You have completed Via Hope’s reentry peer support certification. How have you leveraged the reentry peer specialist certification in your work, and what does your role entail?

I have leveraged and sharpened the skills I gained through the Via Hope reentry peer specialist certification program in my day-to-day work at Grassroots Leadership. Grassroots Leadership operates the Texas Advocates for Justice (TAJ) program for individuals in the community who have been incarcerated. TAJ’s mission is to unite formerly incarcerated individuals and others to organize for change. The goal is to transform the carceral system and build safe and healthy communities. Out of this, we developed the Participatory Defense project, which provides services to loved ones of people who are incarcerated. The project helps families with any aspect of the legal system, including immigration or criminal issues. The main principle of Participatory Defense is to empower a designated loved one of the person who is incarcerated and provide the best chance at mitigating the harms that are associated with contact with the carceral system. Participatory Defense empowers both the incarcerated person and their designated loved one to self-advocate as effectively as possible in collaboration with their representing attorneys.

As members of our community return from incarceration, there is an absolute need to ensure that those reentering have the greatest amount of support available to enable and encourage wellness, stability, and prosperity. Those three things are required for an individual to truly sidestep the pitfalls that can take them right back into the carceral system. I have leveraged my lived experience and peer specialist training to connect more meaningfully with individuals returning to the community without letting my success and privilege lead me to have a savior complex or to act like I know what is best for the individuals I work with. Those attitudes are in opposition to the principles of peer support. As a peer support recovery specialist, you must let people decide for themselves. We must trust people to make the best decisions for themselves. And if they do not, that is not your responsibility. This work is about bringing the agency and autonomy of the individual into the work of reentry. This can be extremely effective because the people I work with know that, at the end of the day, the decisions they made were their own. My job is to support their ability to make that decision without judgment. Then, if the outcome is less than desirable, we can circle back, debrief, and figure out ways to redirect based on what the individual wants out of life.

You have been open about your lived experience with incarceration and having a behavioral health diagnosis. How has your lived experience enhanced your advocacy for individuals who are justice involved and have a mental or substance use disorder diagnosis?

Before I came to this work, there were things about me that brought forth feelings of shame and trauma, causing me to hide myself from the world. Things like being sexually assaulted as a kid, experiencing police brutality, or being arrested for things I did not do. I had shame from having been incarcerated, from injecting meth, and from doing other drugs. I was ashamed when I was diagnosed with a behavioral health disorder, and I have had shame around my sexual identity. When I became a peer, all these things that I felt the need to be ashamed of became things that established my value and the credibility of my expertise despite not having an undergrad or graduate degree.

When I came into this work, I felt a sense of liberation because I no longer had to hide these parts of my identity that truly inform how I show up in the world. I was liberated from the things blocking my wellness and healing. I tell people all the time, the greatest thing SAMHSA has created is the Eight Dimensions of Wellness, because no matter their walk of life, people can connect their experience with those dimensions.

When I bring my lived experience into the work, I am modeling what liberation from shame looks like. I want everyone to experience the power, passion, and joy that is possible when one is liberated from all the unrealistic expectations that stem from the biases and stigmas that many experience. People in reentry, those with a mental or substance use disorder, and people in recovery, they respect my integrity and transparency. They see, from my experience, that we can be respected in the community, we can inspire, we can encourage and enable wellness, and we can be thought leaders and effective people in the community. In fact, my past qualifies me to do this work and enables me to support others who want to unpack all their internalized trauma and shame. As a result of my lived experience and in my role as a peer support specialist, I can help those who feel trapped in their shame and trauma, by showing them that my shame and the traumas of yesterday, from which I ran, are now the winds that push me forward today.

You have said that our prison systems have a low standard of behavioral health care. What do you mean by this, and what recommendations would you suggest to those trying to navigate those systemic gaps?

The carceral system is largely a punitive system focused on punishment of individuals found guilty of violating a law. My experience was that the behavioral health system in prisons can be restricted by the overarching structure and ingrained punitiveness of the carcel system in which they function, resulting in a lower standard of care.

I think the cause of this lower standard is because the carceral system is largely concerned with ensuring two things: one, that individuals are competent enough to stand trial to receive a conviction for the charges they are accused of, and two, that individuals are functional and able to follow directions, even if that requires sedating them. This is my personal experience of behavioral health care while in prison. We would make jokes about things like the “Thorazine shuffle,” because you could tell when someone had been prescribed that antipsychotic—they would shuffle like a groggy mummy until they got their next pill. These primary concerns of the carceral system affect how detention facilities prioritize and fund health care. Individuals who have real behavioral health issues are lost in the shuffle of the deck because no one in that system is concerned about ensuring that they get better.

