Inmate Turned Advocate

After spending much of her young life bouncing between jail and prison, one New Orleans resident has found new purpose helping provide vital services to people who have been arrested, at a critical early juncture in the prosecution process.

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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.

Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug-related charges and now works as an advocate with Vera’s New Orleans Pretrial Services. Here, she stands for a portrait in her office in December 2015.

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.

Martin stands near the site of her childhood home in New Orleans.

“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.

Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug related charges and now works as an advocate with Vera's New Orleans pretrial services. Martin is shown standing for a portrait near where her childhood home once stood on December 3, 2015 in New Orleans.
Martin stands near the site of her childhood home in New Orleans.

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.

Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug related charges and now works as an advocate with Vera's New Orleans pretrial services. Martin is shown standing for a portrait near where her childhood home once stood on December 3, 2015 in New Orleans.
Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug-related charges and now works as an advocate with New Orleans Pretrial Services. She is shown in December 2015 near the site where her childhood home once stood.

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.