You are an attorney and are open about your status both as “formerly incarcerated” and a trauma survivor. What does it mean for you to be a formerly incarcerated trauma survivor, and how did that translate to becoming an attorney and advocating for trauma awareness?
I’ve suffered from ongoing and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) for most of my life. My trauma stems from adverse childhood experiences such as early parental abandonment, domestic violence, and abuse in a foster home before 3. These painful early life experiences led me to a substance use disorder by 12, incarceration at 13, and teen motherhood at 17.
I believe every incarcerated person has a similar story of trauma and abuse at some time in their life. Many have been beaten, raped, sexually abused. These are overt types of abuse. There are also more insidious kinds of long-term emotional abuse that often happen within toxic family structures. Individuals beaten down by life experiences like these—who have lived in the custody of people who harmed them or who have been made to feel powerless by other abusers—can be particularly vulnerable to re-traumatization by the power dynamics of the criminal justice system.
I am one of very few known formerly incarcerated women attorneys in the country. I originally became an attorney because I thought I could positively advocate for Native rights and, more specifically, advocate for my tribe, the Muscogee Nation. It took me three times to pass the Oklahoma bar exam, so during that time, I worked for Muscogee Nation as their community development director. This position created an interest in community development, program management, and technical assistance training. With that experience, I transitioned to the U.S. Department of Energy as their national program manager and worked with tribes nationwide.
I always longed to use my lived experience to create change in the criminal justice system. After becoming an attorney, I saw an opportunity to work with the Muscogee Nation Reintegration Program. I thought it would be a chance to help people in the same situation I was once in. I represented individuals coming out of prison with their civil legal needs. Despite regularly seeing routine courtroom practices distress my clients, I didn’t recognize them as trauma responses. I didn’t know anything about trauma at that time. However, once I started to understand trauma, it became a passion of mine to educate others. That is how I founded the National Trauma Awareness Initiative.
Many people are suffering from the effects of trauma and don’t know it. Many others are unknowingly upholding systems that perpetuate harmful practices. I have found my life’s work and calling to do my part to transform systems and institutions in a way that will enable trauma survivors to function without constantly being in a state of fight, flight, or freeze.
Through your work with the National Trauma Awareness Initiative (NTAI), you advocate for trauma-informed responses throughout the criminal justice system. Why do you think it is important for these agencies (including law enforcement and the courts) to be trauma-informed?
Unless it’s trauma-informed, the criminal justice process can strip trauma survivors of the exact things they need to feel safe. Trauma survivors need community, trust, safety, and personal autonomy over body and mind. It takes concerted, informed, and intentional work to preserve some degree of any of these in our current criminal justice system. People retraumatized by the system cannot adequately advocate for themselves within that system.
Individuals in law enforcement need to be trauma-informed because of the authority they wield and their broad reach into peoples’ lives. Random stop and frisks or police questioning are often the first points of contact with the criminal justice system and can cause emotional flashbacks in a person with a trauma history. There is a period between initial police contact and arrest that is brief but can be harmful. When they don’t have probable cause for arrest, police may still approach and probe for incriminating information. Many Americans don’t know it, but they have the right to ask the officer if they are free to go, and the police must either arrest the person or let them go. If individuals don’t use this right, the process of exploratory police questioning may retraumatize a person with a trauma background.
What is needed is a combination of public education and police accountability. When using these tactics, it is not okay for police to ridicule or verbally assault citizens when they don’t get what they want. Harsh questioning and other law enforcement practices, such as invasive strip searches and excessive solitary confinement, are dehumanizing and harmful. They are harmful not just to the individual but also to the officers. They become less human as well.
As for the court, I vividly remember walking into the courtroom for my arraignment and feeling completely lost and ignorant. I would later find out that every courtroom has specific procedures and protocols. It took me three years of law school and years of law practice to figure this out. The average person may never understand the inner workings of the legal system.
The courts have the power to make the system less disorienting and traumatic. Courts can do this by first acknowledging that they are inherently disorienting and traumatic because of the adversarial nature of the legal system. To lessen the traumatic effects on court participants, courts should look at ways to be less adversarial and more cooperative.
What is some insight you would share regarding the experience of incarceration and the transition back into the community?
Ironically, I often look back at my period of incarceration with fondness. I finally had access to much-needed job training, mental health, and addiction interventions. Now I question, “Why didn’t I have access to resources before incarceration?” In the trauma-informed world, we often say, “How can we restore you to a sanity you never had?”
However, once released, a person comes out to a world that scorns and shames them. Formerly incarcerated people face economic insecurity, housing insecurity, and job insecurity. One missed paycheck means potentially returning to prison for a parole violation. Trauma survivors live in a constant state of sympathetic nervous system arousal. I have a shame attack every time I check the box indicating my felon status.
Luckily, I was able to reenter society successfully. When I came out of prison, my basic needs were met. I had low-income housing, food stamps, and medical services. If not for this, I don’t think I would have been successful.
I also had a Native recovery community that supported me and held me accountable for my actions—people that I respected and didn’t want to disappoint. I was fortunate and didn’t have huge fines or community service hanging over my head. I also got the chance to go back to college soon after my release. The combination of having my basic needs met and an opportunity for education made my reentry successful.
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