Q&A with Victoria Westbrook

As the Women’s Gender Responsive Coordinator for the Reentry Division of the San Francisco Adult Probation Department, you are charged with developing, implementing, and advancing a clear and actionable gender-responsive pathway for cis and trans women and gender-nonconforming individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system. What drew you to this area of work?

Well, the simple answer is my own justice involvement and the journey I took to regain my life. I was indicted by the federal government on drug trafficking charges. At the time of my arrest, I had been using methamphetamine for over 20 years. While on pretrial, a magistrate gave me the opportunity to go to residential treatment. Honestly, I didn’t go to treatment to stop using. I went to treatment to get out of the county jail I was in. At the time, I didn’t believe that people recovered, the only time people in my circle stopped using was when they were incarcerated, and sometimes not even then, or when they died. It just wasn’t something that I thought was a possibility for my life, but something happened for me while I was in treatment.

People there had higher expectations for me than I did. They knew that people could recover if given the opportunity and were held accountable for their actions. I was convicted and sentenced to 57 months. Thankfully, when I entered prison, I had enough recovery time under my belt to make a very conscious decision that I was going to be a better woman on the other side of prison. While in prison, I did another demanding treatment program. I took every psychology class they offered. I did cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, trauma work, Seeking Safety, self-esteem art, transaction analysis, everything. I worked with a therapist one-on-one to address the issues I had never addressed—the death of my mother, the death of my twin, and the incest I experienced as an adolescent. All of the work I did played a role in me leaving prison mentally and emotionally healthier than I had ever been in my life.

I found my purpose and my passion on the other side of a prison cell—reentry and recovery, especially for justice-involved cis and trans women and gender non-conforming people. Women are historically overlooked or left out of reentry services. For so long, they were offered the same programming as men, if they were offered anything. But we have different histories and different needs than our justice-involved brothers. These differences must be acknowledged, understood, and incorporated into programs if we want women to heal, get their lives on track, and exit from the criminal justice system. I wanted to be part of that work.

You serve women at the intersection of trauma, victimization, and criminal justice system involvement. What are your biggest challenges in doing this work?

Honestly, not enough funding. We need more funding specifically for justice-involved women exiting jail and prison. Even though the rate at which women are being incarcerated is increasing at significantly higher rates than men, there are still more men incarcerated. So, to funders, it makes more sense to fund community-based programs for men or programs that serve both, but women need their own programming in spaces that focus on them. Justice-involved women and men may both have trauma histories, but their traumas are often different. Even if their histories are similar, most women can’t do that kind of work with men and feel safe. This challenge is complicated by the fact that it’s often hard to get women to show up to groups and classes in the community when they are not mandated or externally motivated in some way to do so. It’s not that women don’t want to heal or make their lives better. They just do not or cannot put themselves first.

The fact is women still tend to be the primary caregivers of children, siblings, or older parents. They do not have the time or the money to attend classes or groups in the middle of the day. They’re too busy surviving to take out time for healing. In the Bay Area, it’s often challenging to take care of one’s basic needs, like housing, food, and safety.

Based on your experience, what are two or three critical changes needed to improve outcomes for cis and trans women and gender-nonconforming individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system?

Spaces, programs, and services that are specifically for cis women or trans women or gender queer are needed. Being formerly incarcerated adds a level of barriers and challenges to those already present in the lives of cis women, trans women, or gender non-conforming folks. The barriers and challenges become more complicated when these same people are people of color or non-heterosexual or older. All layers of social identity matter and people need to be in spaces where they feel safe and do not feel like they have to justify or explain their life experiences and challenges. When reentering, people have to re-establish much if not all of their lives – these efforts are made that much harder when they are not able to show up authentically or they have to leave one or more of their social identities at the door and not talk about and work through the challenges, trauma, and or healing needed that is related to those identities.

Services need to be holistic. A lot of times the services that cis and trans women and gender-non-conforming folks get are siloed. So, they get a job here, they get housing help over there, but it doesn’t address the totality of what’s going on with the whole person.

We need to have more gender responsive spaces and programming that address their specific needs and barriers in a truly culturally competent way. That term gets thrown around a lot, but we need to approach cis and trans women and GNC folks with cultural humility, understanding that equal is not the same as equitable. When I left prison, I was released to a halfway house that had 20 women and 185 men. Thank God I did boundary work while I was in prison, but some women didn’t. That wasn’t the safest place for them to start reentering.

We need more transitional housing programs, residential treatment programs, groups, and classes that are just for cis and trans women. When we’re not able to heal and gain the skills that we need, we go back to what we know. Another thing is that we need more family-friendly and family-accommodating spaces. Childcare is often a huge issue for women. We have a housing program that’s specifically for justice-involved women, but it only accepts smaller children. So, what do you do if you have a 12-year-old? You can’t access those programs.

Finally, providing spaces where cis and trans women and gender non-conforming folks can form healthy relationships with others they feel accepted by and who they are able to identify with helps create the safety support network that will continue to serve them on their journey – including the positive benefits gained when they are that person for others coming after them.

I think the other thing that’s really important for cis and trans women is the relationships they’re able to form. I would love to see a state-certified forensic peer specialist or mentor program in California that allows women to not only work with other women, help teach them what they’ve learned in ways that women can hear, but that also gives them a career path and a way to earn money for doing that important work.

You have said that successful reentry requires the collaboration of community-based organizations, governmental agencies, the criminal justice system, and the reentry community itself. What is one recommendation you’d give for getting these groups to work effectively together?

I feel that each group has to truly respect what the other brings to the table and understand the value and importance of each. I think a lot of times people are invited to the table, but that respect and understanding isn’t there.

All parts are needed to gain understanding and address challenges facing the reentry community. Community-based organizations know where the resources are available and what’s needed to access those resources. Government agencies have to understand what programs and services need to be funded. The justice system has to be at the table because a person’s reentry is impacted by every decision made within the criminal justice system, from the time of arrest to court proceedings, conviction, incarceration, release, and community supervision.

Then we have people who are reentering. They are vital to these collaborations. They know firsthand what they’re experiencing. The people that invite formerly incarcerated people to those tables say they value lived experience, but then when they show up, they’re not put in leadership roles to actually be part of the decision-making process. I feel so blessed that I work for a public safety organization that truly values lived experience and has placed me in a leadership role.