Episode Flyer for #99: Prison Reform- How It Impacts Vulnerable Populations (Including Persons With Disabilities)
Episode Flyer for #99: Prison Reform- How It Impacts Vulnerable Populations (Including Persons With Disabilities)

Guest: Christina Block          Date: March 14, 2018

Guest Title: Prison Minister


[Intro music]


Debra Ruh:                  Hello Everyone. This is Debra Ruh and you’re watching or listening to Human Potential At Work. Today, I have Doug Foresta, our producer joining us again who has an amazing voice and I also have Christina Block. She goes by Chris and Chris is an operations manager at my firm. So Chris, welcome to the program.

Christina Block:           Thank you so much Debra, glad to be here.

Debra:                         So, today, we’re going to talk about difficult topic. We’re talking about disability reform and how the prison systems in the United States sometimes really impact, well not sometimes, they’re impacting our most vulnerable parts of the population including people with disabilities. And I asked Chris to join us on the show today because Chris, for many years has been involved with the prison ministry. Really supporting women that have been behind bars as they try to get back into society and the problems that they have. and so, I know that Respect Ability, an organization in the United States has done a lot of work and so we’re going to be quoting Respect Ability during the interview but also Doug has a lot of experience with this topic so I wanted his perspective from some of the people that he’s worked with in his career as well.


                                    So, before we begin, I know we’ve already began but let me ask Chris to talk a little bit about her work.

Christina:                     Okay. Debra, thank you. I want to let you know I’ve done prison ministry for about 12 years. I go once a week to the women’s prison near our home and it is a not a maximum security prison. A lot of paper crimes, some drug crime things like that. It is a state prison so the people there are usually there for over a year.


                                    The difference between a jail and a prison jail is usually where people are held while they await trial or they await sentencing or they also have a sentence that has been given to them by the courts for less than a year. In a prison situation; it is a state or a federal institute and the people have been convicted of felony charge for in excess of a year. So, again, I do volunteer at the women’s prison near our home and I find that so many of the women, they come to our program out of choice. They’re not assigned to come to the prison ministry; they kind of elect to come.


                                    They could go and go to the gym or they could do other activities but instead, they chose to come to our program and we do the very best we can to try to fill their lives with hope while they’re there and also encourage them for what they can do when they leave which is very important I think because they’re not going to stay in prison their whole life so when they get out, we want them to be rehabilitated. We don’t want them to be a part of that two thirds of the population of prison inmates that go to prison again. It’s very sad that we don’t prepare them better and we’re just trying to do the very best we can to get that done.

Debra:                         Yes. And we’re going to talk about how hard it is to get back in the society after you’ve been in prison and unfortunately, the way the prison system works, we almost… there’s a reason why we have two thirds going back in the prison. Because we as society often… we still look at them as prisoners even once they migrate out. So, as we all know, a lot of us know this, we have a lot of problems with this and I know… that’s why I was very fascinated with a lot of the studies that Respect Ability did. Respect Ability has said that there are 750,000 Americans with disabilities in prison in the prison system. So, that’s pretty sad statistic. And Doug, will you talk a little bit about some of the work that you’ve done in the system as well?

Doug Foresta:             Sure. Well, just to be clear, I’ve never worked inside a prison but I have been inside prisons and I’ve been inside jails because when I worked in child welfare, many times, the people that I work with were incarcerated, their mother is incarcerated and father so. And then I also have clinical experience counseling individuals who are on parole and on probation.


                                    So, I’ve done a lot of work peripherally with people involved in the criminal justice system even though I’ve never worked directly in the criminal justice system. But, the… some of the things… I think just starting from sort of a macro perspective, you know, when you think about what happened in the 1970s when we closed institutions; we decided that we are going to be institutionalized, I think there has been a de facto kind of… the prison system is basically what’s picked up the people who fall through the cracks of service delivery. Because what we did was, yes, we got rid of the institutions, yes we could agree that nobody should have to live in the conditions that people were living in.


