"If, at the cultural level, we began to view the criminal justice system differently in terms of purpose/goal (using a rehabilitative rather than punitive lens) and shifted our treatment of people who are involved in the system from permanently damaged goods to human beings who are valuable members of society that also happened to break the law, I would be happy."
Who is Susannah Bannon?
Ph.D. student, feminist, advocate/activist/agitator, teacher, dog-mom, friend, daughter, sister, aunt, smart aleck, idealist, mountain biker, rock climber, nap taker.
So, what are you up to these days?
I just started my second year as a doctoral student at UT, so that keeps me pretty (ridiculously) busy. I’ve recently gotten involved with some non-profit organizations that advocate for reentry programming and the housing and employment of former offenders in Austin and Travis County. In my “free” time I ride my mountain bike whenever I can, hang out with my awesome three-legged dog, Barnaby, and laugh as much as humanly possible.
And what is your current relationship with the criminal justice system?
I’m dedicated to working toward its reform.
I’ve been reading up on gender disparities in sentencing lately. Data and statistics aside, do you feel that your sentence was more or less harsh than it would have been if you were male?
That’s a good question. I received the minimum prison sentences for my crimes. To be fair, I wasn’t doing myself any favors by getting arrested while on probation for a previous crime of the same type (I went to prison for two felony DWIs) and my judge was tired of seeing me in his courtroom. I was fortunate with my sentencing. HOWEVER, I think women in general are always treated differently when charged with any substance abuse-related crimes because they are held to different standards of decorum in our culture. The attitude is kind of like, “How unladylike of you to be an addict/alcoholic/DWI or drug offender!”
Did you feel that there were a lot of women in prison similar to you?
Similar in what sense—in that I have a chemical dependency diagnosis? Yep. That I have a history of trauma and abuse? Definitely. That I have (still working on this one) low self esteem and struggle to see my own value in the world? Absolutely.
If you could change one moment in your life prior to entering prison, what moment would it be?
I would have been better to my family. I remember seeing them when they visited me in Harris County Jail before I signed for my time and thinking to myself, “My god, they look so old. And it is thanks to me.” I regret what they endured as a result of my insanity during the height of my alcoholism.
If you could go back to the day you went into prison, what advice would you give yourself?
Don’t let this place/these people (TDCJ/TDCJ employees) define how you think about yourself.
Who was your closest friend in prison?
I had two girls who I would “vent” to, but I mostly kept to myself. My mom was definitely my biggest ally.
What was your darkest day in prison?
About six months into my sentence, a previously undiagnosed health condition (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) began to wreak havoc on my body. I sent sick call after sick call, was seen by providers who did not feel my condition required treatment (even though my “boss” had sent me to the clinic because she was concerned about me) and ultimately my family began to call administrators to complain about me not receiving treatment. I was in nearly constant pain, had no energy, my hair was falling out, and yet I was helpless. I was terrified that I was going to die in there. That may sound dramatic, but that was my reality.
And does any one day you spent in prison stand out brighter than the rest?
On October 1, 2010 I found out I was going home on October 4, 2010. That was a pretty good day.
Did you feel you received resources in prison that helped you prepare for life post-release?
No, I don’t. I got my “street ready papers” so I could identify myself but I did not receive any treatment for my obvious and admitted addiction to alcohol, which was and still is completely ridiculous, in my humble opinion. Sobriety for the addict/alcoholic is a primary determinant of success after prison.
Post-release, what have you found to be the most challenging?
Barriers to employment and housing, without a doubt.
Post-release, is there anything that people say to you/ask you that you wish they wouldn’t?
I don’t mind people asking questions. My hope is that by sharing my story I can help shift the narrative that keeps the formerly incarcerated in a subaltern position in society. I wish people asked more questions of the formerly incarcerated rather then assuming they understand anything about their experiences.
Thank you so much, Susannah, for sharing your story!
Full disclosure: the above interview was conducted nearly a year ago. At the time, I was finishing my final year of law school, and The Place Beyond the Bars, unfortunately, was placed on the back-burner. But now that law school is finished (hallelujah!), I'm picking up where I left off. I hope you've enjoyed this series so far. Stick around, because there are plenty more stories to come!