Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Susannah

"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!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Natalie

"Of all the questions I receive about my prison experience, I probably get asked about Orange is the New Black the most. I read her book my first year in and can relate to the whole being-thrown-into-a-foreign-world thing, especially after having come from a relatively privileged life...but, for as much as we had in common...state prison (where I was) is a whole different animal compared to the federal system (where she was)." -Natalie Baker 

Who is Natalie Baker?
Recovering litigator/Fitness junkie/Travel enthusiast/Animal lover/Style maven/Aspiring author

And what is your current relationship with the criminal justice system?
In February 2010, I was given a 10-year sentence for (1st offense) DUI Serious Bodily Injury; 4 years prison, 6 probation.  I served 41 months in the Florida state penitentiary and am now into my third year of probation. 

So, what are you up to these days?
Currently, I am the Executive Relations Manager of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating prisoners and reducing Texas’ recidivism rate.  On the side, I have a prison consulting business, am a freelance writer for a company in San Diego, and perform legal research for several attorneys in the Dallas area.  And now, for some crazy reason, I’m taking an advanced memoir writing class for the book I hope to complete and publish one day.  I’m beginning to think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew!

Wow! Sounds like you’re keeping busy! I was lucky enough to attend a PEP event earlier this year, and it was such an incredible experience. How did you become involved with that program?
I was doing some research on prison reform for my consulting business, and PEP came up on one of my Google searches.   Seeing that it was based in my home state of Texas, I looked into it some more and was immediately intrigued.  There was an opening for what I considered the ideal position for me, so I applied, hopeful that my felony conviction would be considered an asset, rather than a burden.  Even though a part of me thought, “there’s no way anyone’s going to respond,” our Chief of Staff called me within the hour to set up an interview.  The rest is history!

Why do you think PEP is so successful?
I attribute our success to having an “inside/outside” approach – providing support to those while incarcerated and then after release – a combination not too many organizations provide.  Surviving a prison sentence is tough, but I’ve found that the transition back into the “free world” is no small feat, either.  By providing clothing, transitional housing, case management and job placement support to our men who’ve been released, they’re given a much better shot at success.  And it works:  our recidivism rate is 7%, compared to the national average of over 50%. 

During the PEP event, I couldn’t help but think a similar program could be greatly beneficial for women prisoners as well. Do you know if PEP is planning to expand to include women, and do you think that would be beneficial?
Hopefully, one day we will, because the need is definitely there.  Right now, though, we are concentrating on men, since they comprise about 93% of the Texas prison population.  In the near future, we hope to expand our program to additional prison facilities in order to accommodate more men.

Did you feel that there were a lot of women in prison similar to you?
The median education level in the Florida state prison system is 4-8th grade, so it was quite an adjustment in the beginning, living amongst grown women who couldn’t read or write.  But book smarts aside, prisoners, for the most part, are extremely talented, witty and personable, so I found that I could find things in common with almost anybody, even if I did come from a completely different background.

From what I know of your experience, you seem to have a lot in common with Piper Kerman (Author of Orange is the New Black). Do you agree?
Of all the questions I receive about my prison experience, I probably get asked about Orange is the New Black the most. I read her book my first year in and can relate to the whole being-thrown-into-a-foreign-world thing, especially after having come from a relatively privileged life.  I can also identify with the amazing people she befriended, because the bonds you make in there truly keep you going.  But, for as much as we had in common, our prison experiences weren’t identical by any means.  State prison (where I was) is a whole different animal compared to the federal system (where she was). 

How so?
If I remember correctly, Kerman was in one of the facilities where Martha Stewart was slated to serve her sentence.   She served her time around other non-violent individuals, was treated decently by guards, and at one point in her book, even made a comment about not having spinach in their Chow Hall’s salad bar one day.  Let’s just say it’s nothing like that in the state system – you are, literally, fighting to survive every day.  To me, her prison experience seemed more like she was at a summer camp for 13 months. 

If you could change one moment in your life prior to entering prison, what moment would it be?
The night of my car crash.  For years, I’ve dissected every moment of that night, asking myself, “What if I had done this?” or “Why didn’t I do that?” It’s a terrible feeling knowing that your actions caused someone else harm.  However, I’ve learned that dwelling on the past won’t change what has happened.  What I can do, moving forward, is work on bettering myself each day and make a positive impact on society by helping others with the time I have left.   

