On an overcast autumn morning, 21-year-old Joey Fiala sits on a sprawl of sleeping bags and blankets, watching Colorado’s prolonged summer yield to winter. Fiala, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, is among a group of homeless people who gather most days in Jefferson Park on the north end of the Old Town Square section in Fort Collins. Here, a grassy lot sidles up to a busy railroad track and serves as a sort of daytime rest stop for folks without shelter. The men and women socialize and sneak catnaps in between hustling for cash and shuttling around the community to make use of its spread-out resources. When night falls, however, residents without shelter rush to get out of sight. Groups disperse and individuals head off in pairs or on their own.
Fort Collins, a college town at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills, prohibits practices such as loitering, “misuse of public waters,” and “camping or pitching a tent without permission.” Being homeless here necessitates invisibility, and consequently, isolation. Things that offer safety and even comfort at night—tents or multi-person encampments—make hiding difficult, and often land homeless people in jail.
“I’ve been to jail twice for camping,” Fiala says between swigs of coffee and bites of a doughnut, pulling his jacket tight around his small frame.
“I’ve been in for camping and for trespassing,” chimes in Steve, who doesn’t give his last name. A dad with a perfect goatee and cheeks rosy from the incoming chill, Steve hesitates to offer more. But others in the group nod in agreement.
“Yeah, I got ticketed twice for sleeping under the Linden Street Bridge,” Fiala says, jumping back in. “I was sick, sleeping on a mattress under the bridge, and they woke me up and gave me a ticket. I balled it up and threw it in their face. ‘F— you! I’m not gonna pay that. I can’t pay that.’ So I ended up in jail for failure to appear.”
Recent years have seen a surge of policing efforts throughout Colorado targeting those without shelter. Numerous communities have banned panhandling, camping, or sleeping in cars on public property. Loitering and trespassing laws prevent homeless individuals from having a safe place to rest—or options for washing up or using a bathroom. Violators face fines of $100 or more, an expense that quickly adds up for repeat offenders, landing many with warrants and, eventually, jail time. (Officials in Fort Collins have said they are looking into proposals that would allow people to sleep outside in certain places.)
Fiala has been homeless about three years, or pretty much his entire adult life. When he first moved to Fort Collins with his then-girlfriend, they slept in their car. “But,” he sputters, in sequential bursts of frustration, “she cheated on me….She wrecked [our car].” He dunks a doughnut in his rapidly cooling cup of coffee and shudders. “You got a cigarette?”
Wes Hammond, a middle-aged man who has been listening quietly, suddenly plunges into the exchange. Hammond has been homeless on and off for much of his life. Born in Kentucky, he lived briefly in Tennessee before heading west. “I hitchhiked for three days to Colorado and this guy picked me up, asked if I wanted to work on a ranch,” he says. “So I did, up in the mountains, but I got tired of that, so I built a bike and I rode it off that mountain.”
He arrived in Fort Collins in 2010, initially finding stability in a relationship. When that “blew up” a year ago, he found himself back on the streets.
“I’ve had three camping tickets, two trespassing tickets, open container, parks violation, and urinating in public,” he claims. “My fines come to $2,009….I just got out of jail last night. Just one night this time. Failure to appear. Tacked on a $50 fine.” He takes a drag off the spliff that’s been floating around the circle and shakes his head ruefully. “I won’t be able to pay it. And all my stuff’s there at the police station. I can’t get to it.”
Steve, eyeing the joint, chimes in once more. “You better be careful with that. We may be in Colorado, but our house doesn’t have any walls,” he says, referring to the state’s legalization of marijuana use in private, but not in public spaces. As with open alcohol containers and intoxication, smoking cannabis is permitted only for those with the means to do so behind some sort of closed door. Individuals who lack shelter automatically miss out on key benefits afforded by seclusion. The very invisibility they seek when scattering at night is almost impossible to come by without the security of a safe and private place to rest.
* * *
Almost 70 miles away in Denver, it’s a very different scene at a not-so-different park. On the night of October 24, 2015, a group of homeless individuals and their supporters planted themselves in Sustainability Park. Led by Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), a grassroots activist organization, the volunteers had spent several days building “a tiny-home village to be occupied and managed by houseless people.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that nearly 10,000 Coloradans were homeless on a given night in January 2015. Advocates note that these point-in-time surveys—volunteers attempt to count individuals in shelters and on the streets on a single night—tend to result in drastic underestimates. The methods make it easy to “miss” those who are homeless short term, temporarily institutionalized, doubled-up with friends, not engaged with resources, or effectively hidden from authorities. However, the numbers do tell us that, while national homelessness has declined since 2013, in Colorado it has remained steady, even seeing a slight increase. More specifically, Denver’s point-in-time data show a consistent upward trend in metro-area homelessness since 2011, from 3,007 to 3,978. According to the “No Right to Rest” report, “shelter beds are available for only about 10%” of Denver’s homeless population.
Nonetheless, Denver and other jurisdictions across the state continue to propose bills and implement policies that make it more difficult to survive on the streets. Denver has not only banned camping but also the use of a variety of items for shelter, including tents, cardboard, and newspapers. In the midst of this citywide dearth of affordable housing, DHOL’s tiny homes were designed to provide much-needed shelter. But when 70 police officers, including a SWAT team, descended, Resurrection Village quickly became a protest site.
Police confiscated the tiny homes and as people scattered, 10 were arrested, including DHOL volunteer Ray Lyall. Originally from California, Lyall moved to Colorado in the 1980s to be closer to family and get a fresh start. Now 57, he has been homeless since a botched construction deal two years ago left him unable to pay rent.
Lyall finds the city’s shelters too loud, too dirty, and too full of drama to rest; he prefers to sleep outside.
Lyall’s arrest for trying to live in Resurrection Village racked up consequences of its own. “I was the last one out of jail,” he says. “I had to go to court three days after I got out of jail and I’ve gotta go to court again next week and it’s gonna last a long time…$25 for a public defender, $25 for a jury trial, and they’re gonna have to waive it. I’ve told everybody possible, ‘I’m homeless. I have no money.’ If they wanna say I can’t have a jury trial, great. That’ll look better for me. I’m homeless so I can’t have a jury trial. I can’t afford your system.”
* * *
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, three-quarters of homeless people in the United States don’t know of a safe and legal place to sleep. With few, often inadequate, beds to meet the growing need, homeless residents by default carry the double burden of being poor and being criminal. In places like Fort Collins, where a 2015 point-in-time survey revealed a 4 percent rise in homelessness, if they can’t stay out of sight, they will be ticketed.
Since most are unable to afford the sanctions, tickets equal jail time. “The thing is, they’ll always take you [to jail] because you can’t pay the fines,” says Joey Fiala.
And though Fort Collins has taken steps to reduce the consequences of the legislation that criminalizes homelessness, some worry these approaches gloss over the real problem.
A year ago, the Municipal Court introduced Special Agency sessions to address so-called “quality of life violations” in a “compassionate, resourceful manner.” Homeless defendants charged with various offenses may be referred for alternative sentencing. But Fort Collins Homeless Coalition’s Cheryl Distaso argues, “This erases the question of whether or not that person should even have gotten a ticket in the first place.”
Two days before Thanksgiving, Michael “Miguel” Wheeler serves dinner at Jefferson Park, as he has nearly every Tuesday since getting off the streets himself. The lawn bustles all afternoon with chatter and laughter as homeless folks fill their bellies, sip hot coffee, and stock up on brand new socks. But once darkness descends, people ready to head their separate ways for the night. A young couple turns north, starting the several-mile march beyond city limits, where it’s legal to pitch a tent if you avoid private property. Old-timers who’ve been living outside for decades attach loaded-down carts to rusty bicycles—houses on wheels. Others seem to disappear into the fading light of dusk. Invisible.
“When the sun goes down, it’s time to go to sleep,” Fiala says. Still, he adds, “every time they find us, they’re gonna give a ticket.”
* * *
Stacey McKenna is a freelance journalist in northern Colorado. She covers travel, adventure, and social justice. Visit her website or follow her @mckenna_stacey.
Benjamin Rasmussen is a freelance photographer based in Denver, Colorado. He spent his childhood with an indigenous group on an island in the southern Philippines, his university years with evangelicals in a small town in northern Arkansas, and a year with the descendants of Vikings in the Faroe Islands, a nation of 45,000 residents in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Jeff Rosen’s job is to reduce crime and protect public safety. Yet he thinks that putting people in jail and prisons should be a last resort.
The second-term District Attorney of Santa Clara County, California, Rosen calls himself a reform-minded DA and is no stranger to controversy. After a razor-thin election that unseated the incumbent in 2010, the reforms Rosen has championed—including reducing penalties for certain crimes—have displeased some colleagues in law enforcement, while others have called him courageous.
The following videos of DA Rosen talking about innovations in Santa Clara County illustrates some ways that prosecutors can aim to reduce the use of jail incarceration even as they protect public safety.
1. When the Time Doesn’t Match the Crime
California recently passed Proposition 47, reducing many nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, consequentially releasing thousands of inmates. Many California DAs opposed the law, arguing that it would make communities less safe, while Rosen and a handful of others supported it, asserting that many low-level offenders are incarcerated for too long.
“We have to draw a distinction between people that we are angry at and people that we are afraid of.”
2. Stopping Victims from Becoming Criminals
Santa Clara County’s Victim Services Unit takes a long-term approach to crime prevention, by working to prevent families and individuals affected by crime from falling into a dangerous cycle.
“If perhaps we had done a better job when that person was the victim of a crime and we provided them services and tried to help them recover from their trauma and get back on their feet, that they may not then have gone on to commit a crime.”
3. Driving While Undocumented
An estimated 10 percent of Santa Clara County’s population is made up of undocumented immigrants, and a new policy aims to reduce deportations that result from minor infractions.
“It’s not fair for someone to be deported for driving on a suspended license or for doing a shoplifting.”
4. Justice Goes Both Ways
In September 2015, the DA’s office charged three correctional officers with the murder of a mentally ill inmate at Santa Clara County Main Jail—a surprising move given that correctional officers are rarely prosecuted.
“We’re not quite living up to the ideal that we have as Americans about human dignity and about how to treat our fellow human beings.”
5. Transparency Tactics
Eliminating the use of secretive grand juries in cases when police officers are involved with civilian fatalities may be a way to increase public trust.
“People can, of course, disagree with my decision. But I think in a democracy everyone’s entitled to the information upon which I made that decision.”
6. Never Too Late To Correct a Mistake—Or Too Early to Prevent One
Santa Clara County’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, charged with investigating cases of wrongful conviction, has exonerated several people previously convicted of crimes, and also informs attempts to minimize wrongful conviction in the future.
“It’s absolutely essential for every DA’s office to have a conviction integrity unit. We want the public to have faith and confidence in our convictions.”
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Alexandra Nikolchev, documentary filmmaker, and Zara Katz, photo editor, producer and director of photography at Narratively, are the team behind Hot in Here Productions. They turn concepts and facts into compelling stories for documentary and branded content.
etite, with thick-framed glasses and short, stylish hair, Judge Desiree Charbonnet has an upbeat, officious manner appropriate for someone who presides over a courtroom. During her eight years on the bench, she has cultivated efficiency to deal with the thousands of cases that land in her court. But recently, the judge has had more empathy toward those who appear before her. She has taken the time to learn more about certain types of repeat defendants, including those charged with prostitution or who have mental illness and substance use issues, to better understand not how to sentence them, but what approaches might keep them out of the criminal justice system—rather than on an endless cycle in and out of jail.
This shift is in part about recognizing the humanity in people who appear in her court, but also about getting better results. When it comes to nonviolent misdemeanors, many studies show that high incarceration rates for those charges “have really not done anything for public safety,” Judge Charbonnet says. Jail time does not effectively deter certain crimes rooted in social issues like addiction, poverty or mental illness. The judge has been a front-row witness to cycles of arrest, missed court dates, unpaid fines and fees, and incarceration that lead many individuals to appear before her time after time.
Responding to this, New Orleans courts, like many others around the country, are shifting away from incarcerating people charged with nonviolent offenses. But to take root, this shift requires a significant change in thinking, and that mind-set is hard to come by in the daily grind of a municipal court already bogged down with enormous caseloads.
