How to support the incarcerated population in the United States
On this episode of Be Your Change podcast, I sit down with the host and co-producer of the One in Four podcast Beatrice Spadaccini. One in Four podcast looks to educate, humanize and elevate the conversations about previously the incarcerated population re-entering society (This interview has been edited for the purpose of this article).
“We…give voice and give the microphone to people who are coming out of the prison system. Men and women who share with us and gift us with their stories of re-entry and the challenges they face, the stigma they face.”
- The US Criminal Justice: A money making machine
- The Incarceration of Women in the U.S has increased by 700%
- One In Four Podcast: A voice for people coming out of prison
- An unfair and inhuman system
- The Story of Khadija Clifton, a woman in jail
1. The primary goal of the criminal justice system, is to make money not to help the incarcerated population
The main function of primary services such as healthcare and criminal justice in the U.S is to make someone rich somewhere, not to take care of people. In light of the COVID-19, making a parallel between criminal justice and the healthcare system is not a far stretch. Almost 10% of the U.S. population does not have health insurance, and we are talking about the richest country in the world. We are now witnessing the direct consequence of a lack of strategic investment in health care all around the world. The criminal justice system is no better. In the U.S., minorities, and especially men of color, are a target compared to white men.
To give an idea of what we are dealing with, 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men are incarcerated in the U.S…compared to 1 in 17 white men.
2. The number of women in the incarcerated population has increased by more than 700% over the last 25 years.
Since 1980, the rate of growth for females has been twice as high. 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. Most of them are primary caretakers.
During those months, it was really hard. It was very tough. I wished for a nice place to sit; versus plastic chairs and stools with no back support. I am pregnant. Really pregnant. -Khadija
The story of Khadija Clifton, a woman in jail
Khadija Clifton, our senior advisor and reporter, has brought stories to us on the podcast. She was once incarcerated. She is only in her mid-twenties. She’s 27 and was incarcerated while pregnant. So in the United States, there is the bail system. When you’re incarcerated you have to await trial in prison, actually in jail. Because you’re still within 18 months, you stay. If it’s the first 18 months, you can stay in jail. And then they move you to a federal prison, which was state prison to a prison facility when you are given a longer sentence. So Khadija could not pay for bail. She was pregnant. No one could afford bail to get her out of jail.
She had to stay in jail while pregnant. In one of our episodes, she talked about going to the doctor for visits and checking on prenatal care. She had a correctional officer inside the visiting room with her as if that were like almost the father. She actually said that it was invasive. It was inhumane, and she was not going to run away. They shackled her feet.
I mean, do we really need to treat people like that? That’s not humane no matter what they’ve done! There has to be a level of compassion.
The harsh reality of incarcerated women
Khadija also spoke about not having enough food while she was pregnant. Now, I mean, if you’ve ever been pregnant (I’m a mom who has adopted someone so I’ve not gone through pregnancy but I know from my friends), you know that you have to eat for two.
So Khadija was telling me that she was often hungry and the meals were not extremely nourishing and not enough. Currently, she focuses, for instance, on addressing food deserts in the United States, particularly in communities of color and in communities that are underserved. Khadija leads interviews when it comes to food insecurity and incarceration and re-entry. One episode we’re working on that she’s leading is about this particular topic. I just spoke to someone at this conference who wants me to highlight the worker of an organization that has farms in Detroit and it’s a returning citizen who created that and they serve restaurants but they also hire individuals from the previously incarcerated population. And again, Khadija would be thrilled to do that story.
What does the U.S. incarceration system reveal about American society?
Bea Spadacini lives in Washington D.C. and the first season of One in Four Podcast covers Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. In the District of Columbia, there used to be a federal prison called Lorton.
There’s no more federal prison. There’s only jail. But that means that people who are sentenced to periods longer than 18 months are sent all over the United States to federal prisons. That could be as far as 500 miles away, could be Kentucky, Oklahoma, all the way to Oregon, California, which makes it extremely hard for them to stay in touch with their families, not to mention extremely expensive.
When did you start your activism against incarceration?
