he lost it the next day. But that’s what happened. But yeah, I don’t know, I just thinking about like, all these big moments that I think folks in the free world like kind of take for granted things like weddings, things like funerals, that kind of have to happen, like in the absence of somebody, and that, that causes like so much harm to the families in ways that I think that we probably could never even like, fully understand or describe in. I don’t know, like, I just really want us to have a system where we’re not doing this to families and communities anymore.
You know, it’s not only not okay, it’s like shameful. It’s despicable. That it is like operating the way that it does. In the last couple of weeks, I had a friend of mine, call me from inside. And he’s somebody that I’ve known since he was like, really young. And he called me and he’s just crying on the bone. And like, I’m like, What’s wrong, what’s wrong? And it took him a minute to get it out. And he said, he said, I just don’t know what to do. And I said, well, what’s what’s happening right now. And he said, one of his friends that he’s made a connection with was just called, just returned back from the program office, because that’s how they notify you when there’s a death in the family is they just randomly call you and they say report to the chaplain or report to the program office. And you have no idea why I can’t remember how many times I’ve been randomly called to the program office. And the whole time going over, I’m thinking that somebody died and my family, I had a standing role with my family do not call the institution, when somebody in the when somebody passes away, just don’t do it. When I get you on the phone, you can tell me they’re there. Or you can come up and see me and visiting. And we can have that because my pain in my grief isn’t for them to be witness of. Because I felt like that the way that they handle the situations or even worse. And this is just one example. So I’m talking to my friend. And he said his buddy is like literally, I could hear him through the phone, his buddy is crying in the corner, just wailing and crying in the correctional guards would not allow them to comfort him. They would not allow anyone to go near them. And they were saying, oh six, six feet, six feet, like you can’t you can’t be around him, you can’t be around them. And so they literally have a circle of folks around them that are crying with them, and they just don’t know what to do. Like they just want to comfort him and they want to bring that type of, you know, pain relief to to their friend and like there wasn’t anything I could do but have this conversation with my buddy and just say, you know, listen, you just have to be there as much as you can. You need to, you know, go ahead and allow him the space to to express his grief. Don’t feel ashamed if you’re expressing your grief. And so we really went over the whole process of you know, the the Expressing of emotions, and not caring what other folks around you thought about it, like, you know, I know we’ve talked about toxic masculinity, it’s very hard for folks inside to be able to express especially, I don’t know how it is for the women, but for men, it’s hard for them to express like grief and express, like emotions and pain, because the system is not set up for it. And it’s not, it’s not comforting. And that’s just one recent incident where somebody dealt with, with grief when I’m on the phone, and I feel helpless to like, there’s not much I can do other than, you know, use my experience and use my my ability to be able to converse with them in a calm and slow manner and giving them the space to be able to, you know, express their grief. And like y’all just described, it’s, it’s not, it’s not conducive to healing. And this right here are moments if people don’t have the awareness of it, or they don’t have the assistance of going through it, that they can, they can turn into somebody that is resentful, they can turn that moment into something to bitterness. And they can turn that moment into further harm, not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. And for their community. This is just another splinter that is in the system to where it just continues to poke and harm folks. And that affects all of us.