If you could effect change in one specific area of criminal justice reform, what would it be?
I think many in the system are over-sentenced, especially first-time non-violent offenders.  I believe that prison is a place designed for people who we’re scared of, not for those we’re mad at.  There are good (nonviolent) people in there serving unbelievably long sentences for a first-ever offense – and as a result, they’re coming back to society broken and damaged, faced with futures filled with sizeable hurdles.  I understand that if you break the law, there needs to be consequences – but I think some states take the punitive stance a little too far. 

And if you could go back to the day you went into prison, what advice would you give yourself?
That you’re going to survive this and be a better person because of it. 

Who was your closest friend in prison?
Who you share a cell with can make or break your prison stay.  During my 41 months down, I had dozens of “bunkies” – some who were godsends and some who were nightmares.  There are a handful who stand out; those who were my everything at one point in time.  I am a better person having met them, and actually keep in touch with a couple to this day.

Did you feel you received resources in prison that helped you prepare for life post-release?
The system doesn’t prepare you for freedom.  In prison, it’s a different way of life, and you have to adapt in order to survive.  When I got out, I found I’d forgotten how to function like a normal person in society – how to eat, how to sleep, how to make decisions on my own.   If I hadn’t found a good therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today.

Post-release, what have you found to be the most challenging?
Living with the felon label.  As a convicted felon, you are forever a second-class citizen, and the social stigma against you is a very real thing.  Basic civil liberties, housing and certain career paths – things that most of us take for granted – are suddenly off-limits.   Even with my law degree and MBA, it took me a year and a half to get a full-time job, a hardship I was entirely unprepared for.  For a time, I just wanted to go back to prison – because getting back on my feet again, all while being under the system’s thumb – felt nearly impossible. 

What was your darkest day in prison?
That’s a tough one.  I don’t know if there was one particular day that stands out, but the first two weeks in prison were definitely a dark period for me.  The shock of prison culture, in addition to the treatment, conditions and violence, made for a difficult transition.   Those first days passed by like months, and I was too terrified to cry or even speak.  But once I settled into routine and made friends, my sentence slowly started to feel not so hopeless. 

And does any one day you spent in prison stand out brighter than the rest?
Surprisingly, I had far more good days in there than bad.  One evening stands out, though.  I was about six months into my sentence, and my bunkie and I were discussing our dream weddings (ha!), when a group of friends yelled at me to come meet them at the Rec Yard.  As I grabbed my radio to head outside, I remember feeling a sense of belonging and thinking, “Wow.  I’ve really acclimated to this life.  Who would’ve thought?” 

I’m reminded of a quote:
“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”    ― Yann MartelLife of Pi
Natalie with her family. She credits this support system with helping her survive nearly four years in prison.

I’d like to extend a massive thank you to Natalie for sharing her story. I look forward to seeing what amazing things she does in the future!



Saturday, July 11, 2015

Doug

"The good and the bad mixed together to cause the trunk to spring up from the ground diagonally. The branches broke some windows and damaged the roof as the twisted tree grew up alongside the house.  I don’t break any windows anymore." -Douglas Smith



Who is Douglas Smith? 

When I was in high school, my classmates voted on the typical superlatives:  “Most likely to…Most Popular…Friendliest.”  They decided my personality deserved special recognition, so they created the Wally Cleaver Award, noting my consistently straight-laced behavior and earnest demeanor.  Ironically, none of my friends in prison would object to the award.  They always said that I would make a terrible criminal.  Yet, there I was in prison.  Obviously, Wally Cleaver never wound up in prison.  It took me years to let go of the notion that I was a good, straight laced person who fell victim to a physiological addiction.  Happy, well-adjusted people don’t use crack cocaine, and they don’t go on robbery sprees when the money runs out.  Often, the face you show to the world springs from a darker place.  I’d rather not waste my second chance at life showing a face to the world that doesn’t match what’s inside, even if that means I have to relinquish my high-school moniker.  I’m just a guy trying to stay sober, and to do something with my days that creates the opportunity for a second chance for someone else who made a mess of their first act.  I do it all imperfectly. I try to forgive myself for that.    

I disagree.

You disagree that I forgive myself?

No, I disagree that you do it all imperfectly. As someone lucky enough to work with you, I’ve seen first-hand how incredible dedicated and meticulous you are. We all at TCJC respect your work ethic so much. But, it seems to me you have trouble accepting praise. Do you agree?

Praise is alright [laughs]. 

So, what are you up to these days?