My activism started after the 2016 U.S. election. I used to focus on international issues in my career to be based in East Africa. My role was communications and media person for a number of international organizations. So I used to go to refugee camps and talk to women, survivors of sexual gender-based violence, child soldiers, all kinds of marginalized communities for the most part and people living with a lot of trauma. Then we had the presidential election in the United States in 2016 and a lot of things have happened since then. In 2018, I made the conscious decision to focus nationally and look at the issue of incarceration. My heart went out to the incarcerated population and mass incarceration in this country seemed like a pretty obvious human rights issue to touch on.
We tend to focus on organizations that facilitate the re-entry process for the incarcerated population and the programs available that are usually unknown. They’re really community based and grassroots based and full of passionate people who believe in their job and who help people navigate the many re-entry challenges they face.
3. A voice for the incarcerated population coming out of prison and jail
We give a voice and give the microphone to people who are coming out of the prison system. Men and women from the incarcerated population gift us with their stories of re-entry and the challenges they face, the stigma they face.
We also ask listeners to take action. I mean, all of us can be either a mentor to someone reentering society. We could be business owners. So we encourage business people to perhaps hire returning citizens and have an interview or share some skillset that they have with returning citizens.
Any remarkable person you have met on your journey?
Dave Sampey is our other senior advisor on the one in four podcasts. I was fortunate to meet Dave through free minds. Dave was incarcerated when he was 19 years old. He was given a choice to go into a youth rehabilitation program.
So obviously he took that choice except he didn’t realize that this youth rehabilitation program was one year of solitary confinement. It’s cruel and inhumane; 23 hours in a 9 by 11 cell. He was young and traumatized. Dave shared a poem with us on our radio interview that we did with a local radio station. It was heartbreaking but Dave came out of this trauma. Now he’s very passionate about disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.
What turned Dave’s mindset around?
When he was first incarcerated. He went to jail in the district of Columbia. He walked in and at first, he thought this was a rite of passage like, you know I made it. Yeah. I’m like a man now.
Then he soon realized that there was a sea of black faces and he said, Holy smoke, man, this is where this is, this is a trap!
And I have fallen into the trap. I’ve been baited and I’m going to shift the narrative. So I really credit him for opening my eyes and being a fierce advocate for young men, in inner cities to like alternatives to school, to prison pipeline.
He says that he fell through the cracks in the middle school years. And this is what a lot of young men of color end up doing. The middle school is a very fragile time in young people’s lives, particularly males, and especially males of color because all of a sudden they’re being perceived differently as a threat.
Dave feels strongly about the importance of health and wellness and meditation and grounding. He sees interventions around health and wellness as alternatives to detention and to punishment. So that, these young men in schools across the country, and particularly in the district of Columbia where he grew up, really are not just going from school to prison. Dave has come recently with me to do a yoga activist training because it’s really about being into the world and being change-makers and bringing different kinds of tools to the communities that are hurting.
4. An outdated and hurtful judiciary system for the incarcerated population
Title 16 is a law in the District of Columbia that was passed to allow juveniles to be sentenced as adults.
Do we really want this for our young people? People who have made a bad decision and need to be rehabilitated? Do we want them in the adult prison system? I mean, is that the right thing to do? Doesn’t that cause more trauma?
The 46,000 collaterals
There are 46 collateral, 46,004 six zero zero zero collateral consequences that have been documented, that are part of the previously incarcerated population.
They vary from state to state. It could be having to fill out an application that asks you do you have a criminal record? And you have to check that box. And that means you’re not even gonna make it through the interview.
Or, it could be a collateral consequence like you can’t:
- Get a license to walk dogs and that could be just a very basic way to make a living sometimes.
- Acquire a license to become a beautician.
- Find housing, public housing. You know how many people have families that live in public housing, they come out of prison or jail and they can be reunited with their families because they cannot live in public housing because they have a felony record.
46,000 collateral consequences. Two of the people that we have interviewed already in one season are dead because of the 46,000 collateral consequences because it’s really hard to make it. It’s discouraging. They live with post-traumatic stress disorder. If they have no community support, no mentorship, no program. At some point, they’re going to relapse into addiction at some point. They’re just not going to make it. We lost two people who were just shining stars. Honestly. These people wanted to give back but they succumbed to addiction. They were not addicts but the thing is they got depressed and they didn’t make it and no one was there to help them. That shouldn’t be the case for our previously incarcerated population. They deserve better.