                                    You know, in Massachusetts, we had they call them the state schools. I mean they weren’t schools; they were actually closer to prisons than they were to schools anyway. But, we really didn’t put in place the supports that people needed. And you know, where does someone end up? I mean, if you think about even like Dostoevsky or just think of like novels from… you know think of novelist and stories of disenfranchised and marginalized people, historically, they end up in jail because there’s no other place for them.

Debra:                         Right. Right.

Christina:                     That’s true.

Debra:                         And it’s a place where they can be taken care of as well.

Doug:                           Right.

Debra:                         They don’t have to worried about getting their meals and having a place to live in and so it’s some very very serious issues here. There was a report done; I’m looking down reading it. Disability in criminal justice reform; the keys to success that Respect Ability did about these problems. And some of the facts that they’ve presented in this report, they’re very scary. You know, the numbers of… one of them is; children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victim of rape or sexual assault than children without disabilities and how that ties into this prison system and the business of prison that… I’ve heard statistics that more Americans are in prison in the United States than all other countries combined.

Christina:                     That’s true. Scary.

Debra:                         It is. Because we’ve made a business of prison.

Christina:                     Right.

Debra:                         We’ve privatized all and I’m not even criticizing that but we do definitely have problems. How do we make sure that all of our disenfranchised populations are not unfairly put in prison. And a lot of Americans understand that even though the system is trying to be fair and balanced, it is ways against people of color and other disenfranchised groups like people with disabilities.


                                    Chris and I have had a lot of conversations yesterday, when we were taping this, yesterday was the international day of women and it was a wonderful day and we all… many women celebrated all over the world. But, I often am talking to Chris about the women that she works with that had been incarcerated and we’ve talked about, this is sort of a sad story but, there was a murderer out in our community years ago, and the man, he lost his temper and he killed his girlfriend and he got eight years and she said some of the women that she worked with, they’ve had minor offenses. Like they were caught with marijuana or cannabis and don’t get eight years.


                                    So, something… and we all have stories and I’ve read stories but something is going on and then once again taking rights away from prisoners after they get out of prison. Like you can no longer vote, you can’t do this and can’t get a job; nobody’s going to hire you. That’s a lot of the work that Chris has experience with as well.


                                    So, let’s turn the floor over to Chris to talk about just some of the… some stories and her experiences and some of the statistic confirmation that she has.

Christina:                     Well, Deb, first I want to address what you were saying about the way the institutions closed. And I was looking up some information because I felt it very interesting that we went from 1955 I think they had seven… no, it was 560,000 people were institutionalized. Now, like you said, some of the conditions were horrific and people didn’t need to be there. But then in the 90s, by I guess mid-90s; they only had 70,000 people that were institutionalized.

Doug:                           Right.

Christina:                     They’re trying to claim that there was this great cure which corrects that because I was thinking, “really? That’s amazing. All these people with severe mental disability no longer…

Doug:                           They just got better.

Christina:                     Oh, they just, you know, it’s amazing.” But, you look at that and you go, “where did they go?” They went to the streets.

Doug:                           Right.

Christina:                     Many of them didn’t have a home; they didn’t have people they turn to to help them and so they ended up becoming a part of criminal justice system. Whether it was because they were sleeping on park benches or whether it was because they were stealing foods from grocery stores because they didn’t have any way to support themselves. So, you look at all the sad parts of the way that the criminal justice system has gained all of these people who really shouldn’t be there; they really need to be getting the other kinds of help.


                                    What can we do as a society to see that these people are taken care of and not just pushed through the system because that what I kind of feel like is happening. I mean we’ve got 2.3 million people incarcerated now and it is the highest percentage for a developed country in the world. We incarcerate more of our people than any other country and that just doesn’t make sense. It’s hard.


                                    We have 11,000,000 people that go into prison every year or into jail every year I should say. Now, I’m not saying they stay there; they get out. Some of them are out within two hours because they posted bail; they had enough money to get out. Some of them are out in a week because they could pay off their traffic ticket. But, 641,000 people are released from prison every year after serving their sentences.