In contrast, outside the prison walls, behavioral health is approached differently. Trauma is approached differently. We are much more open and receptive to discussions about how individuals can be in states of relative unhealth and how their behaviors are influenced by prior trauma, mental disorders, or substance use. We have treatment courts where people can be under court oversight but still engage in a recovery-oriented process. But on the inside, we don’t have programs like this, and in many facilities, the “behavioral health system” is largely solitary confinement.

As a collective community, we fail at recognizing the humanity of individuals who are in the carceral system. We have been programmed to believe that once they are convicted or even charged, they surrender the rights to their humanity, disregarding the trauma and unhealth that person may have experienced. And unfortunately, as part of that horrible brainwashing, we then believe that even after the person has “repaid their debt to society” through incarceration, they still must earn their way back to having their humanity recognized.

The current behavioral healthcare system within the carceral system is not meant to support a long-term wellness journey for individuals, so that they may be restored upon their return to the community. We need a new system where humanity is recognized and respected and where empathy and compassion are ingrained in the process, from the time of arrest through reentry.

We need trauma-informed care and peer-centered services to be allowed within the carceral system. There are local models that are already doing this, and we are getting to a point where we can demonstrate that by investing in evidence-based and trauma-informed practices and restorative justice, and by treating people with respect and dignity, we can improve outcomes. My hope is that through my work and the work of others we can show the carceral system leaders that it is in their interest to move in this direction. It is cost effective and benefits public safety, because those are the outcomes that are prioritized.

You have challenged the use of traditional criminal justice outcome indicators to determine success, such as the use of recidivism or rearrest rates. Why are these indicators problematic, and what outcome measures do you recommend be used instead?

This relates to what I said earlier about the priorities of the carceral system—competence to stand trial and compliance during incarceration, both of which are slanted towards the carceral framework. Because the carceral system is set on a slanted foundation, any outcome metric based on it will be similarly skewed. For example, using recidivism is an unhelpful outcome measure, because like the carceral system, it fails to capture the intersectionalities at play during a rearrest. There are environmental factors, institutional factors, individual factors, and even health factors that are often involved during a law enforcement contact. The likelihood of an arrest can be higher or lower depending on many things outside of the individual’s control, such as their employment status, housing status, race, age, and mental and behavioral health. The arresting officer may in fact have more influence on “recidivism” than the individual. In most instances, officers have a significant amount of discretion as to whether to arrest.

I believe better outcome indicators would be those Eight Dimensions of Wellness. However, we also need to push out our timeline for evaluation; we have to advance grace and give people the opportunity to succeed. Individuals are coming into inhospitable community structures and environments that do not support recovery.

I think the best way to evaluate success is to track an individual’s housing situation over time, to track their participation in supportive services, to track the route slanted away from the carceral system. If our goal is to better ensure that individuals aren’t caught up in a never-ending cycle of incarceration, we need more social workers and fewer parole officers, more licensed counselors and fewer supervisory officers. We do not need the reentry process to be run like a jail cell with imaginary bars.

For individuals to have a better chance of escaping the carceral cycle, we are looking at changing the culture. We need those who are responsible for incarcerating people to be focused on ensuring that the individuals returning to their communities can prosper, because their prosperity contributes directly and immeasurably to the wellness of the whole community. We have a long way to go before that transformation is achieved. Unfortunately, most of those who work in the carceral system look at those who are incarcerated as sources of harm, which prompts these professionals to take on an identity of the hero protecting their community against those individuals. This mentality supports the incarceration and trauma cycle, because those in the role of incarcerator feel justified in maintaining their control over those who have been incarcerated rather than supporting their successful reentry back to the community.

In all your work advocating for change in your community, who or what gives you the encouragement and inspiration to keep moving forward?

It is my family. My wife represents stability and love, and my kids represent endless potential for the future. And at the end of the day the purpose of this life for me is to “plant the trees under whose shade I know I will never rest.”

My wife and I have four kids. Our family is racially diverse. My wife is White. Our daughter, from my wife’s previous relationship, is a White-presenting Latina person. Our son is biracial Black. And a very dear friend of ours died, leaving two children who are now our children, and they are both White. The reason I feel this is important to share is because my kids are my barometer. They tell me whether I am being irrational, they tell me if my emotions seem off, they tell me when I am being an amazing dad and when I can be better. Our oldest is 21 and our youngest is 3. In 15 years, our kids will be 36, 28, 26, and 18. So while I’m doing this work to liberate people, my inspirations are my children and my wife. They honor my existence and I feel that honor from them when I am fulfilling my purpose. It is a long journey, but I know the key to this journey is changing the narrative and shifting the culture. My part in the peer movement is to set an example and be a model that my kids will take with them for the next 15 years and will share with their peers for the next 15 years after that. I can’t rest until I know I’ve done everything I can to ensure that liberation reaches as many people as possible, even long after I’m gone.

Like what you’ve read? Sign up to receive the monthly GAINS eNews!