Wake in the morning, drink coffee, write, exercise (kind of a yoga, Pilates, interval training hybrid mess), meditate, drive to work, and try to turn work into play. I don’t like to call what I do during the day “work”.  I have my dream job.  It’s not something I ever would have found on my own.  In fact, the opportunity literally fell in my lap.  I get to advocate for people who made past mistakes.  I get to advocate for treatment instead of incarceration.  I get to show policy makers what recovery and rehabilitation look like, and give them reason to believe it’s possible.  I get to do everything that was always scary and challenging for me, like writing, researching, and public speaking.  Yet, I somehow find the words I need when I need them.  I don’t like to leave work, because it’s not “work” to me.  Who gets to say that about the thing they do every day?  When I finally leave my job, it’s often to attend a recovery meeting.  Sometimes, I give fellow addicts hope.  Most of the time, they are the ones helping me.  On the weekends, I hang out with my daughter.  It’s an amazing life for someone only one year out of prison. 

What makes you unique?

What makes me unique? It’s hard for me to say.  I can tell you what is unique about someone else, but not about myself.  It feels strange looking too closely in the mirror to see what stands out. Usually, it’s something that ought to be picked, trimmed, or plucked.  

I disagree. You are uniquely optimistic. But in terms of your life today being different than the average person only one year out of prison, why do you think that is? 

I’m not sure, because it’s not me. I was a volunteer at a crisis hotline in undergraduate, and there I met a woman who was helping the formerly incarcerated re-enter society. Something had gotten into her soul about helping incarcerated people. She had all these great, big ideas and she was the one who connected me with TCJC.  So after six years of doing nothing but wanting to recover, to live a life with some kind of meaning, authentic and real, things just happened. Good things happen to you when you’re connected with your calling.

And what is your current relationship with the criminal justice system?

I served 5.8 years on a 15 year sentence for four counts of 2nd degree robbery.  They paroled me onto the Super-Intensive Supervision Program, which is kind of like a modified house arrest.  I can work, run errands, and attend 12-step meetings.  I have to plan these activities two weeks in advance, and I wear a GPS monitor to ensure that I never deviate from my schedule.  I’m under review for removal from intensive supervision and placement onto a regular parole caseload.  I’ll be on parole until November, 2023. 

Wow. Until 2023?

Yeah, that's nothing compared to some. 

If you could change one moment in your life prior to entering prison, what moment would it be?

There are so many things I would change.  That’s a difficult question.  It’s not just about making a different decision at the time I committed the crimes that led me to prison, it’s about halting the downward slide into addiction altogether.  The seeds of addiction were planted long ago, and may also be genetic.  It might be the semester in college I discovered how alcohol and drugs diminish my potential.  I would have reached out for help right then.  No one gets over addiction without help. 

You've always been very open about your experiences with substance abuse and addiction. Has your experience shaped how you look at the criminal justice system?

Certainly. If it's up to me, no one will ever go to prison for possession.  No one will ever be revoked on probation or parole for failing a UA.  Addiction will be seen as a disease, not a crime, and good treatment will be available to those who want it.  Even those who commit crimes to feed their addiction will receive compassion in far greater measure than consequences.

And if you could go back to the day you went into prison, what advice would you give yourself?

Don’t make friends with anyone until you see their friends and learn how they spend their down time. It’s hard to break away from a negative character who wants to pull you down, especially when you are locked in the same cell block together.  Stay with the winners.  Just watch for a while.  You’ll see who they are. 

So your friends played an important role in your prison experience?

Yes. No one supports you like a friend in prison.  Your friends in prison know the truth about you and accept you anyway.  You don’t have to hide your imperfections around them.  They pray with you – no one prays with you in the free world.  When you’re feeling down, your friends in prison listen with an expression on their faces that tell you they genuinely understand what you are feeling.  When you finally make parole, they stand near the exit to the unit so that they can say goodbye one more time. 

Did you feel that there were a lot of guys in prison similar to you?

Hell no. It was painfully lonely. I had to learn to be interested in people; interested in people from different cultures and backgrounds who often didn’t have anything in common with my background. And it was as hard for them as it was for me.

Who was your closest friend in prison?