The harsh reality for returning citizens
A lot of returning citizens (previously incarcerated population) don’t get jobs because they have a felony record. So what do they do? They end up starting their own business. But that’s equally hard. It’s hard for anyone, let alone if you have a felony record. So they also have need to have access to financial loans. There are programs that we highlight, but there are also people that we’ve introduced into that podcast episode that we wanted our audience to get to know a little bit more. So like Graham, Mick Loughlin, he is in his day job. He is the director of social impact for Optum, which is a company under United health insurance. And they do amazing work on social impact. They’ve also helped returning citizens, equipped them with the skills they need to be successful upon their re-entry.
5. Reentry for incarcerated population: humanize and educate to raise awareness
Reentry into society is not a light topic, but the stories we bring forth, are stories of resilience, of humanity. Our goal is to humanize, educate, elevate these conversations. If anyone cares about public safety and being safe, well then maybe we should also think about how we can keep people out of the criminal justice system? And that they’re not over criminalized or criminalized at all, even before committing crimes.
So ever since the election, in 2016 in the United States of America, we it has definitely come to the surface that we remain a very racist country.
So, as citizens of this country, we have a duty to change the laws. It’s about systemic oppression. Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, talks about mass incarceration as a new form of slavery.
The unfair monetization of the jail system
The fees and fines that people get in jail are extortive. The average 15-minute phone call costs families just under $25 dollars. A report that the department of justice under Eric Holder, commissioned documented that the fees and fines are put in place to really trap people. The report also said that the same fees and fines get people to jail or give people a record. And it is not fair. If you’re in our community, you’re driving by and you have a 20 mile per hour. The system is out there to get us to trap people in particular in poor neighborhoods. That is not right. And so to me, we need to educate ourselves.
And how can we make the situation better?
We have the power of our vote. Let us vote in the right people, the right policies. We also have the power of our wallet. Whenever you go out and buy something, get to know that company.
Question the financial institution that you’re banking with. Do they support private prisons? Find out, be a voice for change. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and patronizing businesses that give back to the community or hire returning citizens. This is where we have power as regular people.
We must live with purpose
I did a story for The Guardian newspaper years ago when I was an aid worker and I started wondering if my colleagues in the United nations or indifferent nongovernmental organizations in Europe and in the US knew where their pension money was going. You could be working on criminal justice reforms and yet your pension is invested in a company like a correctional Corporation of America, which is now called civic Corps.
Great name, right? Civic Corps. So benign and yet it’s a prison-for-profit company. So we have to be careful and start educating ourselves because do you want to be complicit? I certainly don’t want, even if I have only a thousand dollars to save, my money supporting that kind of company. So it’s not easy. It’s a lot easier to just say we’re very busy. We have no time. And you know, cause we all are busy. I’m a single parent. I’m very busy too. And you’re the gift that we have every day. How do you want to live with purpose? Not every one of us has to ask that question to ourselves, but there’s a lot of statistics out there that are not right. I think what we’re saying is we have to get rid of the private jail system.
Private prisons are not the only problem
I’ve learned something in doing this podcast that the private industry, the private prisons are actually not a large percentage.
There’s a lot of profiteering in the public and state prison because of the services that are in there.
The commissary, the phone calls, those are privatized and they’re also in state and federal prison. I called an inmate the other day that I met three months ago. I just wanted to check on him and he called me back, but he only had like a minute to talk to me. He said, I don’t have money to talk to you. And I said, well, call me, collect. So I had to pay. Basically, I received a call from that particular facility asking me to put at least $20 from my credit card into some kind of account so that he could call me back. The average 15-minute phone call costs families just under $25 dollars.
A money-making machine from within?