It does. And I think like, you know, we talk a lot about the grief and the bigness of these really notably sad things, but like Taina’s story about the wedding reminds me that prisona and jail is such a layering of these tiny griefs. When I came home, and people kept calling me a widow, it was it was a weird and I say frustrating experience because I, I was absolutely Dave’s wife. But we were, you know, best friends and that’s really how I saw our relationship. And so this idea that I got this really like precious word when everybody around me who lost him got nothing and I got this really precious place in society that’s like, you were in a marriage for a long time, and he passed away and here’s your special grief word and your special grief status. And I just felt so frustrated because my husband was always better with words than was and I was like, if he was here, he would fix this because this is not, this is not okay because I’ve just come from a year and a half of griefs and griefs and griefs, and how do you measure them against each other and of course, I lost him. That’s a continual and lifelong grief. But I missed so many things. I’m also from a big family, one of six kids and in a year and a half with when your family is that big, you miss weddings, you miss birthdays, you miss just knowing what’s going on with the people in your life. And those like tiny larynx change how we even interact with each other inside, you know, out here you can be you can say something like, oh, do you have kids? How are they doing? But inside, I mean, they may not know how their kids are doing and it may not be for any family conflicts reasons, just financial reasons, or protections for the children themselves. The environments aren’t safe for adult disabled people. An autistic child in a visiting room would have a particularly miserable experience. When you’re not allowed to move your hands, you’re not allowed to stim, those things are, are considered, you know, contraband behavior. And within our own cells, you know, the, the frames we make to put up pictures of our kids, that’s contrabands you know? The things we collect and tape up, that’s technically contraband. All it takes is one correctional officer on a bad day, and you lose those things you know? I’m Chicana, on my mom’s side, when people pass and even even when they haven’t particularly, but we keep altars. Ancestral altars are just a part of culture and you put, you know, flowers and things and the paper flowers I would make were, were contraband. So even after my husband passed, and they were on the desk, you know, a correctional officer who didn’t know, just didn’t feel like they were in a good mood would come in and crush them in their hands, you know? The cultural, the cultural ramifications of that and how that would be perceived in the real world. You know, if I had an altar on my patio, and someone walked up and just kicked it, that’s called a hate crime. And so, the extent from this is totally reasonable to if I was just, you know, a mile outside these gates, you know, you’ve just committed this crime against me and the reason we call it that is emphasis on the hate. You know, it’s it’s a, it’s a cultural division. And just one more thing we do, like, it’s not just the bad things, it’s the little things it’s to every single day moments, it’s not knowing, you know, how someone’s hair is doing, how long it’s gotten, you know, if they changed it,
Right, right. All of this is also just making me think about like, what the implications of all of these like little hurts and bigger griefs and just like the disconnect that like piles up over the years. What does that mean when somebody eventually comes home? I think folks, you know, will often say the best reentry system that we have is family and the community because the prison system sucks at helping people like re enter successfully. So if you want people to come back to society and not be completely broken down, the most important thing that they can have in their life is family and people who love them and care about them and want to provide support. But what is the system doing now? Like one, it’s financially bankrupting the family. So there’s lots of limitations in terms of like financially, what families can provide, to support their loved ones when they’re coming home. And then two, like these, these connections have been broken down over years. I made it a point to see my loved one every single weekend. I made it a point to be on his family’s case, like hey, go visit, even though they only went like once or twice a year. I made it a point to bug his friends and be like, hey, go see him, I’ll set up your appointment or you know, do whatever he needs to do. But so many folks don’t get visits the entire time. My ex husband’s old cellmate did 39 years in prison, and the whole time he got one visit from his sister. So what does that look like? You know, when you come home, and you haven’t seen people, in years, or even decades, so many folks come home, without anything without any connections to anybody. And then we look at our recidivism rate, the rate in which people return to prison, and we wonder why. We’re really like, we’re messing people up in the head, you know? We really are. And, you know, it’s really traumatizing for the families too like, after my ex husband came home, like mentally and emotionally, I was doing worse than when he was inside. I started going to therapy, again, I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD, I was having like, flashbacks, like anytime he would leave like the house or like, you know, go hang out with somebody, I would have a vision of him, like, going back through the doors at the back of the visiting room. I would have visions of him being like taken away by cops. Every time he would leave the house, I would be scared that something would happen and it would violate his parole, and he would end up going back to prison. It’s just a completely terrifying experience. And yeah, I don’t know, like, honestly, I’m kind of like, astounded that anybody comes home and is even able to function after everything that they they put us through and the ways that they disconnected folks from the people who care about them. I feel like the three of us here and like the 10s of 1000s, if not hundreds of 1000s of people who have gone through this in California or you know, in the country are like, we’re we’re like walking miracle. And the fact that we’re not a lot more messed up yeah, really is miraculous.