                                    If we look at… I mean it’s huge huge numbers considering our population. It’s really really impactful. The number of people that… I mean, you look at… they’re mothers, and I’m just talking about the women’s prison. So, they’re moms, they’re sisters, they’re daughters, they’re grandmothers. I had… we have one situation where we had a mother, a daughter, a grandmother and an aunt in our bible study and I was like, it just blew me away. It actually broke my heart.

Debra:                         So, obviously something’s wrong…

Christina:                     Yes.

Debra:                         If an entire generation…

Christina:                     Family. Yes.

Debra:                         Multiple generations are in prison.

Christina:                     Yes.

Debra:                         And women are especially hard hit. And if you look at people with disabilities; according to the bureau of justice statistics and I’m once again going to the Respect Ability report, 32 percent of federal prisoners and 40 percent of people in jail have at least one disability. At least one. So, should we be just tearing all these people in jail and prison and then when they get out; nobody wants to hire them because they’re bad people now, right? And they can’t vote and I don’t even know all the different rights that were taken away from them.


                                    I do know that the Virginia governor pardoned a lot and… well, I don’t think pardon was the right word but they gave rights back to many many prisoners so they could vote. I mean come on; these people have actually paid their debt to society. Why do we strip all their rights away?


                                    I have a very good friend of mine that went to jail, and once again, Chris knows this better than I do, so he was in jail / prison for 18 months. And he went because he was an entrepreneur that was growing a cash crop which is illegal in Virginia. It’s not illegal in Colorado but he also was growing on the Parkland which is against the law in the United States.

Doug:                           Yes.

Debra:                         So, he made some bad decisions but there were some other people that did the same crime but they were… one was a judge and one was a lawyer and they got off, they didn’t go to jail. But this young man that did have darker skin than I do and so we put him right in jail. I think it was considered jail.

Doug:                           Yes. There’s… Yes. Sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Christina:                     I was going to say it’s just… if you look at… I keep going back to numbers but I was studying from the bureau of justice and for every 100,000 white people, we only have 380 incarcerated out of the span of 100,000 whites. You look at Latinos, it goes up to 966 out of that 100,000. And by the time you go to African American, it’s 2207 out of every 100,000. So, statistically, your prisons are very populated with blacks and other minorities and just…

Debra:                         Yes. Something seems off. Go ahead Doug.

Doug:                           Well, it’s such a massive topic that it’s hard to even… there’s so many ways in which you can come at this that are so sad. I will just say very quickly that from my clinical experience, the young men that I used to work with particularly who were arrested for selling drugs things like that. And these were low level. I mean, these were not you know, major. They weren’t buying from the cartels you know. They were selling on the street.

Debra:                         Right.

Doug:                           The vast majority of them in my experience had some type of underlying learning disorder that was not diagnosed in school that they then really didn’t do well in school, dropped out and this is what they did to make a living. So, the other piece that we haven’t mentioned to is the education system and the school to prison pipeline that exist in this country and we see it here in Massachusetts.


                                    I think that there’s more attention now here to this but, the reality is that when you’re… if your child who’s let’s say does have a disability or has PTSD which is a disability, post-traumatic stress disorder. And you get put into a school; a reformed type of school that has a… that has a cop in it. At least one police officer. You then are running down the hall and you get into a fight with a kid which by the way many many kids in school get in fights, right? But this police officer comes to break it up and you swing your arm back and you hit the cop in the face; guess what? That’s assault and battery in a police officer and thus begins your criminal record which as you’re kind of saying, it really amounts… you could argue it amounts to double jeopardy because you serve your sentence forever and ever but…

Debra:                         Right.

Doug:                           You know the… I think one of the places it begins really is in education that we don’t… we miss so many kids who have some type of disability. Maybe it’s not an overt disability, right? Maybe it’s more of an invisible disability and we see them as a behavioral issue rather than having a disability.

Debra:                         Yes. Yes. I remember when my… I’ve had… I’ve known other people that have gone to jail. But this one young man, he just… this particular situation it was so sad to me and I’ve visited him multiple times when he was in the system and he would say to me… he was a good… he still is a good man. But, he would say, “Debra, they’re telling me that I’m a bad person, I’m a bad person, I’m a bad person and I go to these therapies and they’re saying you’re bad.” And he’s like, “and I keep saying in my head, I’m not bad, I’m not.” And then I said, “You’re not bad. You’ve made some really bad decisions and stupid decisions.”