A major part of this shift is something called diversion court. It’s a concept that diverts defendants who meet specific eligibility requirements away from the criminal justice system and toward supportive services to help curb the underlying problems or behaviors. As part of the process, defendants’ charges may be dismissed.
Judge Charbonnet first got involved in creating new diversion court programs as part of the New Orleans task force of the American Bar Association’s Racial Justice Improvement Project. The group’s members believe that diversion programs have “a profound racial impact by ensuring more minorities are diverted from the system.”
Judge Charbonnet led the charge to start a diversion court for mental illness in 2014, partnering with the city’s health department for a two-year pilot. She had seen the city’s mentally ill repeatedly arrested and incarcerated on nonviolent offenses, then caught in a cycle of missed court dates or unpaid fines and fees that led to more arrests and jail time.
“Jail is not the right place for the mentally ill, clearly,” she says.
But Judge Charbonnet’s court didn’t have the resources to connect people with social services, get them into treatment programs, or follow up with caregivers or social agencies that could keep these defendants out of the criminal justice system. Two new federal grants helped create the Community Alternatives Program to help with that. Defendants are referred by their public defenders, then a screener and a system of service providers step in to assess each individual’s eligibility and connect people with whatever they might need—from getting into treatment or on medication to being connected with Medicaid coverage or housing.
Long-term funding remains unclear, but the Community Alternatives Program could pay for itself in savings to the public, Judge Charbonnet told the New Orleans City Council. “When you look at that one person with 20 arrests a year, taking that one person out of the system makes a huge difference,” she says.
In 2014, in partnership with Women With a Vision and the Orleans Public Defenders Office, the judge started a diversion court for people arrested on prostitution charges. Called Crossroads, the program aims to help those stuck in the cycle of prostitution, arrest, and incarceration—without requiring guilty pleas—by offering a community of support tailored to each person’s needs and experiences. That might mean one-on-one or group counseling, job training, or help finding health care or housing. The program is run by Women With a Vision with private funds they raise to provide services and supplies for participants; in its first year, 52 women completed the program, out of 77 deemed eligible.
The success of such diversion programs depends largely on whether the defendants are assigned to Judge Charbonnet’s section and if she is then able to engage them. An encouraging, empathetic judge offering a court-approved path of assistance sends the message that the system is on their side. Conversely, she says, when people facing criminal charges are afraid of court, they often don’t show up. Warrants go out for their arrest and their cases continue to bog down the system.
Pay close attention to Judge Charbonnet’s fast-moving roll of cases and you see that she handles diversion court defendants differently. On the day of the Crossroads diversion court, a number of women walk to the stand, one after another. Most of the accused represent themselves, although a case manager stands at their side. The judge peers over her glasses to make eye contact.
“Ma’am, in connection with your charge, I understand you’d like to participate in our program,” says Judge Charbonnet.
‘Your charge,’ she says. No mention of what that charge is.
“Because as soon as you say ‘prostitution’ everyone in the courtroom is looking to see who it is and what does she look like.” Judge Charbonnet explains later. “You know, it just raises eyebrows. So I thought I’d eliminate that immediately.”
This small change aims to make the women feel more comfortable, supported.
“What I’m trying to do in the very moment that they deal with me is remove some of that stigma or embarrassment that they’ve experienced in the past,” she says. “I’m the judge, but I’m not judging you. I don’t look down on you.”
Language is important. Those in Judge Charbonnet’s diversion court are not “hereby ordered to appear” on a given date. The tone and words sound more like checking in.
“I’m counting on you that you’ll come back and see me,” she says, explaining her approach in her chambers, a slight smile lifting her eyebrows. “I need to know how you’re doing.”
Crossroads works with participants and connects them to other services. After an initial arrest and up to 48 hours of detention in Orleans Parish Prison, defendants enter Judge Charbonnet’s court. Women With a Vision caseworker Michelle Wiley stands before her and motions to the women to step up as their names are called. There’s no break or announcement to flag that this diversion court is anything other than standard procedure.
A thin woman with long wavy brown-and-gray hair walks up. She’s doing well, Wiley says. The woman smiles. The judge asks if she can finish the program in the next month and graduate. She thinks she can. “Keep going,” the judge says. “Keep it up.”
Jee Park, Deputy District Defender for Orleans Parish, says the amount of time sex workers usually spend in jail is ridiculous. Defendants who plead guilty to prostitution charges face fines of about $300, an amount too great for most to pay. Judges often sentence repeat defendants with incarceration instead of offering probation, landing them in jail 50 days on average. That long in jail “means you lose your housing, lose any other job you might have had,” Park says. “So you get out and of course you’ll go back to what you were doing.”
Judge Charbonnet can’t offer the new approach to everyone. Crossroads diversion court participants can’t be on probation or have a recent conviction for a violent crime; the district attorney must agree to let them participate; and they need a local address to prove they can attend counseling sessions over time.
Judge Charbonnet has had to calibrate her own expectations as she’s come to better understand the complexities behind the behaviors and lives of many repeat defendants. It’s not 12 sessions and then all “rosy, sunny day,” she says. Individuals may enroll in the Community Alternatives Program or Crossroads and still wind up back in court, and she understands that. They may have to be diverted a second time or even more. But that does not deter her from praising their efforts at every step.
In court, Judge Charbonnet makes a big deal when a woman completes Crossroads and gets her charges dismissed.
She deliberately calls it “graduation.” Many of these women have never had any type of formal ceremony for completing anything, she says. The judge prints a certificate for each woman. She just bought a stack of frames, so the women have something more substantial to hold on to.
She presents the certificate to each woman in court and then begins to clap. Her staff claps, too.
“And generally, when the staff starts clapping, the rest of the courtroom starts clapping,” says Judge Charbonnet. “Some of them may not even know why they’re clapping. But for that individual that just graduated, that’s a room full of people clapping for them.”
* * *
Eve Troeh is a writer and radio reporter based in New Orleans. She is the news director of NPR affiliate WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter@evetroeh and follow WWNO on Instagram @wwno_fm.
Edmund D. Fountain is an editorial and commercial photographer living in New Orleans who specializes in environmental portraiture and reportage.
Striking and animated in a gray suit and heels, Mary Grace Ruden strides through the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. She moves quickly, comfortably, talking with everyone in the courthouse, from janitors to opposing counsel, as if they had roomed together in college.
But then she’ll say something like how, in any given criminal case, “The facts are what they are. They’re not superfluous, exactly, but they are kind of tangential.” That’s when I’m reminded that disarmament is a great way to win a battle.
After graduating from the prestigious University of Texas School of Law, she spent a decade in private practice and was profiled twice by Texas Monthly in its annual issue on “Super Lawyers.” She made fantastic money and had her pick of interesting cases. Yet when the Harris County Public Defender’s Office started in 2010, she gave up her lucrative corporate career to work in a small sunny office on the 13th floor of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. Like all public defenders, she is assigned cases based on whatever comes through the courts. Despite the cramped working conditions and heavy caseload, Ruden lights up when she talks about her clients.
Ruden works with all clients who are assigned to the public defender’s office and have a severe mental illness. Many of them also struggle with addiction and most, if not all, have lengthy criminal histories. They are perhaps the hardest demographic to defend successfully, not because of their problems per se, but because those problems make them the group least likely to do the two things Ruden needs most: to show up for court and not plead guilty.
On a sunny Thursday in November, photographer Patrick Michels and I followed Ruden on her lively rounds, hustling to keep up with what she apologetically called a “very light day.”
1. “The sickest of the sick”
It’s 9 a.m. and Ruden is prepping for court. Most days she has at least a few clients scheduled and gets more assigned on the fly, but this morning the opposite happens. One of the two defendants she expected to represent has hired a private attorney. This leaves her to dig into the file of the client we’ll call Mr. G.
“The gentleman is accused of theft,” she says. The state claims Mr. G and a friend conspired to steal scratch-off lottery tickets from a convenience store where the friend worked behind the counter. But despite the store owner telling police Mr. G’s role in the $200 scam was minimal, prosecutors are focusing on him.
Ruden says this happens a lot. “You have to understand, I get all my people because they have a [psychiatric] diagnosis and they’re on medication. So they can be perfectly capable and competent, but they’re probably easily manipulated.”
The clients who end up on Ruden’s docket rarely have a clean slate. The Harris County Public Defender’s Office uses an algorithm based on past convictions, as well as other factors, to analyze defendants as they enter the system and identify “the sickest of the sick,” according to Ruden. “That becomes our docket.” Mr. G has been identified by the algorithm several times already.
Still reading Mr. G’s file, she frowns. “I bet you money that the guy who didn’t get arrested doesn’t have a criminal record. My client does. When the police show up and start running names, the guy that’s been [in jail] before gets to go again.”
2.“Time is our friend”
On the way downstairs, Ruden discusses the one advantage she and Mr. G do enjoy: he’s out on bond.
Many defendants can’t scrape together the money to bail out of jail, so they’ll take a plea to anything that gets them out and back to their jobs and families, even if they’re innocent. Ruden says this is especially true of her clients. “The homeless population, poor population, mentally ill population—none of them have clean criminal backgrounds. They would rather be free than worry about fighting a charge, so they’re willing to plead guilty to anything.”
If Ruden’s clients can’t afford their bail and won’t plead guilty, they’re likely to be stuck in pretrial detention—that is, jail—for weeks or even months while they await trial. In many cases, defendants who maintain their innocence will spend much longer in pretrial lockup than if they had pleaded guilty and served a short jail sentence. It’s a system that encourages guilty pleas, especially for the poor, whether they’re guilty or not.
But if Ruden’s clients are out on bond, she says, “they give me the luxury of doing my job: defending the case and holding the state to its proof. It’s so fun when we actually get to do it!”
In this instance, prosecutors claim to have security camera footage of Mr. G at the convenience store. Ruden isn’t taking their word for it. Once she gets the footage and scrutinizes the rest of the state’s evidence, she plans to ask for the charges to be dismissed. If that doesn’t happen, she’ll ask for the case to be “reset,” or adjourned to give her another few weeks to prepare for trial—and to wear down the prosecution’s resolve.
“In misdemeanor land, if they’re on bond, we do a lot of resetting,” Ruden says. “No state’s case ever got better with time. Time is our friend.”
3.“Any number of reasons”
Yes, time is on the defendant’s side—unless he’s late for court.
When Ruden arrives, her client is nowhere in sight. What’s worse, the court coordinator has already called docket, making Mr. G not merely late but unlawfully absent. His file now sits in the stack with those of other defendants who did not appear in court and whose bonds will be revoked. Unless Ruden can intervene, Mr. G is going to lose his money and his freedom, and she will lose her most effective leverage: time.
None of this shows up on Ruden’s face as she breezes among the prosecutors, chatting. After one hands her a CD-ROM in a paper sleeve, Ruden makes a beeline for the elevators.
“He could still be downstairs trying to get in,” she says. “He could have just missed docket call. So what I need to do is track back up to my office and find whatever phone number he put on his bonding information. That’s what we’re going to call to see if we can get him up here today.”
If Ruden succeeds, Mr. G’s bond still might be revoked. A judge has total control over the fate of a defendant who misses docket call, no matter the circumstances that caused his or her tardiness. But if Ruden fails, bond definitely will be taken away.
“He may have a sick child,” she says. “There could be any number of reasons he’s not here. If I can get the reason, we can ask the judge to reinstate the bond. The reality is, this is somebody whose case probably should get dismissed. But if he were in custody, he would have pled by now, just to get out.”
4. “Cross your fingers”
Back in her office, Ruden digs out Mr. G’s bond paperwork, looking for contact information. “Cross your fingers,” she says. “This is a big bond, by the way—a $2,500 bond, which means he had to part with at least $250, plus collateral. So we also have an economic interest in finding him.”
We, she says, as if her own money were on the line.
She squints at the paper. “And I can’t read the phone number. Gonna take a flying stab at this digit….” She dials. “Disconnected. Okay, I’ll take guesses now. Come tell me what you think this number is.”
It looks like a star. “Four?” I venture.