I think that’s a big component of like, the transition from inside to outside. There’s an appreciation of the difficulties and the struggles, and the connections that we that we kind of make. I know, when I went through a board process, they told me, like, they always they asked this question to most folks, like what do you feel like are going to be your biggest struggles or your biggest challenges when you get out and I said, relationships are going to be my my biggest struggle. And they were like, well, most people that have been down for you know, 25, 30 years that type of thing, I always laugh at that word to been down. I’ve been down for what? Like you’ve been like, literally captive. But uh, they say they talk about like technology and how the speed of the world is different from the speed inside and I said, well, first of all, like I’m thinking inside my head is on a constant swivel because I think that I’m going to be attacked or knived, or, you know, I have this hyper vigilance that is going on in a constant constant like basis all the time. And then you don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know whether it’s going to come from the guards or for other folks that are incarcerated or somebody that has a mental break at the time. But I said it’s going to be relationships, you know, I’ve my relationships were not necessarily destroyed, but they were severely traumatized and wounded. While I was inside, I didn’t get the visits. I didn’t want to make these phone calls all the time, because they were so expensive. You know, letter writing was like a one way process most of the time where I would be writing them but then I wouldn’t tell them about the things that were going on inside because I didn’t want to further traumatize them about the things that I was going through and the stuff that I was experiencing while I was inside and then when I did make my transition, I was absolutely correct. It was the relationships. Not only the relationships of the my family members, but friends that I thought were friends, or friends that I had left behind, and then new friends that I was making on a daily basis on how do I approach you know, life with them and you know, whether I reveal you know, certain things aspects of my past or whether I don’t reveal certain aspects of my past and then you deal with the employment and you deal with the shame and like the scarlet letter that you have with with being on parole or being formerly incarcerated. Like there’s all of these things that are set in place that make it more and more difficult for folks to transition with, like a sense of belonging within their community because it’s it’s set for for it not to be that way.
Lee your story is making me think about the day after my ex husband got out of prison, he had to report to parole so I went with him like, hey, proof, he has a functional and like responsible wife and like, you know-
Right, like a place to live and all the things and, you know, we showed up with his job offer letters and everything to show like, okay, you know, he’s hopefully going to be able to re enter somewhat successfully. And, yeah, his P.O, his parole officer, asked him that same question like, okay, well, what sport do you need? And he said, oh, I need therapy. I want to get into therapy. Can you help me with that? And the parole officer, just like blankly stared at him and like, slow blinked and was like, okay, well, there’s a job fair this Thursday that you can go to. You can learn how to be a truck driver and he was like, what, I don’t want to be a truck driver, I have a job. Like, I I’m gonna need some emotional support and his parole officer was like, oh, we don’t do that. And I was like-
We don’t operate in support.
You know, and that’s just like a summary of this whole entire system, like people who are hurting because like, you know, let’s go all the way back, people end up in prison in the first place because of unhealed trauma. So people are hurting, needed support and love from the beginning, didn’t get it, end up getting caught up in a system where they’re further traumatized, and then everybody who cares about them is further traumatized and stigmatized. And then they come home, and it’s like, oh, no, you thought you were getting emotional support? No, you’re not we we don’t do that. That’s not what we provide. That’s what the families provide. That’s what loved ones provide, what the community provides. And yet, the institution does everything that it possibly can to make maintaining those relationships as difficult as possible.
Yeah, the parole supervisor that I saw when I first got out, I sat across from him, and he said, I think that you should have died in prison. He goes, I don’t believe that you should, you should be out here sitting in front of me right now. That’s how, that’s how he introduced himself. And I was like, oh, these, this is my support system. Like, awesome. Um, but I mean, there’s people have tons of like, experiences like that. And just like she, Taina just described, you know, I need therapy. Okay, we can get you some truck driving to where you can be further isolated. And, by the way, you can take truck driving school, but we have a 50 mile radius that you can actually travel.
It was the truck driving thing that really threw me because I was like, never had we indicated ever that this was anything we were even remotely interested in. It was just, it was just so wild. But I think yeah, it was just like such a perfect reflection of like, how disconnected the system is from what humans actually need.