I had several close friends.  Jag, my 12-step sponsor became like a father to me, especially after my own father died.  He’s in his 70’s, and looks like the retired aluminum siding salesman he was in  the free world.  Kevin is a few years younger than me.  He came from a good home, and was President of Baptist Student Ministry in College.  Few people could relate with me in the way that Kevin could, understanding painfully well how the things we hide inside eventually make their way to the surface.  Porter and I had nothing in common, but he knew how to be a supportive friend.  We’d pool our resources to make giant bowls of nachos on Saturday nights.  We’d tell each other stories about our lives, and marveled about how different we were from one another.  I always said I’d name my next dog after him. I hope he understood that I meant it as a compliment.  Don’t make me name just one closest friend. 

It sounds like you built up a good support system, but I'm sure the days were still very difficult. What was your darkest day in prison?

The day my father died. 

And does any one day you spent in prison stand out brighter than the rest?

I became a trustee after serving about 3.5 years.  I worked for a mechanical department that managed the fleet of gas-powered vehicles. The department supervised a satellite shop at a unit two-hours away, and they would transport vehicles between the shops. They got approval for me to renew my driver’s license so that I could help with transport from time to time.  My brightest day of prison was driving a pickup truck with a horse trailer hitched to the back, by myself (my boss drove another vehicle and I followed him), windows down, Johnny Cash singing on the radio, traveling down a country road north of Huntsville.  That was a very good day.  You were expecting me to say the day that I learned about my parole, huh?  That was a bright moment for about 15 minutes, and then the anxiety about the unknown gripped me for weeks.  No, I’ll pick the Johnny Cash pickup day, because I can still feel the air on my face as I drove down those shaded East-Texas roads, sun glimmering through the branches hanging over the road, singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” along with Johnny.  I think he’d probably pick that day, too.  

For you personally, what was the most difficult part of re-entering society?



Speaking of the crippling unknown that comes with re-entry, did you receive resources in prison that helped you prepare for life post-release?

By the time I completed 5.8 years, I had a very large stack of program certificates.  I took everything available to me from chapel-based programming to Windham rehabilitative classes.  I took classes from Lee College.  I had OJT certificates from Texas Correctional Industries.  I never missed a 12-step meeting.  I had a mentor and was a mentor to others.  I tried to do something every day that would create a solid foundation upon which to build a life after prison.  It would be very difficult to point to one resource as pivotal.  It was the combination and consistency that made the difference.  It was also finding a supportive group of friends who were similarly committed to living a different kind of life. 

What advice would you give to someone preparing for the release of a loved one from prison?

Give it time.  Go slow.  Keep social events to a minimum.  Stay focused on helping your loved one to meet parole conditions and find a job.  The edge will wear off on its own.  Don’t expect things to go back to “normal”.  The new “normal” will be better than you imagined.  Just take it slow. 

Okay, lightening round questions. Post-release, what have you found to be the most humorous?

Listening to people who have never been to prison evaluate what they could have done differently when things don’t go as they planned, and take credit when things do go right.  In prison, you learn how little control you have over events in your life.  All you can do is wake up each day and try to do your best, and let the same mysterious force that set you free from prison take care of the rest.   

How about the most challenging?

Not allowing discouragement to set in after months of rejection.  My 12-step sponsor reminded me that discouragement is just another word for self-pity. 

And lastly, the most surprising?

Marvelous and unforeseen things happen to you when you don’t give in to discouragement.  The job I have now is nothing short of a miracle.  The volunteers in prison assured me that all the bad of my past would be turned to good one day.  They were right.

I'd like to thank Douglas Smith for being my guinea pig and first blog guest. I met Doug in January when I came to work for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. I was immediately swept up by his contagious optimism. He is an incredibly hard working and passionate advocate for criminal justice reform, and I am honored to call him a dear friend.  I'm currently trying to convince him to start his own blog, so stay tuned. I will post the link to his blog here if I can ever persuade him to create it. Trust me, he has so much more to say :) 


UPDATED: Doug has given in, and started his own blog! Read it by clicking here!



Monday, July 6, 2015

What is this?

This is a blog series dedicated to the humanization of formerly incarcerated individuals.

As an intern for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, I have been so privileged to work alongside some wonderful people who just so happen to be formerly system involved. During this time, I've gotten to know them. This blog series was born out of a desire for you to know them too.

If all goes as planned, each blog post will feature a different person's story about their life after prison. There will be humor, sadness, obscenity, joy, regret, faith, and more- as is the human experience. Most of all, there will be truth. Unfiltered and unveiled, I hope to provide you with an intimate glance at a population of people too often forgotten.

These are their stories.

*queue the Law and Order theme music