This is one of several moments when someone else would get frustrated or discouraged, but Ruden doesn’t miss a beat. She keeps dialing, guessing other numbers. When that fails, Ruden calls in the big guns: the bond company. “They’ll help because they’ve got a financial interest,” she says. If Mr. G doesn’t turn up soon, they could be out more than $2,000.
5. “This ain’t what you think it is”
While she waits for the bond company to call her back, Ruden does a little work on Mr. G’s case.
She pops a disc into her laptop. “This is the video I was just given,” she says. For the half second it takes to load, Ruden seems tense. Then a male voice says, “Yeah, we got a vehicle pulled over at East and 13th. The driver is heavily intoxicated.”
It’s not video of a convenience store. It’s audio of a traffic stop.
“I guarantee the DA has not listened to this or he wouldn’t have given it to me,” Ruden says.
“Yeah, I’m pulled over in that restaurant parking lot,” the man drawls. “Okay, thanks. I appreciate it.”
That’s the end.
“This is the state’s proof on a theft case?” Ruden sits for a moment in stunned glee. “It’s not proof of anything for anybody, let alone this case and my client.”
It’s possible the police department gave the wrong disc to the prosecutor, who passed it on to Ruden sight unseen. Or perhaps someone was betting Mr. G’s court-appointed lawyer would have him plead guilty without reviewing the disc. Whatever happened, it’s clear the state’s evidence doesn’t incriminate Mr. G.
She shakes her head. “I wish we could get ahold of my client, because, factually, I think this is one of the cases where we got ’em. We’ll take a turn by the DA to tell them, ‘This ain’t what you think it is.’ If Mr. G were here, they might dismiss it today. The fact that he’s not, I know that they won’t.”
6.“I really love this guy”
While waiting for the bond company to call back with a number for Mr. G, Ruden studies the latest reports on her clients who are in a specialized probation program. Ruden is part of a team that works with defendants in the Harris County Felony Mental Health Court, where the program lasts up to three years and demands frequent court appearances, drug tests, and engagement in programming such as therapy and job training. But all this rigor is meant to be supportive.
“It’s really designed to get you to succeed,” Ruden says. “Relapsing is not going to get you [kicked] out. For the most part, new law violations are not going to be an automatic out. Everybody’s different and there will always be things to work on, but if you’re willing to work, to show up and try and be accountable when you fall short, by and large, you’re going to be successful.”
Ruden is sifting through a sheaf of her clients’ toxicology results. “The people that have done everything that’s expected of them will be All Stars,” Ruden says, referring to the court’s list of defendants who are succeeding in the program. “The people who haven’t won’t be. Those with more significant issues, like new cases or positive drug results, may or may not go into custody.”
Two of her probationers are already in custody, jailed on new charges. Ruden will visit them this afternoon and then attend a meeting, before court convenes, to discuss all of the probationers’ progress.
Looking at one client’s file, Ruden grins. “This fella is doing well,” she says. “He’s one of my favorite clients, because he’s not a young man. He’s in his late 50s. But when he pled into the court, he told the judge, ‘It’s not how you begin. It’s how you end.’ And I thought, ‘I really love this guy.’ ”
Moments later the phone rings. It’s the bond company with a number for Mr. G.
Ruden trails off, lost in the man’s file. “He’s doing beautifully, actually. I can’t wait for you to meet some of these folks.”
7. “Now she understands”
“Hi,” Ruden says in a lighter, higher tone than usual after calling the number supplied by the bond company. “May I speak to Mr. G? This is Mary Grace Ruden. I’m his lawyer.” She listens. “Okay, do you know where he is? Would you give me a number? ….Okay, well, it’s pretty important. Because he posted a bond on this case, and I don’t want him to lose any money or be taken into custody.” She grins at something but keeps her voice steady and soft. “So if you have any idea about how to go about getting him, I can help you with that. Do you have a number that you’re going to call to see if you can try to find him? Okay….”
Ruden gives her name and number twice and hangs up.
“Well that was fun,” she says. At first the woman who answered the phone said she was “going to call a friend of a friend to see if she can get him.” But after hearing that Mr. G had missed court, she yelled, “Shut up!”
“I was like, sweet,” Ruden says. “Now she understands.”
8. “A good old-fashioned mystery”
Alex Bunin, the lead Harris County Public Defender, appears in the doorway.
“Have y’all been to court?” he asks.
“We have!” Ruden says. “We’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned mystery this morning. I have a really strong case with good evidence on our side and a missing client.” Ruden describes her phone call to Mr. G’s family members and her warning that bond would be forfeited if he didn’t get in touch with her.
Soft-spoken and smiling, Bunin started the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in 2010. His attitude toward clients was a major draw for Ruden.
“Alex is a really big proponent of holistic defense,” Ruden says. That’s the principle of connecting clients with what they need to stay out of jail, whether it’s making a referral to a psychiatrist, housing, or enrollment in a job training program.
“[I]f you’re going to really help somebody, you’re helping them in more areas than just their criminal case, you know? They need ID. They need help explaining to landlords at an apartment complex that a successfully completed deferred adjudication is not a conviction. If you can come along and do those things, you radically decrease the chances that they’re going to be your client again.” That’s the fun part, patching up the rest of it. “It gets everybody here very excited.”
Staying excited is important to Ruden. That’s why she makes challenges for herself, like trying not to plead a single case guilty for a month.
“It’s unrealistic,” she says. “And I’ve never actually been successful, because I’m not going to let anybody stay in jail just because I’ve made some little pact for myself. But I’ve come close. I’ve had months where I had 60, 70, 75 percent dismissal rates.”
“Now nobody’s going to make a little trophy or have a ticker tape parade, because everybody’s trying their best.” But Ruden wants to stay competitive for competition’s sake. “Burnout in this profession is understandable and real. I don’t ever want to settle in and not care. If I ever come to a place where I don’t care about the person, then I need to hang it up.”
9. “My Tom Cruise moment”
At last, Mr. G calls back.
“Hi, Mr. G? Where are ya? You’re at home? Okay, we have court today. Yeah. Did you forget? You what? ….Oh goodness. Okay. All right.”
Ruden explains into the phone, “No, I don’t want you to get into trouble, but here’s the deal. We were late last time—you recall that? And now your file is sitting in the pile for bond forfeiture and your bond is big. I don’t want you to lose your bond. I don’t want you to go into custody. So I need you to get here. If you think you can get here in the next 30 minutes, great. If you don’t, then I need you to be here tomorrow, on time, and I’ll go down and ask the judge to roll the case until tomorrow if she’ll let me.”
She asks, “So which do you want to try to do? Okay. That’s fine. But that means being here before 9….” Ruden hangs up. “Sometimes you’re, like, hollering into a well, ‘Let me defend you!’” she says. “‘Help me help you’—my Tom Cruise moment.”
Ruden trots back down to the courtroom and quickly updates the judge and DA. She returns to the office triumphant. The bond won’t be revoked yet and the case will be held for tomorrow.
10. “It wasn’t me”
After lunch, Ruden makes the short walk to the jail where two of her Felony Mental Health Court clients are in custody for new charges.
This is routine. The probation program is so long and serves people with such entrenched problems that it’s not unusual for them to get arrested along the way. But it does invert her defense style. Her default is to fight a case by forcing the state to prove guilt, as it’s supposed to do. In the probation program, however, it’s considered more important to admit mistakes than to avoid them, so fighting a new charge is risky—even if the person is innocent.
“So these fellows who’ve picked up new law violations,” Ruden says, “their best chance of staying on probation and in the court is to say, ‘Yeah, that happened. I was going through this; I was going through that.’ But what if it didn’t? What if they’re not guilty?”
Today poses a special challenge. One of Ruden’s clients, Mr. P, is charged with “public lewdness.” She’s sure of his innocence—both because “it’s not his style” and because the suspect is described as Hispanic and her client is white. She doesn’t want to add a sex charge to the rap sheet of a man who’s never had one.
In a concrete room maybe three feet by five, Ruden sits on a stool facing a thick plastic window and waits for Mr. P. Several minutes pass before a guard buzzes him in and Ruden picks up the bulky phone handset to deliver some bad news.
Before he was picked up, Mr. P had been living in a subsidized extended-stay hotel—sort of an advanced halfway house. It’s the kind of resource the Felony Mental Health Court support team helps probationers get into because if they have housing, they’re less likely to be arrested for trespass and a host of other small charges that can add up. But the hotel is paid weekly and Mr. P was in jail, so he was evicted. “Fortunately, your girlfriend was able to get in and get all your things,” Ruden says gently.
Mr. P’s face registers nothing—no surprise, relief, or distress. He just nods. She moves on to the evidence in the new case. “The witness didn’t give police a written statement,” she says. He also identified Mr. P not from a lineup but because police had shown him a cell-phone picture of Mr. P and asked if that was the same man.
Ruden gives him a moment to absorb this and says she hopes to get the case dismissed.
Again, Mr. P barely reacts. He just says, “It wasn’t me.”
11. “We’re counselors at law”
Before court convenes, Ruden and the rest of the Felony Mental Health Court support team meet to discuss their clients’ progress. They pass around and sign a birthday card for a client and puzzle over how to get Mr. P back into some kind of housing once he’s released.
The meeting is long but lively. It could be drudgery, tossing around acronyms and program names while trying to figure out which hoops to jump through to solve, even briefly, what seem like unsolvable problems. But it’s not, because everyone is excited.
Ruden says this is what got her hooked on public service. “As much as I initially enjoyed the adrenaline of competing and of trial and the courtroom,” she says, “the aspect that appeals more to me is the job of counselor, because we aren’t just attorneys. We’re counselors at law.” The challenge she loves now, she says, “is just talking people through their situation and trying to figure out what in their life needs addressing.”
She loves the toughest cases most. “You’re dealing with people who have a lot of dysfunction. Whether it is economic dysfunction or mental illness or they’re in social situations that are not conducive to being healthy or successful—those same people that I have really enjoyed talking to and helping, aren’t really hiring lawyers. They can’t afford to.”
Thanks to the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, they don’t have to.
12. “It’s gonna get easier”
Felony Mental Health Court itself is not very court-like at all. Everyone stands when the judge enters in his black robes, but after that, the feeling is of a small reunion.
The judge reads names of the week’s All Stars. One by one, he calls them to the bench and asks them about their week, giving words of encouragement.
The woman he’s speaking to had some setbacks the previous week but is now an All Star. “You’re kind of on your feet again,” he says. “This is the mark that I want you to hit every week. You can’t coast. You can’t fall into that trap. It’s hard, but it’s worth doing and it’s important. You’ve shown what you can do this week. Now it’s a matter of doing it consistently.”
The woman nods, listening, close to tears. “It’s gonna get easier,” says the judge. “You have to trust me on that.”
Ruden sits at a table and watches as, one by one, her clients approach the bench to receive not punishment but a pep talk—or the comfort or cajoling they need. She doesn’t intervene and there’s no argument to make. Her clients speak for themselves.
The only other person at her table is the prosecutor. And in this instance, they’re sitting on the same side.
* * *
Emily DePrang writes about criminal justice and public health for The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, VICE, and others. Follow her on Twitter @deprangy.
Patrick Michels is an Austin-based journalist and photographer, and a staff writer at the Texas Observer.
“Six months after I became sheriff, the most dangerous inmate in the jail escaped and was gone for 10 days,” says former Sheriff Gary Raney. “It was a big wake-up call and I realized we’d gotten complacent. We needed big changes.”
In law enforcement for 31 years and sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, for 10, Gary Raney looks the part: 6’3″, with thick dark brown hair and posture that shames others into standing up straight. But he also smiles more than you might expect a sheriff to, and he admits mistakes.
After the escape, Raney and his staff revamped the Idaho jail’s mission and culture to focus on four specific goals: safety of staff, security of the facility, well-being of inmates, and meeting/exceeding stakeholder expectations. The sheriff’s office also encourages staff members to find creative ways to get things done. One sergeant, wanting to enhance staff safety, asked his deputies to “think like inmates.” He gave his deputies the same items that each inmate receives upon processing into the jail, including a uniform and a plastic bag containing a comb, toothbrush, and toothpaste, and then challenged them to see who could craft the smallest, most lethal weapon. Another asked deputies to figure out how to “escape,” and so they did, which helped identify building security flaws.