Yeah, the parole and probation process itself is just one more, you know, people think like, you come home and you’re home. Now the only struggle is, you know, re establishing those relationships and getting work, but you’re just under a different type of surveillance state. And I often, I mean, I, I was on parole for a year, and I was inside for a year and a half so it was almost comparable time and I do feel like the supervision on the outside was, was in many ways worse than my actual incarceration because I felt like my family was really actively being pulled through it. They raided my house in the middle of the night, pulled my 60 year old mom out, you know, barefoot in her nightgown, with me handcuffed, and the eight year old girl in the house with us at the time, same thing they pulled her out. Didn’t let her bring her stuffed animal with her. It’s it’s cold in the middle of night, you know, and, and of course, like these types of indignities and the way they speak and all these things become kind of commonplace inside, but to have to hear them applied to a child to my mom in the middle of a nice street. So literally, the mayor of the city is like across the street from us, and I’m just outside handcuffed in my underwear. It’s one of those things that just continues forever, you know? Your limits on where you can go, I wasn’t allowed to, I wasn’t approved to go to my sister’s wedding and these things are harder for people out here to understand because it’s not like commonplace knowledge. Okay, well, you’re on parole or probation, you probably won’t be allowed to leave the state you know?
So it just it feels like excuses to people. Like you’re not applying for jobs outside your city and you have to explain like, I can’t leave this 10 mile radius. So yeah, it’s just one more thing.
Yeah. I mean, it’s hard. Even you know, for my ex husband, he got a job, you know, working within this field of, you know, nonprofit work, work to end mass incarceration and I feel like if he was in a job, in any field, like outside of that he like maybe would have lost his job. Like his parole officer would come to the office to make sure that he was working so I can’t imagine, you know, like working for a corporation or something like that. And you just have like an armed officer showing up like, hey, does this person really worked here? Even when the parole officer would, you know, come to our apartment. You know, just for a routine check, they would come a couple times a month, it was embarrassing to have like the neighbors, you know, watching a cop come into our house every single time and we were fortunate we never had, you know, like a raid or anything like that happened. But they would come a couple times a month, go through all of our drawers, you know, give them the drug test and everything. The first time his parole officer came and looked around the house, you know, I like to cook, so I have a lot of like, really fancy kitchen knives and I have them like on a metallic strip, like on my kitchen wall. So the parole officer came into the kitchen and was like, why do you have all these knives? And I was like, I don’t know how to answer this question in a way where I don’t sound like I’m being sarcastic, like trying to be rude, but I’m like, they’re for cooking. I like to cook things. I don’t know how else to describe them. And like asking me questions about why I need so many and I’m like, well, this knife is for this and this knife is for that. Yeah, it was it was such a wild and like, just like shameful experience too like the amount of judgment that comes with loving someone in prison. Like I’ll never forget, I started a new job the day after my wedding in the county jail so it was a lot of us there for orientation and we’re all going around doing like these icebreaker questions and stuff and I remember there was another woman in the group who had just gotten married that weekend. So everybody kept asking the two of us about our wedding. And she was like, I am going to honeymoon in Jamaica. I was like, um, I don’t know when I’m ever going to be able to kiss my husband. I’m waiting to see what’s happening with these visiting forms. We got married in, in jail. Yeah, and just the amount of judgment that I received. And honestly, like, at this point, this was like, just over a year into his incarceration and I felt like I I had to talk about it, you know, I had tried like the first year or so not to mention it to anybody to keep the secret to myself, because I was afraid of receiving so much judgment. And I know, for me, it was harder to like, keep it all in because I felt like I just wanted to boil over all the time. I just wanted to cry and like break down all the time. So I just started telling people, and like watching the uncomfortable look on their face. And I was like, oh, yeah, my husband’s in prison. He was sentenced to 10 years and you know, and just watching like the look of shock on their face. Sometimes people would say really offensive things. Sometimes they would try hard not to but still would. But yeah, I received a lot of like, judgment from like, friends and family. Yeah, the amount of like, stigma, and shame and judgment that we just had to like, navigate on a regular basis when I was just like, damn, what did I do wrong? The only thing that I did wrong was love someone who was impacted by incarceration and this is not, it’s not something that that’s wrong. This is something that is probably like, most key to this person’s like successful reentry that they had, like love and support but something that is not seen as like a virtuous act, it’s something that is actually like actively punished over and over again,
On a continuous basis like no matter, no matter what you do. I didn’t even want to have like, that type of relationship or connection within because I thought I was dying in prison. Like, that was it. I was, like, I’m literally going to live my whole life in prison and I didn’t want to, like I used to witness like people like you Taina and your ex husband and and how their family dynamics just continued to crumble and like the stress and the, the hurt and the pain that they would go through on a daily basis and I didn’t want to further subject myself to pain. It was painful enough not feeling like you talked about like it being important for people to feel loved and feel like wanted and connected. You know, those are like a huge part of the foundations of how most folks even end up incarcerated or end up with, you know, mental health issues or we end up with addictions is because they don’t feel connected to the people that are around. They don’t they’re not understood. They’re looking for folks that will will be accepting of them and those tend to start leading to worse and worse choices. And it was the same thing in there it’s like, not