October 19, 2020

How might we better support previously incarcerated women in Washington County to the mental and economic pressures of re-entering society?

Rsearch, research, research!
My group has been busy bees these past weeks calling, emailing, connecting, and learning from the figures that make up the criminal justice system. I am in awe of how many times the research process has to evolve and change. My group's research methods have been anything but smooth. My group has had to be adaptive and fluid with our resources. It has been overwhelming at times and saddening to hear from individual after individual about the lack of resources available for people leaving incarceration. Despite these barriers, I truly think that I have learned so much. My group has been having conversations with people in the criminal justice field that I never thought that I would be a part of. 
We have had the chance to listen to drug court, talk with our county judge, get first-hand experience on what it is like leaving prison, and hear from loved ones of those who have been/are in prison.

My group conducted four different methods of research:

Graphic Organizer:
We got to sit down with Judge Wood, and he was the kindest person as well as incredibly passionate. Aside from serving as judge, he helped develop the Northwest Arkansas Crisis Stabilization Unit. The units were created to be a tool for trained police officers in the situation of a mental health crisis. He also spoke highly of the women's incarceration center here in Fayetteville, and how their job preparation programs are making strides in these women's lives. Judge Wood was passionate about inputting these resources before people leave incarceration, rather than right after they leave. If you can engage the problem before people come back into the community, maybe we can help stop the cycle. He also spoke about the issues within generational factors that influence the prison system, and how we should approach these resources as early as elementary school. I had never even considered this! His last point was that drug issues and mental health issues are intersectional- and a very complicated one at that. This mentality should be considered more in the criminal justice system, such as introducing mental health courts.

Fly on the Wall:
We got to go to drug court! Well, from Zoom, but wow what an experience. It felt strange sitting there listening to these people talk about their struggles and hardships after being out of prison. I felt so many emotions during this experience. I felt awful for so many people. The judge seemed hard on them and I felt like there could have been more space for discussion about mental health issues and how they are doing mentally and emotionally. One of the most difficult things we heard was the judge ask someone that had relapsed, “Do you know the definition of insanity?” I also understand that the judge was being very generous in her servings. She did not send anyone back to prison but gave them second or third chances. Themes from this method are that it seemed like about half of the people in court were doing well and the other half was still really struggling, it seemed like there was a lack of mental health support for everyone, and that people would risk going back to prison to do drugs. This shows that addiction is so much more than just abstaining from drugs and alcohol. 

Love Letter/Breakup Letter: 
An incredible woman from Magdalene Serenity House was willing to share some of her story with us. She went through the program at Magdalene and is now on staff helping women that are going through exactly what she went through. She has been to prison four times and it was not until the last time that she was offered any substantial treatment from the judicial system. Takeaways from these responses were: people do not know what resources are available to them, there is a major lack of support for those leaving prison, and there should be more systems in place in prison (like peer support systems). Here is a quote from her: “I wish that society understood the process of recovery for an addict. It is a lot more than just abstaining from drugs and alcohol. It takes a complete shift in thinking and behaviors. It takes practice in making good choices and learning how to do the next right thing. It is a process and it takes time.” 

We each posted a survey on Instagram asking people who have been in prison or know someone that has been in prison to fill it out. We knew this was a very small group of people, so we didn’t get a ton of responses, but the ones we did get were very informative. The biggest themes we took away from this survey are: the majority of people were in prison for drug-related charges, they did not see their loved ones have access to any programs upon leaving prison, they were pushed away by society, and almost all of them felt like there needs to be a change to our justice system. 

Three major themes kept emerging from all of our research- drugs, mental health, and support. We created some insight statements from our findings.
Prison does not help those that have substance abuse issues.
Society has a lack of knowledge about addiction.
There needs to be more education around mental health.
There is a lack of mental health support in and out of prison.
There are not enough programs or resources when people leave prison (or they are difficult to find and get into).
There needs to be more than just parole and probation programs.

I know that we will not be able to reform the criminal justice system and its preparation for re-entering society overnight, but we are now going to put this knowledge to use and strive to create something that breaks these boundaries we discovered.
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