When he describes this new strategic approach, Raney sounds in some ways more like a CEO than the former head of a local government agency—in fact, he coauthored a book with business leaders, a football coach, and a dancer on how to improve his organization (Wise Beyond Your Field, 2013). But Ada County’s initiative isn’t all about business. It’s also about creating a culture that allows the jail to deliver better results: for taxpayers, employees, and for inmates, too.
Employees are empowered to solve problems up and down the line, both inside the jail and out in the field. One Saturday night, a patrol officer ticketed two teenagers for speeding and then visited each household the next day, on his own time. The officer talked with the parents and kids, then tore up the tickets, reasoning that the lesson was clear and the impact was stronger than just writing a ticket.
The result of building such a culture is a jail and a system that others want to learn from.
As Raney says of the office he left when he retired last year, “We’re in a human service industry where we’re all a team. We help each other out. We also try to give the deputies autonomy to try things. We can always undo it if it doesn’t work.”
* * *
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has a 1,217-bed jail, about the size of 3.5 football fields, including an 88-bed hospital. If you stand on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol building in Boise and look southwest, the jail is less than three miles away. Most locals who speed past it daily barely notice the sand-colored, two-story building surrounded by a chicken-wire fence with concertina wire on top. The jail books about 15,000 people annually, but on average, roughly 900 beds are full on any given night. At the Ada County Jail, most people post bond and leave in a few days, but if they stay, the average time is 34 days. Some who have been convicted may serve their entire sentences in jail, which is nothing like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Ada County Jail is typically quiet, with uncluttered hallways, steel mesh instead of bars, and no rancid smells. It was recently highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report as exemplary, because of low use-of-force incidents. The numbers were so low that the report’s researcher initially thought the jail’s data were wrong. In 2015, it was one of 20 U.S. jails to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant to find ways to keep people out of jail, including through diversion programs, which focus on keeping people out of the prosecution system altogether. Instead of jail, first-time or low-risk offenders may be diverted into a program that helps them with problems like substance use or unemployment. This prevents them from entering the system and reduces the likelihood of getting into trouble again.
Still, this is a jail. Some inmates make tattoo kits on the sly, trade commissary, try to bait deputies, and ask for medicines they don’t need. Many are mentally ill and some are violent, so there’s always the chance of “a career-ending injury.”
“It’s stressful,” Raney admits. “Some people on the outside see being a jail guard as derogatory, so it’s tough to feel proud sometimes. Twelve-hour shifts and overtime are hard on home life. And if there is a bad injury, you’ve really got no other skills to transfer to a different field.”
Raney knows why people choose the work. “Good people enter the profession for good reasons. We can make a difference and save a life.”
The former sheriff now consults for the U.S. Department of Justice to help other jails improve and is helping design a diversion program on the national level. “We want to help people do well, and finding ways to keep them from being in jail is a start.”
But if they must be in jail, he wants it to be like Ada County.
* * *
“It’s not easy to hang your arms at your side. The belt gets in the way.”
Jail deputy M. Yamada-Anderson, a 14-year veteran at the sheriff’s office, stands with her feet shoulder-width apart and her hands resting on her belt buckle, which is the size of half a deck of cards. Like all deputies, she goes by her last name in the jail, with staff and inmates. The staff do the same for inmates, calling them Mr. Smith or Ms. Norman.
“I’m wearing maybe seven to eight extra pounds, not counting the Glock, which is another three to five pounds,” says Yamada-Anderson. “The newer belts have padding, but I still get back pain after wearing the thing 50 hours a week for years.”
Yamada-Anderson contradicts many people’s expectations about jail deputies. She has a college degree in philosophy, was one of Idaho’s first applicants for a license to marry another woman, and sees jail work as akin to being in sales.
“I don’t tell people what to do,” says Yamada-Anderson. “I ask. I convince them it’s to their benefit to do what I ask. They’ve already lost a lot, so I don’t want to take it all from them.” In the dorms, for example, if an inmate stays in her pajamas rather than changing into her jail daytime clothing, Yamada-Anderson will talk to her about how getting dressed makes you feel better about yourself. She and other staff members know that they can’t just order; they need to give reasons for what they ask inmates to do. This is a first step to returning to the community.
“If you can’t do jail right, how will you do it in the community?”
As Yamada-Anderson says, being arrested epitomizes loss. If you stay overnight in jail, gone are your clothes, your wallet, and your wedding ring. Forget controlling your schedule or your privacy. You wear a uniform, share a room with strangers, and eat when someone else tells you to.
“Jail is the ultimate equalizer,” she says. “Everything is stripped away from you. No makeup. No jewelry. The same uniform. The only thing that separates people is the quality of their tattoos and the quality of their teeth.”
But it’s hard for deputies as well, especially shifting cultures from inside to outside the jail. “Where else do you get training about not beating your spouse or how to keep from killing yourself? We have different currency, a different language, and different laws inside the jail. It can wear you down.”
But she has stayed in the job, partly because of positive feedback—like what happens to her at least monthly away from the jail.
“A former inmate will stop me on the street to tell me she’s doing well. Makes me feel good. We help people in a strange way.”
Like other staff members, Yamada-Anderson tells stories of how taking a little extra time to talk with an inmate or even the simple respect that she shows can make a difference for someone going through a rough time in the jail. If she can do a good job on the inside, she figures, maybe the inmate will do better on the outside.
* * *
Nurse Ed Walker looks like the actor Robbie Coltrane who plays Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films—large and self-assured, with a more cultivated gray-and-black beard and haircut. He shifted his NFL football allegiance from the Rams to the Buccaneers, partly to support an underdog, and largely because of the pirate ship on the field during games. Walker, who has three silver loops in his left ear, admits he’s a bit of a prankster with colleagues, and says he’s “living his dream” working at the jail.
“I like giving health care to people who otherwise probably wouldn’t have access to it, people who haven’t had a lot of breaks in life.”
Before nursing, Walker drove a truck for 25 years, delivering beer, paper, and building supply products, and working up to 90 hours a week behind the wheel. After he and his wife and two children left California for Idaho, he cared for his kids for six months before entering nursing school at age 43.
“I was always fascinated by those medical TV shows. Couldn’t watch enough of them. So I decided, if I was ever going to change, this was the time. I became the ‘super student’: perfect attendance and grades.”
Given that several relatives had worked in law enforcement in Los Angeles, Walker was comfortable with the culture. At the jail, he meshed that culture with nursing.
“I tell my patients—and I always call them patients, never inmates—that I will never lie to them. Sometimes they ask why I’m listening to them, because no one else does. It’s part of how I take care of them. After a while, they learn that if we say something to them here, we mean it.”
But on the outside, not everyone understands what he does.
“Some people ask why I’m not a ‘real nurse.’ I tell them that I save lives and take care of people they ignore.”
Many of the ignored are returning patients—often alcoholics, homeless, and cut off from families. They lose hope, jobs, and end up at the jail in worse shape each time Walker sees them.
The better moments for him are when he knows he saved a life or helped a patient. “We had a chronic alcoholic who was deaf. I built a rapport with him over time. One night the deputies and nurse on duty said he wasn’t cooperating on his health assessment. I went to see him and he just didn’t seem right. Pale. Shutting down. I got him to let me take his vital signs and his heart rate was 36, really low. I checked the records and it had been dropping for two weeks. So I sent him to the hospital.”
The emergency room doctor called later and asked Walker how he’d known about the patient’s heart condition.
“I didn’t know. Then the doctor said if I’d not sent him to the hospital, the patient would have died in 24 hours.” The patient received a pacemaker two days later.
When Walker can help someone look to the future, that’s even better. “A young man, drunk, on opioids, had a car accident and killed his friend. He said his life was over. Nineteen. I said, ‘You’ve made a mistake and you can make excuses—the drugs, the alcohol—or you can accept responsibility, take the penalty, and get on with your life.’ ”
Walker learned that six months later, the young man was clean, sober, and doing his time.
“He’s got a good outlook on his future. This is not TV. We’re here to take care of people and help them succeed.”
* * *
Deputy G. Ellington stands in the jail’s transition dorm area, three rooms housing 41 patients (25 men and 16 women) who have mental illnesses or are recovering from health problems. Ellington is slight, with gold-auburn chin-length hair framing her face.
She joined the jail eight years ago, after 20 years in retail.
“I wanted to finish my college degree and was tired of seeing people shoplift and I couldn’t do anything about it,” she says. “So I went into criminal justice.”
When she compares what she likes about the two fields, it boils down to “interacting with customers.”
“It’s the same at the jail—they’ve just made some mistakes. But it’s still a person you’re working with.”
Ellington says she still “talks a lot,” as she did in retail.
“I ask how the day is going. I have an open policy on my desk in the dorms. People can come up and talk to me.”
The Ada County Jail has six “open” dorms. In low-security areas, one deputy oversees 92 inmates, on 12-hour shifts, four days a week. Many visitors—civilians as well as officials from other jails around the country—marvel that one deputy can manage so many inmates.
“It’s all about respect and how you approach them. If you’re confident, tell people what the expectations are, and don’t show weakness, it works out fine. Yes, the men try to play us and the women try to play the male deputies. Some try to bait us. But we never take it personal.”
Unlike patrol, where spikes of action and adrenaline disrupt long periods of calm, jail deputies maintain constant “relaxed vigilance.”
“It’s an unknown here. We never know what will happen. So we watch.”
Ellington looks into the men’s dorm through the large glass windows that let the inmates see her as well. “The guys in there watch out for each other. Usually there’s an older man who’s the ‘dorm daddy.’ He’ll notice if someone needs something and help him get it from us. They are helping others for their own benefit or because that’s just who they are.”
Ellington watches for anything out of the ordinary, often body language.
“See that guy in the back, the older one? He’s been sick. He’s just sitting there. I’m keeping my eye on him.” Today she seems more worried about whether he’s recovering than whether he’ll cause trouble.
But mostly, Ellington says she tries to brighten the day for inmates.
“Today there’s one gal who’s having a hard time—upset because she has 20 more days. I told her to think of it as ‘one sleep at a time.’ Since ‘sleeps’ go faster than the days, she should think about 20 ‘wake-ups’ versus 20 days. It’s easier to handle.”
* * *
Kate Pape, a sheriff’s office social worker and health services administrator, is partial to funky multicolored reading glasses. She leans forward and shoves her glasses up on her head.
“I remember talking to one gentleman who was accused of an especially heinous crime. He was so soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He wanted to read me something and reached for his reading glasses. I remember that gesture, reaching for the glasses, because it made him seem so human.”
Still, he had committed an awful crime.
“But that’s what makes this job so interesting,” Pape continues. “The contradiction of crime and empathy.”
After graduate school, Pape worked in Los Angeles County, home to one of the largest and most diverse inmate populations in the United States, first with juvenile sex offenders, then in the jail’s “Twin Towers,” working with inmates who had mental health issues, and then on the jail mental health emergency response team at the North County Correctional Facility “Supermax.”
“When you walk through a jail, you either feel comfortable or you don’t,” says Pape. “I never felt claustrophobic or depressed, and don’t mind the slamming doors. When I go to work at the jail, it’s like a haven. I know I can handle the problems.”
She and her husband left L.A. in 2005 for Boise, seeing it as a good place to raise their children. She joined the Ada County Jail and “felt like I was home.”
“The criminal justice piece adds texture to what social workers do. In a jail, people have multiple losses, not as clear as hospital patients who have a presenting illness. It’s more layered. If you’re in jail, something in your life is broken and it’s not always clear what. Your criminal charge doesn’t explain who you are. There’s always a backstory with more depth.”
In jail, people are at their most vulnerable, the lowest point in their lives. Pape tries to remember that “there’s more to a person than the worst he has ever done.”
“We can’t change the whole constellation of planets in their lives. But if we can be one planet that shows care and kindness, that may make a difference. Sometimes, the simple act of getting water for someone can make an impact.”
A few weeks before this interview, she met a man on suicide watch who had been arrested on a parole violation.