feeling loved, not feeling that connection will lead most folks in there. It led me to making the choices that I made. And then to further you know, have that insight It was just something that I didn’t want to do. I would rather suffer it myself than put that on other other folks. And, you know, I’ve talked about it before about like, once I realized that I had harmed another human being to the gravity that I did, I vowed to never intentionally harm another person again. And, like I, I stuck with that through throughout my incarceration and it was something that that was a different type of, like arrested development, right? Because I went in as a 17 year old person and came out as a 43 and so when you start to like, really look at my experiences, like I was stuck, in some ways as a 17 year old, coming out as 43. And so there’s this whole other type of process that needs to happen with folks inside because the system isn’t geared to any type of, you know, continuance of maturation, and there is the shame. And I think it was Brene Brown, who said, like, shame is like a fungus. It only lives in the darkness. Until we bring out that is those moments that you said that like Taina, that you were talking about, like, on a continuous basis, it lessens the strength of that shame that has that makes it debilitating.
It then becomes empowering, once we’re able to kind of overcome it and share it with others and let them know that they’re not alone. And again, it’s ironic that our system is built on oppression, when that isn’t what we need. We need like, clusion with our community members. We need to be able to have collaboration, to be able to, like grow through these inevitable moments that are going to happen within our communities.
Right. And this is a lesson that I I was put in a situation that I had to learn like, early in my life, when I was 14, my dad was arrested, and ended up serving just under a year in county jail. And you know, I was 14, I didn’t have any, like, politic around like community connection or anything like that. All I knew was I was in a really, you know, bad situation with my dad, before he got arrested. We didn’t have a good relationship because of his drug use. And you know, he just wasn’t like a really present dad at the time. But he got arrested and he wrote me a letter, and he just said he was sorry, he was sorry for everything that he had done, and that he wanted to get sober and that he wanted to be a good dad. And based on like, my experiences with him in the past, I had zero reason to believe him. But I just felt so bad that he was in jail, and that he was in that, you know, like, really traumatizing situation. So I wrote back to him, and I said that I forgave him and you know that I, I wanted him to get better and come home. So we just wrote each other the whole time that he was inside, I would, you know, just tell him silly things about like my crushes or you know, whatever occupies a 14 year olds mind and send him like poems that I wrote and stuff. And we, you know, just just wrote each other. And then when he came home, just under a year later, he told me that I was the only person who wrote him, that nobody came to see him. Nobody answered the phone when he called. It was, my letters were the only letters that he was getting. And he said that pretty much up until like, right before he got out, he knew he was gonna start using again when he got out. But he said, you know, that my letters had had saved him and helped him come to the conclusion that he wanted to be there for me, and that he wanted to be a good dad. So he did, he got sober. And that was in 2002. So almost 20 years ago. So yeah, I learned that lesson at a young age that the only like really effective tool that we have to help people get out of the, the harm that they’re causing, is like to love them, and to support them, even when it when it’s really tough. So the fact that like, the system does everything like from beginning to end to make it almost impossible to get approved to visit, to send folks to prisons that are hundreds of miles away, and make it so cost prohibitive to make phone calls so expensive, you know, to police, your body and when you go to visiting, and then even when once you’re in the visiting room, and you’ve cleared all of these hurdles, you’re still being watched like a hawk. And you feel like any move like oh, don’t let me accidentally touch his arm or something like that, then I’m going to get my visit terminated and maybe terminated for months or even years. The whole experience is just so terrifying and discourages connection at every turn, but we know that the only thing that can truly like heal people and prevent them from causing harm, again, is to like encourage that connection. Just theoretically like in terms of abolition, like when we say abolition, we don’t just mean like tearing down like you know, the police and prison state. We mean like creating conditions in which people can feel loved and supported, you know, not just from the institutions and you know, providing like access to economic equity and educational equity and health care equity and all those things, but it’s also like creating the conditions in which people can just love each other, without fear, and just, you know, be supportive of each other without being traumatized for wanting to support somebody. I mean, so this has been a really tough conversation. I can imagine that this is probably hard to listen to, for a lot of folks and a lot of folks are probably also just listening to our stories and running over their own stories in their mind and the ways that, that they and their loved ones have been harmed. So I dunno, I just want to name that this is like, heavy and encourage all of us to just take a breath. But in closing out, maybe it might be nice to talk about, like what we envision for the future, something hopeful, something that that we would like to build, instead of what we have right now. And, you know, I can start, obviously, if we abolish prisons, you know, things like visiting and phone calls from inside would be a non issue, because prisons wouldn’t exist. But I think that I would really just like to live in a world where, like families and loved ones just have access to care that they need, not only to therapy, but we’re at a cultural norm where like, you can talk about really vulnerable things without shame and without stigma, and you can reach out for support. And we can talk about things like depression and PTSD, and grief. And for me, it’s also just about building a culture of love and support and doing whatever we need to do institutionally to like, fund these kind of programs or, you know, offer resources to people who, for various reasons, might not know what to do to support someone or might not know how to reach out for support for themselves.
