You are the academy program director for the Prison Fellowship Academy Program in Texas at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit prison. What does that role entail and what core principles guide your work with individuals who are incarcerated?
Founded in 1976, Prison Fellowship exists to serve all those affected by crime and incarceration and to see lives and communities restored in and out of prison—one transformed life at a time. The academy is Prison Fellowship’s cornerstone program, offered in select prisons across the United States. The academy has been around for 25 years. I am responsible for teaching the curriculum, recruiting volunteers, managing the day-to-day operations of the program, and working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
A core principle of mine is that if you want to have a healthy community, the process begins with you. This applies even while in jail or prison. Unfortunately, there is a stigma that comes with incarceration. This stigma is perceived not only by those on the outside, but even by individuals on the inside, and especially for those who have been incarcerated for many years. Thus, a big part of my approach is to help those individuals who may not be going home for several years or who have life sentences to understand that just because they are locked up, that doesn’t mean they cannot make a difference. I show them how they can make a difference right where they’re at.
There is a community in jail, with a church, with leaders, with a laundromat, and if you want to have good neighbors, then you must also be a good neighbor. I have guys in the program who have life sentences, who come to a point where they’re realizing, “If I don’t do something different, then it’s just going to be this repetitive cycle, even in here, unless I change.” My goal is to help those in the program to get to that point—to understand that just because they are incarcerated doesn’t mean that they’re not a part of a community where they can have a positive impact.
You’ve been working with individuals involved in the justice system for over 10 years, but you also have lived experience with justice involvement. How does your lived experience help you in your work with individuals who are justice involved and have mental or substance use disorders or trauma history?
Most of my young adult life was spent in and out of prison. I have spent over 15 years incarcerated. At one point I had a presumptive sentence of 94 years plus enhancements. It was looking like I might have to spend the rest of my life behind walls. But by the grace of God, things worked out, and I was released. It is from this experience that I understand the challenges, the barriers, and the frustrations that come with being incarcerated. I also know what it looks like for a person who is released and just trying to make it in society, day by day, in a healthy way.
People talk about individuals involved with the criminal justice system and how mental health or behavioral health or trauma impacts that experience. I could check the box for each one of those, and at the core is trauma, especially childhood trauma. I wondered for so long, why I struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol, and before that, why I struggled in school. I struggled just to memorize and to grasp information that seemed easy for everybody else. Eventually I started to reflect on my history. Growing up in an environment where there was a lot of dysfunction, there wasn’t a sense of togetherness or affection but the total opposite. I began seeing how abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction lead to mental health issues, which lead to incarceration.
My life was a culmination of all of that. Thinking through all of that history is how I realized that the question wasn’t what was wrong with me, the question was what happened to me—because that’s what got me stuck. I also realized I had the opportunity to change that and to rewrite what everyone had expected for me. I was told as a kid that I would never be able to read past the sixth-grade reading level. I remember sitting next to my mom listening to the teacher tell my mom I’d be held back. I already felt like an outcast as a second grader, and these kinds of moments reinforced my low self-value and became my belief system. Eventually, I realized I could change. I believe our brains can be reshaped; our nervous systems can be reset. Science supports brain plasticity, which means we can make new connections, and we can learn new behaviors with hard work and tenacity.
However, it didn’t happen overnight. There wasn’t a specific “aha” moment when my life changed. My story is one where I tried and failed over and over again. My story is that I’ve been trying for years, since I was 19; that was when I went into my first drug rehab program, after my first episode of incarceration at 18. Even from an early age, I wanted to do right and to be “normal.” I had the desire, I just didn’t have the fortitude, and I didn’t have the mentorship. There are a lot of factors involved, but eventually I came to this place in my life, when I really started to understand that it’s not what’s wrong with me, it’s what’s happened to me.
Maturity is a key factor in this transition. As you get older, you realize life’s difficulties can have a benefit. When I grasped that, I finally had this paradigm shift in my thinking that maybe there is some hope. Hope was the factor that helped me see possibility. And I stopped blaming myself so much, even when I made a mistake. I realized that change isn’t linear, that failure was part of the process.
You recently participated in SAMHSA’s GAINS Center’s training for trainers on trauma-informed responses. How does that training align with your lived experience, and how do you plan to integrate it into your professional philosophy going forward?
I’ve been working with the criminal justice system for years now, and we’ve been talking about stigma, how stigma impacts persons involved in the justice system, how they can reframe their experience and change their self-perception. But, what about those who are serving them?