“A great big guy, in the yellow uniform [denoting suicide watch]. He said he’d lost all hope. He’d gotten a job, had a girlfriend, was working to see more of his kids and then [the arrest] happened. Made him depressed, frustrated. He wanted to give up, to kill himself. We talked for about half an hour, got around to what he did have to live for, and there was a change in him. By the end of our talk, I felt like he wouldn’t try to kill himself.”
Tonya Kamara, 54, seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington, DC, with her one-year-old grandson, Anthony, and her 26-year-old nephew, who is between jobs. Her two daughters also live with her—when they are not incarcerated. Anthony’s mother, April, age 32, and her 25-year-old sister, Latonya, both struggle with a history of mental health problems and drug addiction, which has led to cycles of crime and recidivism.
Last fall, April was at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), DC’s jail where women are held while awaiting trial and serving time for misdemeanors. The jail is just three miles from where Tonya Kamara lives, but arranging a visit was still daunting for her, a retired woman who is the primary caregiver to a toddler. She also has a son who is serving a life sentence in the federal system because the District of Columbia does not have a state facility designated to house its prisoners. The possibility of ever visiting her son is slim to none. She had a big enough challenge visiting April at the CTF while helping her younger daughter rebuild her life.
“My children are grown,” Tonya Kamara says, “but here I am trying to take care of my grandson now. I don’t want him in the street and I definitely don’t want him in the system.” Her strength and faith are evident. She longs to see her daughters healthy and whole. She longs for peace in her life.
* * *
As a formerly incarcerated woman who served 18 years in prison, I know firsthand how important family visits can be. When I went to prison my children were three years old and 10 months old. By the time I was released they were 19 and 21. My family took on the responsibility of raising my children; financially and emotionally this was a huge burden. Being able to participate in visitation allowed me to maintain some semblance of a bond with my children. I remember being in the visiting room when my son asked me what crime I had been convicted of. I could see this was something he was struggling with. He wanted to ask me face-to-face. I was grateful to be able to have that conversation with my son because he deserved to hear the truth straight from me.
I spent my first seven months at DC Jail [the Central Detention Facility] awaiting trial. At the time, the early 1990s, I was able to participate in noncontact visits. I met with my loved ones in a visiting room with very thick glass separating us. We spoke through a telephone. Then, while at CTF for the next five years, I received contact visits every two to three months. My children were young and even though I was in Southeast DC, literally right around the corner from some of my family members, facilitating visitation was an added hardship. Traveling with toddlers is difficult and carving out time to visit a loved one in prison while attending to the daily needs of children is a burden for caregivers. Some simply cannot afford the cost of transportation when loved ones are in local jails, let alone when family members are incarcerated hundreds of miles from home.
In 1998 I was sent into the federal system. It was a better environment for me to serve such a lengthy sentence, but visits became more infrequent. I was in Danbury, Connecticut, eight hours from home by car. I saw my children only once a year. Friends I met in jail who had since been released often became the liaisons who helped facilitate my visits with my children. If it were not for some of the women who served time alongside me, I might have seen my children even less often.
Being able to see them at all throughout my incarceration made a world of difference. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be without even those inconsistent visits.
* * *
Today, I am one of the founding members of a nonprofit called The W.I.R.E.—Women Involved in Reentry Efforts. I met April while conducting a reentry workshop at CTF, and she told me about the difficulties her mother had arranging visits. I jumped at the opportunity to help the Kamara family with a visit because of my own personal experience.
When a friend who is serving 30 years in Texas asked me to bring her 18-year-old son to visit her, I didn’t hesitate to get him there. Donnell had not seen his mom in 10 years. He’s a good kid who has never been in trouble and recently graduated from high school. He was mourning and wanted to see his mom terribly. I understood what most people don’t: simply providing opportunities for visitation is not enough. Many women in prison need a person in the middle who can help facilitate a visit. Caregivers need support from concerned citizens who are willing to provide financial assistance, transportation, and/or chaperoning during visits. I firmly believe that those people who want to help improve visitation are the key to strengthening family ties with incarcerated women and their children.
In 2012, when I learned that DC Jail was eliminating noncontact visits and replacing them with video visitation, I thought the community would be outraged. “There’s no way the community will allow that to happen,” I thought. I was wrong; the video visitation program was implemented. The goal was to save money and make visits safer by reducing the amount of contraband inmates receive from visitors. I was astonished. Not only are face-to-face visits important for incarcerated people, but children with incarcerated parents often suffer from depression, display behavioral problems, and end up abusing drugs and in prison themselves. Providing an opportunity for young children to visit with their parents will help them cope with the impact of the separation, and video is certainly not enough.
* * *
Part II: Talking Through Glass
“Jail is not meant for no one,” says Molonte Herman Wooden, who was born in 1984, raised in Washington, DC, and has spent time in jail on multiple occasions. He has experienced facilities that allowed, at various times, contact visits, only noncontact visits, and only virtual video visits.
“Contact visits…are much more humane,” Wooden says. “When I was in DC Jail [the Central Detention Facility], my father came to visit me, and I felt like a caged animal because it was through a glass and I was not able to touch him, to give him a hug, or shake his hand to say, ‘Thank you.’ I had to blow kisses behind the glass and hand gesture ‘I love you.’
“I felt much better to have my visits be contact visits; I slept better that night and thought better that day. It really made me think about my behavior so I could again have a visit.”
During contact visits, “I was able to communicate with my girlfriend without Plexiglas between us. There are rules you have to follow: you have to stay seated with your hands on top of a table; you can see the face of your visitor, make eye contact, smell their fragrance; and you can kiss them as they arrive and before they leave.
“It was so sad when they introduced monitors. I would recommend no one to have a visit on a monitor. Visitors can see what’s happening in the background; there is no privacy. I witnessed guys massaging their private parts, doing body language behind the inmate’s back, or they would break into a fight and the visit would be cut short.”
In July of 2015, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to reinstate noncontact visits for inmates, provided they first demonstrate 30 days without any infractions.
* * *
Part III: The Power of Face Time
Taylar Nuevelle, 46, of Washington, DC, describes herself as “a mother, a survivor, a returning citizen, and a writer.” Nuevelle was incarcerated for four and a half years, including time spent in the DC Jail complex [the Central Detention Facility] and in federal prison. She now works part time as a benefits specialist at the DC Jail Advocacy Project of the city’s University Legal Services Protection and Advocacy Program.
While in DC Jail, Nuevelle was allowed contact visits. “You can have a visitation with up to five adults a week. At that time I had a lot of support. I had a partner and many friends and relatives who would come to visit. You can sit at a table and share food. I could kiss my partner; I could hug her; I could hug my friends; I could hold hands with my friends throughout the visit. I lived for that once-a-week moment!
“[At that time], men could only visit through Plexiglas. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot imagine not being able to touch.’
“Then I got shipped to Northern Neck, and my partner traveled an hour to two hours to see me, and she had to visit me through Plexiglas. We would put our hands on the Plexiglas to feel…you know it warms up so you can feel the heat of that person; even that mattered to me!
“I am very excited that the [DC Jail] is moving back to face-to-face, but I have my concerns that you have to earn it….I think the Mayor has set up a situation that looks good, but in fact when you read the fine print it’s just giving the officers the right to say ‘I can take that [visitation right] from you.’…I don’t think you will see an increase in these face-to-face visits.
“You know, we keep talking about rehabilitation, but if you make it difficult for families, they are not going to visit. Why do you want to go through all of this trouble to visit your loved one over a television set?…So you are creating situations where people are not having visits and you don’t get that contact with the outside world….Visitation is a big deal….I think video visiting is very, very punitive, I think it is inhumane.”
Interviews with Taylar Nuevelle and Molonte Herman Wooden were conducted by Gabriela Bulisova.
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Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, DC. Over the past five years, she has focused on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially about the impact on families. Follow her at instagram.com/gabrielabulisova.
Lashonia Etheridge-Bey is a 42-year-old Washingtonian who was released from incarceration in 2011. She was sentenced to 20-60 years for a double homicide. She is currently employed as the female reentry coordinatory at the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, where she supports women who are returning from incarceration. She is a senior at Trinity Washington University, where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in human relations.
Although research on the role of volunteers in jails and prisons is limited, recent studies suggest that visits from community volunteers to incarcerated people may reduce the likelihood of re-offending. CeCe Gannon is one such volunteer. After her own son’s brush with jail, Gannon, then a therapist-in-training, realized how many people reentering society after incarceration—whether brief or extended—desperately need someone to talk to. She decided she could be that someone.
When Gannon’s son was 16, he was arrested at school for his involvement in the sale of a controlled substance, expelled for six months, and eventually sentenced to probation and community service. While he was being held at juvenile hall, Gannon visited him, and that opened her eyes to some of the barriers other people face while incarcerated, specifically, “There wasn’t anyone for him to talk to,” she says, recalling the lack of therapeutic services. “It stuck in the back of my mind when he got out. So when I had an opportunity and I went back there, the magnetic pull was incredibly strong.”
As a longtime teacher with a doctorate in psychology, Gannon began a second late-career act as a practicing therapist, and in time became a volunteer at the jail in Sonoma County, California. For her internship, she chose a juvenile hall, where young people await court hearings or placement in long-term care. She worked for more than two years, long enough to watch some people she had helped as teens get in trouble as adults and cycle back into the system. She has seen firsthand, over and over again, what a lack of rehabilitative services does to young people. “The nonviolent drug user who has gone to prison at 18, 19, 20—once these youngsters go to prison,” she says, “they don’t come back the same.”
* * *
John Mesker remembers his initial impression when he first met Gannon at the juvenile hall in the mid-1990s: “Who is this hippie lady?”
Gannon connected with Mesker, then 15, in a way other adults at the facility hadn’t been able to, despite his confounded first reaction. She taught him how to use visualizations and his breath to calm down.
“She wanted to do art therapy,” Mesker says. “Here I am trying to prove myself as a violent person, and she’s asking me, ‘Do you like Belgian chocolate?’ ‘Do you read books?’ ”
It was around this time that Mesker was made a ward of the court. His mother—who struggled with addiction—was no longer allowed to write or visit. “Cece was my first dose of a normal person,” Mesker says, reflecting on the drug use that was a backdrop to his childhood and the bouts of homelessness and instability that plagued his family.
After her internship at the juvenile hall, Gannon started going into the county jail with the support of a Catholic organization and later through a project called Earth Hope, cofounded by Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame.
She now volunteers her therapeutic services, acting as a reentry counselor and teaching four courses at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California. Three are correspondence classes. The fourth she teaches in person, and its focus is cosmology, which she explains as a connection of science and spirituality, in which she weaves the history of the universe into self-inquiry exercises. “I’m here to help you wake up everything inside you to the best of my ability,” she says of her students. “The best insurance that they are going to do something differently is if they’re inside themselves more consciously.”
Gannon strives to make her class a respite from the otherwise stressful experience of jail. “I don’t corner people there ever,” she says. “They get cornered all day long.” She says that keeping the class interactive and varied helps her hold the men’s interest. She may do a 15-minute presentation, then show an excerpt from a DVD. She uses handouts. She breaks the students into racially mixed groups and has them work together. She never gives tests and she always plays music. These weekly interactions inspire her, Gannon says. “I’m just as excited going in every Tuesday as I was years ago, because something touches me and hopefully, I touch something.”
Friends and family members have asked over the years if she’s ever afraid at the jail, but Gannon says she rarely is. Instead, she emphasizes how much she relates to her students. “When that shell comes off, they are rich inside,” she says. “We’re not dealing with stupid people. We are dealing with a lot of addiction and a lot of ADD and ADHD and a lot of learning disabilities.”
She wants the men she works with to understand their potential and sometimes urges them to remember how young they were when they started using drugs harmfully. Many were in their early teens and are stuck at that age emotionally, she says.
“Who has kids?” she asks her class. A number of the men raise their hands. Then she asks, “Would you let your 13-year-old tell you when to go to bed, what to eat, what to do?” Inevitably, she’s met with a chorus of “Hell, no.” She takes them a step further: “So why are you letting the teenager inside you run your lives?”
“Then they sit up. They’re like, ‘Oh my god,’ ” she says. “That’s a big aha.”