                                    And by the way, let me tell you, well, I don’t have enough time to tell you all the bad stupid decisions I’ve made in my life. And I remember, Chris and I know each other because our children went to school together and I said to my son Kevin when he was in, when he was first learning to drive you know, “you got to really… you do not want to go and get into the system. You don’t want to be driving on influence or with drugs.”  Or, “don’t be stupid.” And I was lecturing and lecturing him which he didn’t really appreciate but I just said, “Once you get in the system, your rights get taken away. You’re not treated as American citizen with all the freedoms that we have.”


                                    And so… and one of his friends, he do remind me of what you’re talking about Doug, he got into the reform school situation, he had a lot of behavior problems. He was a good kid in so many ways but he had a lot of behavior problems. Really struggled in school and he actually got into the prison system too but he was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. So a lot of the problems he was having were mental health problems.

Doug:                           Right.

Debra:                         But he did that same situation. He was getting in an argument with his mom; it got heated, she called 911, the police came again, the police have come to the house so many times. They actually got tagged. I didn’t realize that if you call the police too many times, you’ll get tagged.

Doug:                           Yes, you can get tagged into their system. Yes.

Debra:                         And he was… he was really mad. He was throwing his arms and he hit one of the officers. And so, it got much worst and it was a sad situation because he had a mental health condition. Really, he is a gentle young man but his medication wasn’t right. So, it’s just a really tragic situation and I’m hoping in the future that Respect Ability maybe Jennifer, the CEO come on and talk… really dig into some of the suggestions they have. We’re sort of really having reform and cutting some of the numbers down but…

Doug:                           We’re really lucky here in Massachusetts in western specifically where I am, we had a sheriff who’s very progressive and we are probably one of the most progressive systems in the nation in terms of… we have an after incarceration services; no one leaves without a place to live, no one leaves without an after care plan. But having said that, the other piece I just want to say and I don’t know what you think about this. We talk about all this but I don’t think it’s fair to only point at the prison system or the police because they don’t have… it’s really not fair to them either because…

Debra:                         Yes.

Doug:                           They’re being asked to be therapist and psychiatrist and social workers and that’s not their job.

Christina:                     And they don’t have the funding to…

Doug:                           Right.

Christina:                     To right all this for people.

Doug:                           Exactly.

Christina:                     I mean, it cost… in the 70s’, I did a study out in California at the jail or at the prison and they determine that it would only cost 20,000… I think it was $20,500 for someone with a severe mental disability to live in a communal situation like a group home or a special home where they could get the help that they needed provided for them while if they’re incarcerated, it cost $48,000 for them to stay there. So, you’re more than double spending by having them incarcerated. Plus, it does create a lot of upheaval for other people who were incarcerated for other reasons. I mean, you have to look at… it’s kind of like in a classroom where you put all the kids that have any kind of behavioral issues what so ever…

Debra:                         The bad kids.

Doug:                           Put them all together. Yes.

Christina:                     Put them all together and then that poor teacher, you know, I’m sorry but she needs backup.

Doug:                           Yes.

Christina:                     Same type situation when we look at our prison systems because… and there are many people that are trained and have a heart of gold and are trying so hard to get these people on the right path and teach them right thing. And I will tell you; there are so many women that have come in with a 7thand 8theducation and they’re incarcerated and there are programs that the prison that I’m working through that they end up getting college credits.


                                    They get their GED, they get college credits and this is all while they’re incarcerated. So, they have a hope, they have a feeling of accomplishment and when they get out; they are fired up and ready to start a new…

Doug:                           Right.

Christina:                     And that’s what I like to see. That is how I like to see.

Doug:                           But why is it that we have to… the sad part is, in the United States, prison is the only place where you actually have a right to healthcare. You know the only time in our country as a citizen that you have a right to healthcare including mental healthcare is in prison.