For 5 years, I was the program director for a trauma-informed nonprofit organization now known as ACE Overcomers: Center for Resiliency and Trauma Informed Training. I am a master trainer for ACE Overcomers’ programming, and I still conduct faith-based and non-faith-based seminars, training, and workshops for correctional officers, probation officers, pastors, and many other groups on the trauma-informed approach. So for me, the trauma-informed responses training aligns with what I believe will change the culture of prison. When we talk about trying to change the culture of prison, we must include correctional officers and the staff that are serving the incarcerated population and the previously incarcerated population in our training mission.
I believe cultural change begins from the inside out and from the top down. The inside-out approach is a part of changing the culture of prison at the individual level. And the top-down approach starts with engaging wardens in discussing how to effectively engage with staff to help them better understand how to respond to those that they are serving. I’m able to use my lived experience of incarceration, my personal experience, and now my professional experience and education to inform my approach. I spent many years inside the system, and now that I have an opportunity to look at it from the outside, I can better engage the correctional officers to help them understand that it’s not what’s wrong with the person that is incarcerated, but it’s what’s happened to them. But now, how do we help the correctional officers to see through the trauma-informed lens? We must train them to understand that erratic behavior is a manifestation of something else that’s going on. If we only address the behavior, it’s putting a band-aid on something that is much deeper. For us to really eradicate the weed, we must get down to the root of the trauma. That takes a lot of work.
I’ve had this conversation with wardens, about how to provide training for jail and prison staff and how to integrate a universal trauma-informed approach into the prison culture. But at the top level, they must have that “aha” moment, they must have that paradigm shift. In this instance I think the most important thing is knowledge. Without the knowledge, you’re not going to have the shift. So, getting the information out through trainings and through contact with people like me who have lived experience is key. But then, how do we continue to roll this ball down the street and make sure that a trauma-informed approach becomes a part of the culture? How do we help jail staff to see differently, that people who are incarcerated aren’t worthless but are individuals that should be treated as human beings? They must come to see that individuals who are incarcerated are just like you or me but have been dealt a bad hand and have made some poor choices, and jail staff need to understand that some of that poor decision-making was because of the trauma that these individuals experienced. A life of trauma has set them up in a way that means the better choice is not second nature. So, we must look past those behaviors and plant seeds of self-worth and nurture that change.
When family members or loved ones don’t have lived experience but want to support those in their lives who are justice involved or incarcerated, what recommendations do you have?
Trauma is such a huge part for me, and you know the research continues to show an overwhelming prevalence of trauma among individuals involved in the criminal justice system. Among those who are justice involved, around 90 percent of males and up to 98 percent of the female population has a history of trauma, including childhood trauma.
For a person who may have a family member incarcerated, I would say you need to be mindful that while making a change is difficult for anybody, change is extremely hard for somebody who thinks that their situation is what it is because something is wrong with them. I’ve said this a few times, but it’s important: we have to remember that it’s not what’s wrong with a person but what has happened to them that got them to where they are. We have to understand that change is a nonlinear process. And we must value the individual as a person—just because they may have made some poor choices doesn’t make them less than anybody else.
Change will take work and dedication. It will cause stress for the person trying to change, and it can cause stress for their family members and loved ones. That stress can be directly from the frustrations associated with having a loved one struggling or not ready to change, but it can also stem from the stigma of having a family member or loved one who is incarcerated or justice involved.
I think many times the family member doesn’t realize how much of an impact that stigma is having on their life. Thus, it is important for them to have some soul care. Reach out to somebody or join a community where there are others going through the same struggles and who understand what that looks like. We don’t hear about how large the number is, but 45 percent of Americans have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. That’s a very high number, but this shared experience can help counteract the negative impacts of stigma to make room for healing and change.
It is helpful to have a community of people who understand the stigmas that come with having a family member who’s incarcerated—the challenges, the barriers, and the frustrations. There are many benefits to having a community of individuals you can go to without the fear of being judged, criticized, or stigmatized.
 Peter K. Enns, Youngmin Yi, Megan Comfort, Alyssa W. Goldman, Hedwig Lee, Christopher Muller, Sara Wakefield, Emily A. Wang, and Christopher Wildeman, “What Percentage of Americans Have Ever Had a Family Member Incarcerated?: Evidence from the Family History of Incarceration Survey (FamHIS),” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 5 (January 2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023119829332.
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