* * *
Much of Gannon’s work as a volunteer has focused on helping people get through the reentry process. She knows from years of experience how exhausting it is. “You have people coming from a very secure position where they’re told what to do and how to do it,” she says of jails and prisons. “Outside, there’s almost no help.” So Gannon has tried to fill that gap, driving people who don’t have licenses and helping them secure food and clothing. She helps them fill out Medi-Cal applications (for California’s Medicaid program) and guides those who need it through the months-long process of applying for Supplemental Security Income. Now 71, Gannon says she’s not taking on any more new people to help through the reentry process.
Her relationship with Mesker is ongoing. Over the past 20 years, Gannon has seen him many times, through highs and lows. She visited him when, as a teenager, he was sent to a boot camp in Nevada, four hours away from home. She counseled him after he was convicted of his first adult felony at the age of 18 and served a one-year sentence at the jail. She helped him enroll in junior college, taught him how to shop for groceries, and got him ready for his driver’s license test.
But it’s not only the logistical hurdles that people must overcome once they’re involved in the criminal justice system, Gannon says. It’s also the fragile emotional state in which many recently released people find themselves. “They’re falling apart frequently,” she says of the men she helps through the transition. “You have PTSD, but now you have to go in this group [to stand in line for benefits] and you’re sweating and having a panic attack.”
For Mesker, it was his addiction to amphetamines and alcohol that posed the greatest challenge. After a fatal hit-and-run that sent him to prison for the first time, he realized the impact of his addiction not only on himself but others. “Up until this point, I could always say, ‘My drug use is affecting me.’ I can’t say that anymore,” Mesker says. He spent 90 days at San Quentin State Prison being evaluated by psychologists to determine how he’d be sentenced. The eventual deal, secured through the help of a private attorney: a suspended four-year sentence and six months at a residential drug treatment facility. Violating these terms means doing the time. “This is the first time I’ve ever gone through a court case and had treatment attached to it,” Mesker says.
Now, after three months at a halfway house, Mesker is settling into the routines of his new job as a plumber. He attends 12-step meetings four times a week to help manage his addiction and relies heavily on a friend and ally, a 23-year-old fellow resident at the house.
After their court-ordered stay in treatment is finished, the two have plans to move to a sober living environment (SLE) together, a place where there’s a curfew and mandated Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Mesker has made a commitment to Gannon that he’ll stay at an SLE for at least 90 days.
Without affordable drug treatment programs and greater institutional support from the criminal justice system for reentry services, however, Gannon says it’s inevitable that recidivism in the United States will continue to be high. The best way to combat that, she believes, is to ensure that people who are incarcerated have access to basic reentry services like those described above, classes in budgeting and parenting, and the kind of values-shaping human development she teaches at the county jail. She points to prisons in Norway and Finland—models that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and retribution—and, closer to home, to compassionate reentry programs such as those offered by Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap the potential of rehabilitation,” Gannon says. “The [incarceration] system has to start over from scratch.”
* * *
Dani McClain reports on gender, race, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute. Follow her on Twitter at @drmcclain.
Talia Hermanis a freelance photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dolfinette Martin was 24 when she was arrested for shoplifting $300 worth of clothes at a New Orleans Macy’s. This was back in 1994. Five months pregnant, she was taken into custody on an attempted theft charge and placed in a holding cell for three days before getting moved to general population at the Orleans Parish Prison, a beleaguered county jail notorious for its inhumane living conditions, poor facilities, lack of sanitation and dire medical care.
“Prenatal care consisted of graham crackers and a pint of milk,” Martin recalls. “I never saw a doctor once.”
Because Martin was not able to post bail, she remained in the jail for 60 days—the maximum time prosecutors in Louisiana have to reach a charging decision while a defendant is incarcerated.
On the 60th day, prosecutors decided to drop the charge, and Martin, by then seven months pregnant, was finally able to go home. A week later she gave birth, prematurely, to her fifth child, a baby girl.
It wouldn’t be the last time Martin landed in jail. Over the course of the next 10 years, the young mother fell into a vicious cycle with the law, struggling with substance use and dealing with the criminal justice system, tacking on multiple shoplifting charges while trying to provide for her family.
“It started with me as a teenage girl, watching my mother struggle to pay the bills, to going to school one day and watching the dope dealers and watching what seemed to be money being made,” Martin says.
Martin was born and raised in the B.W. Cooper housing development, a public housing complex on the edge of New Orleans’s notoriously violent Central City neighborhood and known by most by its former name, the “Calliope.” Her father left home when Martin was five, forcing her mother to raise Martin and her older sister alone.
Though Martin was a strong student with better than average grades, “there was nobody there to celebrate that stuff,” she recalls. “Nobody in my hood told me that I could go to college. I thought college was for white people…or the Cosby kids.”
Martin began selling drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. She eventually began using, and what started as a recreational marijuana habit quickly escalated to powder and later crack-cocaine use.
“Naively, it was exciting,” Martin says now. “I didn’t really know the consequences. I saw the money coming in….I saw my mother not really struggling for once because I was able to contribute.”
At 15, Martin dropped out of school and left home with her boyfriend, who at the time was on the run for a murder charge.
At 18, Martin gave birth to her first child, a baby boy, and a year later she entered a program where she was treated for her crack addiction. She managed to stay clean for four years, which she attributed, in part, to becoming a mother.
“Something changed in me, I don’t know, maybe because I was responsible for someone else now,” Martin says.
“I was introduced to Narcotics Anonymous,” she explains. “I knew all the steps…but the number one thing I knew I fell victim to: relationships.” Her boyfriend at the time was using drugs and in time Martin started using again.
“Trying to save him, I lost myself in the mix,” she says. “ I needed a release—a comforter—and I knew what the dope would do: it would numb whatever it was that was going on.”
The years that followed were dark ones, as Martin fell back into familiar habits—using drugs, shoplifting, and living in and out of jail cells, including the 60-day jail stint after the shoplifting arrest.
“I realized…that I wasn’t just addicted to drugs—I had become addicted to shoplifting too,” Martin says. “I was unwed, uneducated…and then there was substance abuse. I really didn’t know where to turn.”
In 2003 Martin was arrested again for shoplifting and sentenced to 30 months. She served half of her sentence and was released on conditional parole in May 2004. Less than a year later, in January 2005, she was arrested on shoplifting charges yet again, but this time found herself facing hard time. Because she was on parole, and due to Louisiana’s strict habitual offender laws, Martin received a seven-year prison sentence. She was 35 years old.
* * *
Martin began serving her sentence in the spring of 2005. She was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating the only city she had ever called home and decimating the physical and social fabric of her neighborhood. She would have to wait months to find out whether her five children were still alive.
Martin was also in prison when all three of her sons were injured by gunfire: when Rondal, then age 20, was shot in the back; when Ronald, 18, was shot in the face with an AK-47; and when her youngest, Hugh, 16, took a bullet to the back of the head.
Miraculously, all of them survived.
“Honestly, I can’t even explain that feeling…of knowing my children were out there,” Martin says. “I kept trying to figure out, how [were] my children going to survive with me gone for so long?”
And Martin was still behind bars in 2008, the day she received a phone call to come down to the prison chapel, something everyone knew happened only when a loved one had passed away.
It was Martin’s sister, her best friend and childhood confidante. She had died of a heart attack.
“I had never felt anything like that before in my life,” Martin recalls years later, wiping tears from her eyes.
Her sister’s death struck Martin hard, and she spiraled into a deep depression. She says it was during this time that a friend at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel invited her to go to a prison church service. Martin reluctantly went along and sat in the back row, unconvinced and skeptical. But slowly, something changed. She began going back every week and eventually got picked to participate in a religious retreat.
“I was finally able to understand that the choices I was making [were] the result of a lot of abandonment issues…and a lot of self-esteem problems. We have all different kinds of religions; we have all kinds of beliefs. But for me, it wasn’t until I truly developed a relationship with God that I was no longer empty. I knew then that my mission in life, my purpose, was to reach others just like me.”
At the same time, she came to realize that, like so many others in her situation, the odds had been stacked against her.
Martin’s first arrest echoes that of far too many people in her situation—she was poor, black, had limited resources, and was unable to post bail.
Rightsizing America’s bloated jail population is a national issue, but Louisiana stands out. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, 52 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana were held in local jails in 2013, the highest rate in the country. The state with the next highest rate was Kentucky, at 39 percent. In 2010 at the Orleans Parish Prison, 85 percent of the people detained were black. Black defendants also stayed twice as long pretrial as their white counterparts facing the same charge, according to a 2015 study from the Data Center, a New Orleans–based data analysis group.
Lengthy pretrial detention goes against a core value of the U.S. judicial system: that one is innocent until proved guilty. It can also have severe economic and social consequences in a person’s life—including loss of employment, housing, health care, and custody of children, as well as the breakdown of social ties.
Studies have also shown that there is a direct correlation between pretrial detention and long-term recidivism, especially among defendants who are considered low-risk—meaning they are not considered a flight risk or a threat to the community. A 2013 study found that the longer low-risk defendants were detained, the more likely they were to commit a new crime within two years of case disposition.
In 2012, in an effort to help reduce the jail population in New Orleans, the Vera Institute of Justice created and implemented a pretrial services program that screens defendants using metrics—including a person’s criminal history, family situation, mental health background, employment history, and the seriousness of the current crime they are charged with—to formulate recommendations for setting bail rather than basing those decisions solely on the existing criminal charge.
Pretrial services weren’t available when Martin was first arrested, but all of the factors in her case would have pointed to a low-risk assessment: no prior felony arrests, a minor shoplifting charge, strong ties to the community—and she was pregnant. Martin acknowledges that, had a similar program existed when she was jailed, she probably would have been released in the interim while prosecutors screened her case.
“[They] could have identified barriers and gone the extra steps to make the connections. Of course, ultimately it would have been on me,” Martin says. Would she have avoided many years of criminal behavior had she received those services? It is impossible to say now, but she believes it may have helped.
Three years after starting with the pretrial services program, Martin stands in her office, a high-rise on the edge of the New Orleans Central Business District, and looks out through the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. From here she can see the palm trees and flashing neon signs that line Canal Street, the swimming pools that dot the rooftops of the neighboring hotels and luxury condominiums, the bright lights of the Saenger Theater and Hotel Monteleone.
In the periphery, she can see the remnants of the public housing complex where she grew up, most of which has been torn down and replaced by mixed-income units—pastel-colored homes with white trim and grassy front yards. It’s a permanent reminder of where she came from and how she got where she is now.
“I look nothing like my story,” Martin says. “Nothing.”
* * *
On April 12, 2012, after spending a combined 10 years in and out of jails and prisons, Martin left St. Gabriel a free woman. During the course of her incarceration she dug trenches, harvested and cut grass, oversaw the maintenance shop, got her GED, and completed a program in office systems technology.
Still, nothing could have prepared her for life on the outside. Katrina had changed the face of the city forever, and Martin recognized almost nothing.
“I was scared because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know who could help me; I didn’t have resources,” Martin says.
Through the help of several mentors and the support of close friends, Martin began putting the pieces together and eventually enrolled in a local community college, where, in December 2015, she graduated with a degree in business administration.
Through an internship-placement program provided by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, Martin interviewed at New Orleans Pretrial Services and was soon hired as a part-time employee; in time she became a full-time staff member.
Jon Wool, the director of Vera’s New Orleans office, says Martin’s positive outlook, sense of justice, and real-life experiences make her an invaluable asset.
“It’s really important to have [people] who are from the community that we serve, but it’s also really important for us…to have colleagues who have real-world experience with these systems we’re trying to improve,” Wool says. “Dolfinette is an extraordinary resource to us, and a really genuine, wonderful person.”
In her current role, Martin works as the administrative assistant and office manager, but her job consists of much more than answering phones and pushing paper. There are two tiers of the program—one deals with the initial risk assessment and the other with supervision of clients who have been released on their own recognizance.
Many of the individuals Martin now deals with are clients who were arrested and released pretrial and must await a charging decision from the district attorney’s office. In the meantime, Martin makes friendly calls to check in and see how clients are doing, and reminds them of their upcoming court appearances. She often recognizes the people who enter her office: folks she was raised with, children she watched grow up in the Calliope.
