Facing Racial Inequity while Experiencing Mental Illness and a Substance Use Disorder: What Changed?

This article is part of a GAINS Center series on promoting race equity in behavioral health and justice outcomes. Read Part 5 here.

By Kristie Puckett Williams, M.A. from Charlotte, North Carolina

An estimated one in three adults in the United States has a criminal record (U.S. Department of Justice, 2012). I am one of those adults. When I was 21 years old, I began a relationship with someone who eventually became violent and abusive towards me.  To cope with the trauma, I began using cocaine and eventually started smoking crack cocaine. To support my habit, I began engaging in illegal activities, such as credit card and check fraud, stealing, making fake IDs, and selling drugs. The first time I was ever arrested was for domestic violence, even though I was the victim. The officer who arrested me had told me previously if he came out to our house again, I would be the one arrested because he was tired of coming to my home every week. As a young woman of color, I learned very quickly that those who were supposed to protect and serve me, did not always have an interest in doing so. Over the years, I was seriously injured on multiple occasions but did not seek out any assistance from law enforcement or the criminal justice system. I had learned from my prior experience that my life wasn’t as valuable as others’ lives. My reasoning was validated time and time again during my struggles with a substance use disorder and through my experience with the behavioral health and criminal justice systems.

One day, while on a particularly long drug binge, I saw myself on the news as a missing person. I had not been in contact with my mother for several days and because of the abusive relationship she knew I was in, she reported me missing, fearing that my abuser had finally killed me.  When the police located me, they did not seem happy that I was alive. Instead they scolded me, telling me how many man hours they had spent trying to locate me and that I had wasted resources that could have gone to people who “really needed their help”. They then handcuffed me and took me to a mental health facility where I was involuntarily committed for 10 days, until I could see the judge who granted me my freedom. The psychiatrist who committed me treated me like a prisoner rather than a patient. He didn’t ask any questions about me, my history, or my circumstances. He didn’t treat me. He didn’t even treat my symptoms. He simply told me he was going to do his job, which was make sure I wasn’t suicidal, and then I would be released. I was released, with the recommendation to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I received no substance abuse counseling or treatment during my stay. I received no individual therapy to address the trauma I had experienced during my stay. I got out, and I repeated the same vicious cycle.

Eventually, my lifestyle landed me in jail. One day, the police raided the house I was living in. I was charged with trafficking cocaine due to the amount of crack found in the home (28 grams, or 1 ounce), and my bond was set at $167,000. Once I was processed, I got to the pod where I was assigned. A white girl I knew from my previous incarcerations was there. I asked her, “What you in here for now?” and she responded that she had been arrested. Law enforcement officers had found 1 kilogram (36 ounces) of heroin. Her bond was $5,000. At the time I couldn’t understand why someone who had 36 times the amount of drugs I had was given a bond significantly lower than mine. I later learned that this disparity wasn’t because crack was more dangerous than heroin, but simply because crack was viewed as a “black person’s drug” and heroin was something mostly white people abused. During that same period of incarceration, I was pregnant with twins, which is classified as a high-risk pregnancy. I was in jail for the end of my second trimester up and was released in the third trimester. I did not receive any prenatal care while in the jail. I never had an ultrasound and never saw a doctor. When I went to court, both my hands and feet were shackled, which put me at risk for falling.

Eventually I was sentenced, and one of the officers, an officer who had arrested me on several occasions, was my saving grace. I didn’t recognize him, but he remembered me. He told the judge, my public defender, and the district attorney that I needed help. I did not need to be incarcerated. I had a drug problem stemming from the years of abuse I had suffered. This officer advocated for me to have treatment and long-term support. That is when my life changed. I entered a 10-month program that included substance abuse treatment, life skills training, and trauma-focused care along with parenting classes to help me with my newborn twins.  I was treated with kindness, compassion, and empathy in that program. I decided that I wanted to go to school. I earned an Associates, Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree, all in Human Services. Today I am an advocate and activist in my community. My life changed because one person saw the value in me. One person, stepped outside of his job description and asked for mercy on my behalf.

When you encounter someone like me—a person of color with a mental illness and substance use disorder who has repeated contact with the justice system—will you see the value of that person or will you see a diagnosis? When conducting treatment planning, will you listen to the person and treat them like the expert of their life, or will you plan their treatment based on what you believe to be best? People, especially the most marginalized and disenfranchised, need to feel heard and validated. As a woman of color, that didn’t happen to me until that day in the courtroom with that police officer in 2009. I was closest to the problem, therefore I was closest to the solution, but I was farthest from the resources and the power. Will you make the resources and power readily available to those you serve? I hope so, because my life was forever changed by someone doing just that for me.

References

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2012). Survey of the State Criminal History Information Systems, 2012: A Criminal Justice Information Policy Report. Washington, DC: Author.

The views expressed by the blog post author are their own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Policy Research Associates, Inc.

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