Debra:                         Yes, right. Right. Which is why I think some prisoners choose to go back in because they…

Doug:                           100 percent.

Debra:                         Nobody will give them a job, they don’t have a place to live, they’re bad people. It’s very sad situation.

Christina:                     And you have to consider some of the people what they have done to their families.

Debra:                         Right.

Christina:                     If you only can imagine… I mean, I’ve talked to people that… it breaks my heart when I think about it but you know, she’s like, oh yes, I stole money from my grandmother,. I took my mother’s jewelry and sold it. I broke into their house; I stole their credit cards. I did all these stuff all for drugs or all for just to go to a party with friends. I mean it’s bad choices.

Doug:                           Sure.

Christina:                     You know they’re not bad people; they make bad choices.

Doug:                           Right. Absolutely.

Debra:                         Yes.

Doug:                           You know, one of the things I hear a lot from people is “go back on vacation.” It’s I’m going on vacation and they meant, I’m going to prison, I’m going to jail. I’d say, “How bad is your life that jail is a vacation from your life?” and that was something that I hear a lot, “I’m going on vacation.”

Debra:                         Yes. That and that’s very saddening. I know I’ve mentioned before in the program that Doug and I are writing a book about technology; the good and the bad and the opportunities and as we’ve been collecting stories, I heard a story the other day that really broke my heart and there was… I was talking to a father and he had a son with autism and he was… I said, “so, tell me…” only because I’ve been really struggling with my daughter Sara with down syndrome, she’s a lot smarter than me when it comes to technology and too much technology really causes her a lot of depression, behavior issues, sadness. And so, I asked him if he’d had any issues with his son with autism and he’s like, “no. no he’s great. But, my 15 year old daughter has been killing us.” And then he said, “but I heard from another father who had a daughter, a 16 year old daughter that the police arrived on their doorsteps and it turned out that she had been taking pictures of her body parts and she was uploading it on a website that was paying her so pedophiles could look at underaged women and…” I mean, excuse me, “underaged girls.”

Doug:                           Right.

Debra:                         And so… gosh, so I guess these parents were bad. Oh no, no no no. the young girls but no, no. but the system is rigged against them. You know they’re rigged because the pedophiles are really good. This website that is encouraging girls that the brains are not completely formed yet. There some really major problems associated with this and once again people were going to prison for that.


                                    I don’t know this family but I just felt very sad for the family and I felt sad for the young girl and I thought… and it just made me so mad that these predators are out here and how do we protect our children? How do we protect ourselves and…

Doug:                           That actually… I mean, that brings up another point which Chris, maybe you can speak to this too but, so, the guys, I definitely found a lot of them have learning disabilities or serious mental health you know underlying serious mental health disorders.


                                    We know that women who are incarcerated, one of the things that we do particularly for women who are… women who’ve been sex trafficked or… the way that it works in this country for the most part is you know, if a woman… if a cop catches a guy and a woman engaged in… you know, the guy is buying sex, for the most part, they’re going to let the guy go and the woman is the one who gets arrested and she has this long laundry list because she’s a felon and she’s a con. But the reality is, if we really look at it, most of these women are not voluntarily doing this. they themselves are victims and then they become further victims of the system because of the way that the laws are in the United States which is not the way… it’s not in every country that they treat women that way that you get arrested if you’re the person who’s being trafficked.

Debra:                         Right. Right.

Christina:                     I don’t have a lot of women that I’ve dealt with in my ministry that have been arrested for prostitution. I have women that’s a, “well, you know, what I did to get drugs, I prostituted myself you know.” That wasn’t what they were incarcerated for. And when you look at people that are incarcerated; say if there’s a bank robbery and say I chose to drive my friends whether I knew they’re going to rob the bank or not, they said they needed to go to the bank, I drove them to go to the bank. All of a sudden, the people come running out, the police pull up and I’m sitting there in the car and I’m looking around and I’m going, “what is going on here?” well guess what? If a woman in the bank has a heart attack and dies because she is traumatized because men come in with guns at the bank, everyone involved in that bank robbery can be charge of murder including the person in the car…

Doug:                           And you’re going to get life for that.