“I see myself in every client that comes through that door,” Martin says. “A lot of the times we just talk, and I tell them about how I got to be here. I tell them about the prison time and the substance abuse. I let them know, ‘I’ve been where you at.’ ”
Martin says it helps for people struggling with drug addiction and criminal charges to see someone who was able to break the cycle and find redemption. “A lot of times, it’s laughter and tears, because we know where we came from. [They] remember the old me and see me now, and know that there’s hope,” she says.
Resources available to people who have a criminal record are still scarce, making reentry—especially for women—particularly cumbersome. Martin’s experience has fueled her passion for social and criminal justice; she has become an avid champion of formerly incarcerated people and reentry programs, often appearing as a public speaker and working with a number of community programs throughout the city.
She frequently returns to the prison in St. Gabriel, where she meets with women and offers them advice on how to handle reentering society and look for jobs. “The first thing I tell them, is ‘It’s going to be hard, but you can do it,’ ” Martin says.
“There’s such a high rate of incarcerated black women and I know that when we come home, most of us have kids and families to raise,” she says. “Fathers can or can not deal with that, but mamas—we don’t have that option. I’m determined that when anyone I know comes out from St. Gabriel, I can help link them to something,” she says.
* * *
Martin is in the process of pursuing another college degree and dreams of someday working at or even running a program for women dealing with reentry. She still returns to the place where she grew up, where she visits with the residents and tells them about her story. She always takes the time to stop and chat with her mentor, Donna Johnigan, who oversees the housing facilities as president of the B.W. Cooper Resident Management Corporation.
“She never gave up,” Johnigan says. “She’s an example of what happens when you’re given a chance. It’s not just about her—it’s about people that look like her.”
On a recent visit, Martin stands where her house used to be, on an empty street in the shadow of the downtown Superdome.
The street is silent in the cool December air and Martin tightens the scarf wrapped around her head while a car drives by slowly, its occupants craning their necks in curiosity. Martin smiles and tilts her head as if to say to them, “Believe it or not, it’s me.”
* * *
Helen Freund is a freelance journalist in New Orleans who writes about food, culture, and criminal justice. Her work has been published by Gambit Weekly, The Times-Picayune, Reuters, The New York Post, Resource Magazine, and others. Follow her on Twitter @helenfreund.
Edmund D. Fountain is an editorial and commercial photographer living in New Orleans who specializes in environmental portraiture and reportage.
Although most people admitted to jail over the course of a year are released within hours or days, rather than weeks or months, even a short stay is more than an inconvenience. Being detained is often the beginning of a journey through the criminal justice system that can take many wrong turns. Just a few days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and its harshness, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of those who enter—making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the justice system at considerable costs to the people involved and to society at large. These costs are also borne by the families and communities of those in jail, in turn depressing economies, contributing to increased crime, and breaking familial and social bonds. For the disproportionately high number of those who enter jails from communities of color or who suffer from mental illness, addiction, or homelessness—or some combination of those—time spent in jail exacerbates already difficult conditions and propels many people into a cycle of incarceration that is extremely hard to break.
Prior to the late 1990s, jail reentry and jail discharge planning were virtually unheard of, and few jails provided services to support people as they left custody. In the past decade, however, jails have begun to implement new service models with the aim of reducing recidivism. For example, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Correction, Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program developed and validated a low-cost and easy-to-implement tool for men—called the Service Priority Indicator—that jail officials can use to identify those who would benefit most from access to the system’s limited discharge planning resources.
Unfortunately, even in jurisdictions that are committed to providing jail reentry services, demand often outstrips available funding and programming.
But despite their high inmate turnover and heterogeneous populations, jails are well situated for reentry efforts. They are typically located near the communities to which people in jail will return, making outreach efforts easier to accomplish. Using a risk-and-needs-assessment instrument, jail reentry staff can work with community providers to develop reentry plans for people leaving jail that target their specific needs. Jurisdictions such as Douglas County, Kansas, and Davidson County, Tennessee, have introduced case planning and evidence-based programming in jail, and have developed networks of reentry providers that meet people while they are still in jail, work with them to build their case plans, and meet them on their release day to assist with the transition home.
With or without formal community supervision, people released from jail need basic reentry support. Most immediately, many people may need valid identification cards, particularly if they were homeless prior to incarceration. This is necessary to give them access to any benefits to which they may be entitled, such as Medicaid. They may also need assistance opening a bank account and applying for housing and job opportunities. For example, nearly 30 percent of people in U.S. jails reported unemployment in the month before their arrest. An additional 18 percent had only occasional employment and 11 percent had part-time employment before incarceration. Because so many people who find themselves in jail may be living with mental illness or a substance use disorder, providing them with medications and referrals to medical care in the community are imperative.
Although many factors can diminish a person’s chances of successfully reentering the community, debt is one of the most toxic. People often leave jail and prison responsible for criminal justice fines and fees and, combined with other financial burdens, those debts can become a major barrier to finding and maintaining employment, housing, and to family relationships, community ties, and stable mental and physical health—the very conditions known to support success. In some jurisdictions, non-payment of fines and fees results in immediate arrest and additional jail time. There are accounts of people who deliberately skip supervision appointments or miss court dates because they cannot pay their fines, setting in motion a process that will eventually lead them back to jail. When fines and fees loom large, some people may choose to return to jail if they cannot pay their debts.
Recent legislation in a growing number of states aims to tackle the issue of criminal justice debt and the barriers it creates for people trying to get back on their feet. For example, community supervision agencies in South Carolina now have the authority to restructure payment plans, stretching a person’s criminal justice debt over more years as a way to reduce monthly payments. In Washington state, judges can waive the interest people have accrued on debt to the criminal justice system that is not restitution, when people show that the payment of the accrued interest will cause hardship for them and their family, or if they have made a good faith effort to pay. Maine allows community service in lieu of cash payments, and Ohio, West Virginia, and New York allow for modified child-support payments following a period of incarceration.
Even where such options exist, people may not know about them or be able to navigate the administrative and court processes to take advantage of these rights. That’s why volunteers like CeCe Gannon can be so helpful to the reentry process. For many people, especially those without strong family connections, it’s necessary to have support in place to learn about and access the services already available while the system works to adjust and improve the reentry process as a whole.
As jail populations nationwide have grown dramatically over the past three decades and the needs of incarcerated individuals have become increasingly acute, resources and staffing levels have not kept pace. In particular, jail administrators have elevated workforce-related issues as a top priority. Even as baby-boomer retirements are diminishing the ranks of management and experienced line staff, jails are confronting unprecedented challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified candidates for correctional staff positions at all levels.
A second barrier to recruitment is competition for qualified candidates from other criminal justice agencies, specifically those in law enforcement, the federal government, and the private sector, which offer more appealing opportunities, pay, and benefits. In most cases, correctional officer pay is not comparable to that of other protective service positions. In 2014, the median annual pay for correctional officers working in both jails and prisons was $39,700, as compared to $58,630 for police officers and detectives, and $45,970 for firefighters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The changing civilian labor force has contributed to reduced jail staffing levels as well. Historically, jail correctional employees have been predominantly white, non-Hispanic, moderately educated males in their mid-30s. With women and people of color making up a growing share of the U.S. workforce, different recruitment strategies and messaging may be necessary to reach the entire pool of qualified candidates.
These factors, along with media coverage of corruption and violence among some correctional staff, have created “cultural stigma” about the corrections field. As such, potential applicants may avoid it altogether, and those who are hired may view a position in corrections as merely a steppingstone to a more attractive job in law enforcement, rather than as a career.
Limited officer training, mentoring, and advancement opportunities further impede retention. Staffing shortages prevent extensive ongoing officer training, and what programming does exist tends to focus on security and survival, which leaves officers unequipped for interactions with a diverse population of incarcerated people—pretrial defendants, convicted offenders, people charged with felonies, those charged with misdemeanors, and probation and parole violators—with varying needs, particularly those who are in crisis and experiencing mental illness. Finally, because the management style of many jails is paramilitary and hierarchical, line officers must often comport with strict—sometimes arbitrary—rules and discipline, and seniority dictates assignments and promotions. With decision making concentrated at the top, initiative and creativity among lower-ranking officers are not often encouraged.
Just as the needs of the people detained in jails have changed over time, so too must the culture of the jails responsible for supervising them. With growing recognition that focusing on punishment instead of treatment and rehabilitation is contributing to the cycle of mass incarceration and not public safety, some jails are working to build partnerships with social workers, other treatment and service providers, and the larger community. Establishing new, more effective correctional approaches will foster healthier individuals, families, and communities—for those on both sides of the justice system.
Not all criminal cases go through the typical process of arrest, detention, trial, or guilty plea. Nor do all end in criminal sanction. Many are routinely screened out of the criminal justice system through a process called “diversion”—an array of informal and formal practices that effectively remove criminal cases from the justice system and may place selected defendants out of the reach of criminal sanctions. Formal diversion programs first evolved from the informal discretionary practices of the police, prosecution, and judiciary. These programs were meant to remove certain cases without resorting to arrest, charge, trial, or resolution, and grew to become a now widely endorsed—if less well-known—feature of the criminal justice system in every state and on the federal level. It includes the authority of a police officer to issue a summons rather than make an arrest, as well as the decision by prosecutors or judges to offer an eligible defendant entry into an established diversion program in lieu of proceeding with a criminal case.
Diversion grew in response to a budding perception that punitive measures could not achieve a number of important objectives. For one, diversion offered an opportunity to remove minimal-risk cases from overloaded court dockets and ease the pressures of jail and prison overcrowding. It could also be used as a mechanism to avoid burdening people with the lasting negative consequences of criminal convictions—such as limited access to public benefits, employment, or housing—particularly when justice-system involvement would cause greater harm than the alleged offense. Finally, diversion could be used to identify and treat higher-risk defendants whose criminal behaviors might be better influenced by the delivery of targeted services, such as treatment for substance use disorders or mental illness.
The growth of these programs has been driven, in part, by research indicating that problem-solving courts reduce recidivism and associated criminal justice costs. Other studies and cost analyses have challenged these claims, particularly because defendants are often mandated to longer-term or more-secure treatment settings than clinically necessary. Because these courts hold the promise of addressing problems faced by many people who come into contact with the criminal justice system, experts counsel that courts should partner with and follow the guidance of those who are trained in clinically appropriate methods, to avoid ordering inadequate or misapplied treatment.
To that end, many states are creating laws to provide better support to and regulation of these programs and the services they provide. In Oregon, for example, programs must follow evidence-based standards and best practices prepared by the state’s criminal justice commission; in Illinois, courts are required to partner with advocates, survivors, and service providers. Through the Community Alternatives Program and Crossroads, which are rooted in harm-reduction approaches to behavioral change and run in accordance with community-based partners, Judge Charbonnet helps set a similar standard in New Orleans. With such measures in place, these and similar programs have the potential to relieve an overburdened criminal justice system, improving outcomes and transforming lives along the way.
The majority of crimes are prosecuted by lawyers who hold local (mostly county, but sometimes city) positions. This type of prosecutor is frequently known as a district attorney (DA), but in some places as a prosecuting attorney, state’s attorney, or county attorney. In most jurisdictions, the public elects district attorneys. Most district attorney offices are responsible for prosecuting felony and misdemeanor crimes committed in their jurisdictions, although some places have separate prosecutorial offices for misdemeanors and felonies. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is divided into 93 federal districts, prosecutes federal crimes.
After someone has been arrested (and possibly detained) on suspicion of committing a crime, a prosecutor must decide whether to file charges. He or she determines whether there is sufficient cause by reviewing information contained in the arresting officer’s complaint. The prosecutor looks in particular at the quality of evidence presented—and at other factors surrounding the incident. He or she may increase, reduce, or dismiss the charges brought by the police. In some cases, the prosecutor may request more information from law enforcement or investigators before making a final decision.
In most circumstances, prosecutors enjoy broad discretion and affect the trajectory and outcome of criminal cases more than other actors in the justice system do. An analysis of prosecutorial decision making conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that while prosecutors’ decisions are guided by criminal statute, other factors influence the charging process. For instance, restricted resources, such as limited court hours, may prompt a DA’s office to prioritize some charges over others, dismissing those of lower priority.