He couldn’t even call me collect. They wanted my money first. And then he called me and it cost me $4 immediately just to answer. Then the phone went down and within five minutes, you know, pretty much all the money was gone. So look, somebody is making money, you know, uh, and it’s with our tax dollars like you said. And you know, I think there is somewhere in the literature, I think is Dostoyevsky (a Russian author) who said something about how we have to look at the level of civilization of a society by looking at how they treat inmates and the prison. You know, for most of the incarcerated population, they are treated for the mistakes they commit. That is where humanity comes in.
What changes would you recommend for this situation?
We’re not talking about condoning. But when we start profiteering, when we use prison labor? And when we pay prisoners 60 cents a day for a whole day worth of work and expect them, if they have children, to pay child alimony while they’re in prison? I mean how the heck can they do that? So the more I do this, the more I learned, the more I’m educated and the more I feel like this is wrong and I’m going to like keep doing this because it needs more people to care about this cause we are all connected.
That does not mean everybody that has a criminal record ends up in prison or jail. But the truth is that a lot of people do and a lot of people are black and brown. So we need to look at this a lot more carefully. There are also white people that we have interviewed that have gone into the prison system, no doubt about that. And you know, it’s about poverty sometimes and also not having the right lawyers. There are people that commit crimes that are happily out there in society and they’ve never gone to prison or jail. So there is discrimination in our justice system.
Which audience are your hope for the podcast?
I say sometimes that my target audience is three out of four people that are not directly impacted by the justice system. But if they care about public safety, then they should care about making the incarcerated population reenter society successfully, become productive citizens so that our communities are overall safer and we can live in a more inclusive and equitable society.
Where does your drive come from?
I’m inspired by a lot of women. My friend who started free minds book club, I share a dog with her. It sounds funny, but he’s our baby and in some ways, the dog is what bonded us. And then I realize about the amazing work she’s doing and she inspired me. My mom, who’s incredible, is 80, and she’s a yoga teacher. She started becoming studying yoga and becoming a teacher and in her full power the moment she let go of the patriarchy and she started stepping into her own power.
I’ve worked in East Africa for a long time. I cannot tell you how many women that I’ve met that were survivors of sexual, gender-based violence or were single moms and raising four or five kids. I have interviewed so many women that gave me strength and I became an adoptive mother.
4. Moving Forward: how can we change our perception and subsequent treatment of the incarcerated population?
We have a lot of self-thinking that we have to do. Each one of us, certainly myself, I’m a white woman. I have ‘white privilege’. I’ve had it in my life and I am trying to understand what can I do to use my privilege to create a platform that brings attention to issues that are important and that can change the way we treat people, the way we treat each other.
How can we teach the youth about social issues?
My daughter is 13. For those of you who have teenagers as well, we’re in the same boat here. So she sent me a text yesterday cause she saw a pair of shoes for $10 and she told me, ‘Mom, can I buy these shoes because they’re $10 but it used to be $125?’ And my reply was, you can buy them but make sure they are not a product of child labor. You know, they are not cheap because of child labor. And she’s like, yeah mom, I know about child labor.
You know, my daughter just wanted to dismiss me. And I’m like, well what exactly do you know about child labor? And she said, well, you know, they’re from a famous brand, they’re Nike shoes. And I’m like, okay, but I need, if you buy those shoes, I would like to challenge you to send me a one-pager today, with three paragraphs about child labor. My daughter is wordy, sent me a one-pager about child labor. And I know I can be a pain in the neck, but I’m hoping that something stays with her and she might be a better person down the road.
How best can we create impact?
I just think that with my daughter, I showed her it’s a great example that doesn’t cost anything to do to change the world. It’s about raising awareness really. I mean, my daughter has come with me to events where she’s met previously incarcerated inmates. She has written letters to inmates, let, letting them know, you know, cards, birthday cards, letting them know someone out there is thinking about them.
What would be your parting shot to people especially in assisting previously incarcerated population?
What is clear is that we are reaching the end of a system; the health system is broken; our criminal justice system is broken; education system is broken so what’s next?
Being aware of these issues is key; because it is going to help to implement new solutions; we can not fix what we don’t know. And with awareness, we can assist our previously incarcerated population better.
- One In Four Podcast
- Incarceration rates worldwide and in the U.S.
- Following the Money of Mass Incarceration
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, talks about mass incarceration as a new form of slavery.