Christina:                     Right.

Debra:                         Right.

Christina:                     Exactly. But, what I’m trying to say is, you don’t necessarily have to be committing the most heinous part of the crime to get charged with it.

Doug:                           Right.

Christina:                     If you’re involved; it’s guilty by association in that situation. And also they may pull you over for a faulty headlight or taillight but if you’ve got cannabis in your car or you had a drink; you’re charged with the higher of the crimes and that’s what’s recorded statistically. That’s what we read about. Those who’ve done crimes we read about.

Doug:                           Right. Yes.

Debra:                         It’s a big topic as you said Doug and I know that we can’t solve it all in one show and I’m hoping to continue the conversation and having Respect Ability on in the future. But, it really is a very serious, very serious situation that it continues to expand. And so, Chris and I talk about this all the time and I thought it would be very interesting for her to join the program to begin to talk about these conversations and I’ve talked about these conversations with Doug as well.


                                    I know that we’re out of time but, I want to throw out Respect Ability’s website; it’s www.respectability.org. There’s one place, there’s a lot of people do an amazing work. You have people like Chris; in this prison ministry, she takes food and clothes to the women. Once they get out, tries to support them and help them, guide them back into a normal life.


                                    It’s a big topic and Doug I know you’ve had a lot of experience with this in the work that you’ve done in the past; child welfare. And once again, think what happens to the children when this happens and Chris talked a little bit about how the families are impacted but, because of the way we’re handling this, people’s lives are being destroyed through often petty crimes.

Christina:                     Yes.

Debra:                         So there’s a lot of work to… go ahead Doug.

Doug:                           And just to say that I think one of the reasons is such a big topic and I’m sure we will revisit this is that the criminal justice system, it touches the deepest roots of injustice in our society.

Debra:                         Right.

Christina:                     Right. Yes.

Debra:                         Well said. And Chris, let’s give you the last words because you’re the expert. I mean you’ve been doing this for the reform for…

Christina:                     No, I’m not the expert.

Debra:                         I know. It’s such a big topic but, you’ve been doing this… how many years have you been doing this prison ministry?

Christina:                     About 12 and a half.

Debra:                         Right. Every Wednesday night she says she’s going to prison so…

Christina:                     I know. My son always finds that highly amusing. “She mama have to…” but, you know, I think we just need to look at the people that are incarcerated now. They are people…

Debra:                         Yes.

Christina:                     They’re not a number. I know they have a number and when I communicate with them, I send them a birthday card or something, they have a number that they go by but that isn’t who they are.

Debra:                         Right.

Christina:                     And we should care for one another and love one another and anything you can do to help support people that need it. If anybody needs it it’s the people getting out of prison because they have been labeled; they’ve been marked and we just need to open the doors to society to keep our society a fresh and a new and give these people another chance. I mean, you know, by the grace of God, we’re not all incarcerated because we’ve all made choices that could…

Doug:                           I was going to say… exactly. Everyone has done something illegal in their lives.

Debra:                         Yes. Yes.

Christina:                     You know, I’ve got so many… we all have so many stories that we can tell and I…

Debra:                         Because we’re not perfect.

Christina:                     Right. And not everybody gets caught unfortunately.

Debra:                         Right.

Christina:                     Once you get caught… like Debra said, once you get in the system; it’s so hard to break out. So, I think by showing kindness… and there are companies that hire people that have been incarcerated and give them another chance and I so appreciate them. But, I thank you for your time today and I hope that this topic has been one of interest and I hope to revisit it again.

Debra:                         Yes.

Christina:                     And I thank you.

Debra:                         Thanks. Thank you for everybody for joining today. And once again, check out respectability.org because they have not only a lot of good statistic but they actually have a lot of good suggestions on how to really create positive reform for these individuals. So, Doug, thank you and Chris for joining today and thank you for everybody that is watching or listening to the program. I would really appreciate if you would subscribe to the program that allows us to continue the work and also if you might share with others and encourage them to subscribe. And always interested in great guest so thank you both for being in the program today and we will continue this conversation.


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