Plea bargains, which prosecutors have the discretion to offer to defendants, are ubiquitous in the U.S. criminal justice system. In fact, very few criminal cases make it to trial, where a judge and jury are the primary decision makers. An estimated 94 to 97 percent of cases end in a negotiated plea bargain, a process in which the prosecutor retains much of the negotiating power. These negotiations vary from individual to individual, from office to office, and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so that cases involving similar charges and even similar defendants may have decidedly different results.
Research shows that people who are in custody before their trials are more likely to accept plea bargains and are less likely to have their charges dropped by prosecutors. For some defendants held in jail during the pretrial phase, including those who pose little threat to public safety but are too poor to afford bail, a guilty plea is the fastest way to resolve their cases and get out of jail—even though a guilty plea will also saddle them with the myriad collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. In this way, jail detention can serve as a powerful leverage mechanism for prosecutors, placing poor people at greatest disadvantage.
Plea bargains can also exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that African Americans are less likely to receive reduced charges and reduced sentences than are white defendants who accept plea bargains. Vera’s study of race and prosecutorial decision making in the New York County District Attorney’s Office found that black and Latino defendants were more likely to be detained in jail at arraignment and receive a sentence of incarceration with their plea bargains than similarly situated white defendants were.
Frequently elected on tough-on-crime platforms, prosecutors have historically been judged by how high their conviction rates are. However, prosecutors in growing numbers are broadening the scope of their role in their communities by integrating more holistic measures of success—such as declining crime rates and positive community relations—into internal performance metrics.
Many prosecutors are using their discretionary power to help reduce the use of incarceration and improve outcomes for people involved in the justice system. For example, many jurisdictions now have diversion programs that require certain defendants—often those who are assessed to be at low risk of reoffending and suffer from substance use disorders or mental illness—to undergo community-based treatment and/or abide by other conditions, such as staying arrest-free for a designated period of time in lieu of criminal prosecution. Some programs intervene before formal charges have been filed—known as pre-charge or pre-filing diversion programs—while others occur once charges are filed (a post-charge program), though charges may be dropped or reduced if defendants successfully complete the program. Some post-charge programs require an individual to plead guilty upon admission.
As an example of how perceptions of the prosecutor’s proper role are shifting, more than 150 current and former law enforcement leaders—police chiefs, prosecutors, sheriffs, and attorney generals—formed the group Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. They have committed themselves to providing leadership in four broad areas of reform: 1) increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution—especially diversion to mental health and drug treatment; 2) restoring balance to criminal laws; 3) reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws; and 4) strengthening community–law enforcement relations. Similarly, the National Network for Safe Communities, a project of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the District Attorney of New York County recently established the Institute for Innovation and Prosecution (IIP). IIP aims to serve as a think tank for prosecutors and other criminal justice experts to explore and promote prosecutorial practices that reduce unnecessary incarceration, reduce crime, and foster public trust in the U.S. justice system.
In 1961 Clarence Earl Gideon was a poor man living in Florida and facing felony charges for breaking and entering a local pool hall. Because he could not afford to hire a lawyer, he asked the court to provide one. The judge assigned to his case denied his request. Gideon went on to defend himself at trial. He lost and was sentenced to five years in state prison.
Although the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” it took more than 170 years after its ratification before the right to counsel could be exercised by people too poor to pay for a lawyer.
From prison, Gideon, again without the assistance of a lawyer, wrote a five-page petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in which he argued that because he was too poor to hire a lawyer he could not exercise his constitutional right to counsel and due process. The Court accepted his case and, in 1963, ruled unanimously in Gideon v. Wainwright that under the due process requirements of the 14th Amendment, state courts must provide an attorney at public expense to defendants who are too poor to pay for counsel and are facing felony charges. The ruling granted Gideon a new trial. This time, he had the assistance of counsel and was acquitted.
In the 50 years since Gideon, the Supreme Court has upheld and greatly expanded the right to counsel to include indigent children in juvenile delinquency proceedings; indigent defendants facing misdemeanor charges; and indigent adults at critical stages in criminal case processing or post-conviction proceedings. However, despite Gideon and its progeny, the reality on the ground remains troubled. Across the country, there are jurisdictions where a poor person can be arrested and held in jail for days or even weeks without seeing a lawyer, where public defenders are forced to carry caseloads well beyond the American Bar Association professional standards, and where the budgets of prosecutor offices are several times greater than the budgets available to fund the public defense system.
The right to counsel encompasses much more than the mere appointment of a lawyer in an individual case. It requires the provision of adequate legal representation, which involves both adequate funding and independence from funding sources, reasonable caseloads (on par with prosecutors), and access to experts, investigators, transcripts, and other resources to assist in a person’s defense. Taken together, these requirements amount to what The Constitution Project and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’sNational Right to Counsel Committee calls “a significant high-cost, unfunded mandate imposed upon state and/or local governments.” Not surprisingly, most state and local governments have struggled and often fail to fulfill Gideon’s promise—even though there are countless unsung public defenders who strive every day on behalf of their clients, despite crushing caseloads and insufficient resources.
A July 2015 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the County of Fresno and the State of California provides a stark illustration of the wide gap between Gideon’s promise and reality. Attorneys for the plaintiffs maintain that due to systemic problems in the county’s underfunded public defense system, Peter Yepez, a plaintiff, did not see a public defender until he had spent almost a month in jail and was represented by nine public defenders between his arraignment and sentencing, some of whom told him they did not have time to work on his case and advised him to plead guilty despite strong evidence that he was innocent.
There is a new model of providing public defense that injects hope into a system that otherwise falls short of Gideon’s mandate. Holistic defense, an approach to representing defendants in criminal proceedings that looks at each person as more than just their criminal case, is changing the way public defenders protect their clients’ rights and represent them in court. Using a holistic defense model, lawyers work with other advocates—social workers, civil lawyers, and others—to address the circumstances and reasons people are involved in the justice system and the devastating consequences of court involvement. In Texas, the Harris County Public Defender office, created in 2010 and featured in the “Defense Mechanisms” story, is based on this promising model. Although the effectiveness of this new model of public defense is not yet fully known, research is under way that aims to understand whether and how it secures for indigent defendants adequate legal representation and/or addresses the underlying circumstances leading to involvement in the justice system.
After release, a criminal record may make it even harder for homeless people and their families to acquire or retain public benefits, housing, or employment, given the common practice by government agencies, potential landlords, public housing authorities, and potential employers of screening for and excluding those with criminal histories. These consequences are further exacerbated by some states’ policies—often described as public health, public safety, or quality-of-life measures—that focus solely on removing the visibility of homelessness by pushing homeless people out of tourist, commercial, or more affluent districts, and at times by legally restricting where people can perform certain basic behaviors, such as sitting, lying down, or sleeping.
Fortunately, a number of places have embraced strategies that better address homelessness. For example, Utah recently adopted a “housing-first” approach, which places homeless people as quickly as possible into their own shelter and provides wraparound services necessary to help them maintain housing stability. With these policies, Utah has decreased its rate of chronic homelessness by 74 percent, with significant savings to the state: from $20,000 a year—aggregating the cost of shelters, emergency room visits, ambulances, and police and jail stays per one homeless person—to just $8,000. A similar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has seen comparable benefits. After one year in operation, a housing-first approach saw a dramatic reduction in emergency room costs and criminal justice expenses, including a 64 percent reduction in the city’s jail costs.
Police departments in different cities have also created outreach efforts to connect homeless people with services upon initial contact. For example, Santa Monica’s Homeless Liaison Program has a specially trained unit of six police officers who reach out to homeless people and refer them to necessary resources, such as short- and long-term housing providers, job placement services, and mental health and substance use treatment programs.
These programs have the potential to keep people from an endless cycle of homelessness and incarceration that leads to ever-shrinking opportunities for stability. With policymakers and law enforcement agencies increasing outreach efforts, people without housing can better access public services that improve their quality of life and affirm their human dignity.
When incarcerated people have the opportunity to nurture relationships with family and friends in the community, everyone benefits. Research suggests that the health and well-being of incarcerated parents and their children improve when they are able to maintain contact within a structured family intervention. Some studies also indicate a correlation between visitation and a decrease in violence and rule breaking in correctional facilities, making them safer for both staff and those who are incarcerated. Other research shows that visitation ultimately makes communities safer, because incarcerated people who receive visits are less likely to commit another crime upon release.
Visitation takes place in different ways across the country’s roughly 3,000 jail jurisdictions and can be denied or suspended, based on an incarcerated person’s behavior. While prisons still offer face-to-face contact, many jails have implemented video instead of or in addition to in-person visitation. Some jurisdictions provide at-home videoconferencing through a private company, which often requires a fee, while others offer the service within the facility or at a community location, which requires travel and planning.
The logistics of any of these options can be difficult for families to manage. Even when jails are nearby, the price of bus tickets for a family without a vehicle can be prohibitive. Limited visiting hours and long waiting times for processing mean that visiting a family member in jail may also require time away from work or school. Despite these challenges, many families go to great personal and financial expense to keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.
Indeed, families like April’s in “Fighting for Face Time” implicitly know the value of visitation—that it helps incarcerated loved ones maintain and strengthen their relationships to family and community. Visits can especially help ease the strain on the children who have lost parents to incarceration. Visits can also provide opportunities to create new connections, such as with clergy members or community volunteers; this can not only help support someone’s successful return to the community upon release but also maintain hope and a sense of stability while in jail, whether that person’s length of stay is a few days or several months.
As with all measures of mass incarceration, the incarceration rate of women is drastically higher in the United States than in any other nation. For instance, compared to our neighbor to the north, 127 out of 100,000 American women are incarcerated, compared to just 11 per 100,000 Canadian women.
Although many more men than women are incarcerated in the United States, recent analysis done by Vera’s Incarceration Trends project reveals how much the jail incarceration of women has grown in recent decades—from fewer than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014, a fourteenfold increase, with midsize and small counties having the highest rates. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, while the number of men confined in county and city jails decreased by 3 percent from 2010 to 2014, the number of women held increased by 18 percent during this period. Yet the unique challenges that women and girls face when they become involved in the justice system—as well as the circumstances that lead them there—are often markedly different from those for men and have until recently been largely overlooked in discussions of mass incarceration and justice reform.
The demographics of women in jail and prison mirror the racial disparities of the broader incarcerated population. In 2014, African American women were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women, according to The Sentencing Project, although the rate of incarceration for African American women has been declining during the past 15 years while the rates for white women have increased.
Women in the criminal justice system are more likely than men to have experienced violence and exploitation—such as sexual or intimate partner abuse or trafficking—and to have co-occurring substance use or mental health issues. Additionally, women, particularly women of color, are more likely than men to be impoverished. A report by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development concludes that single African American and Hispanic women ages 19-24 have a median wealth of $100 and $120, respectively, while the median wealth of unmarried white women is $41,500. Poorer people face many disadvantages in the criminal justice system, especially at the pretrial phase. Most U.S. jurisdictions use a cash bail system, which means the economically disadvantaged often remain in jail through their trials simply because they are too poor to make bail.
Jail incarceration can push a woman and her family further into poverty, as she may lose her job or access to public benefits. Furthermore, most people accumulate criminal justice debt as they move through the system. Many jails charge inmates—most of whom have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial—fees for basic services such as laundry or medical appointments, and phone calls home are often exorbitantly expensive. Some jails charge inmates a per diem fee during their incarceration—sometimes called pay to stay, which can leave an individual with thousands of dollars of criminal justice debt upon release.
Women, prior to incarceration, are often caretakers and financial providers for their families. A survey of state prisoners found that 4 in 10 mothers in prison had been the sole parent in their household at the time of their arrest and half of mothers reported being the primary financial provider for their children. Research shows that parental incarceration—which can result in frequent moving of residence, school changes, and divorce—is destabilizing for children.
Once behind bars, women experience substandard medical and living conditions, due to policies that were originally designed only with men in mind, and because of continued abuse and exploitation. For example, in Amador v. Andrews, women in custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services filed a class-action lawsuit against the department for sexual abuse. (The case, filed in 2003, was reinstated in 2011 following a decision by the state court of appeals.)