I guess I would say pretty much the same thing. I focus, I think a lot on language. We don’t know the right words to take care of each other even if you know even when we’re trying. You mentioned how people often said the wrong thing, when you said that you were married to someone inside. And I think that’s, that’s a, you know, an experience, anyone who’s experienced any type of grief, even like loss of a job, you know, or loss of a pet or loss of a person, could experience too because people just genuinely don’t know what to say. We don’t have the right words, we aren’t trained in any sort of compassion or curiosity studies or let alone specific traumas, harms, accountabilities, just the correct language for those things makes such a big difference, you know? Meeting people with sentences that acknowledge where they are and acknowledge the truth of situations but at the same time, are helpful and offer a path for some kind of cultural redemption, you know? I think those are so important. Definitely, they need systems in place. You know, you need teachers and facilitators, and that requires groups, and that requires money and all that stuff is, to me super possible. Like, we started this conversation talking about the CDCR budget, we know where we can get the billions for these ideas. So yeah, that’s that’s, I guess, would be my hope for the future.
Yeah, you know, we saw Measure J passed last year, and that was a big, like, step, at least for LA and Southern California and I guess, for other people that are kind of looking at it. And we have models that are in place in other countries, whether it’s Norway or, or wherever, like community care centers are, are super important, like we talked about the isolation of being moved, removed from your community and being shipped all over the state of California and I think that the the issues that have, I guess, come up in communities need to be solved by the community. And this will obviously take, you know, facilitators that will take teachers, it’ll take finances, and I think that the finances are there. They’re just being misappropriated right now and as we continue to kind of just expand on the idea of prison abolition, people often say, well, what are you going to do? Community care centers, like, literally. When we had issues with our siblings who handled it? It was our parents, right? Or guardians or the people that were supervising us, and they handled it in a way, hopefully, they handled it in a way where they, they want it to be able to have accountability and responsibility with what transpired but also how we can make amends and make it right for ourselves and for the people that we’ve we’ve harmed, whether it was our siblings or whether it was our neighbors. And when we get away from that and we start to put all the control into the system’s hands and start to isolate and divide us from our community members. This is what we get. We get mass incarceration. We get people that are apathetic towards other folks, because it’s not necessarily them that are going through it and it for some folks, it builds up the thought that you got what you deserved. And I don’t think that that’s the appropriate way for us to be loving our neighbors because I can guarantee you if it was your child or your brother or your sister that was put in that position, you would not feel that way.
Yeah, no, I agree with that. And I think I would just want to close out by saying that nobody deserves this kind of pain. Even if you have caused pain or you know, caused harm and in your life, the system of punishment that we have now satisfies a thirst for revenge, but it does nothing else. It does nothing else to actually make our community safer or to do anything to heal or prevent harm from happening in the future. It just increases the likelihood that more harm will happen. I guess, I just want to say sending lots of love and good energy to anybody who is still inside, to someone whose loved one is inside, to someone who’s still living with the trauma of being impacted by incarceration. You know, this is why we do this work so that we don’t have to walk with this pain anymore.