Ava Richards Interview: A Community Member Perspective on How Incarceration Impacts Everyone

 

With over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than any other nation, incarceration can still be an issue that doesn't seem to impact certain communities as much as others. The division is often based on race, education, or socioeconomic status. However, as we become what Angela Davis once warned us of becoming, an "Increasingly Incarcerated Society," it is time for more of us believe in the need for decarceration. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a brilliant young person, Ava Richards from Los Angeles, who recognizes that incarceration does indeed impact everyone and that there is much work to be done in order to help support formerly incarcerated people returning to our communities. Ava Richards has chosen to look at our "incarcerated society's" impact on women and families for her senior thesis project. We hope you will enjoy what she's learned so far.

 

Ava, what issue are you researching?

Reintegration of formerly incarcerated women and their families with an emphasis on women with children.

 

How did you decide on this issue?

It was in tenth grade in my AP US History class that the complexities around the Era of Mass Incarceration were introduced at a level that captured my interest; the idea that incarceration impacts everyone in the nation, not only the individuals who live it.

 

Then, one day while volunteering for my school’s Community Service Outreach at L.A. Kitchen, a work program offering people with first time offenses employment and culinary education, I found myself chopping carrots with Andrés, who had spent the last seventeen years of his life in prison. He shared the struggles of adjusting to his newfound freedom. As unsettling as his stories were, his account of meeting his seventeen-year-old daughter for the first time was the most heartbreaking. I worked alongside a man who had been reduced to a statistic, who missed the chance to watch his children grow up due to a mistake he made nearly two decades ago. His story made me consider how legal punishment extends far beyond simply placing a parent behind bars and the prevalence of incarceration for families across the country. As I left L.A. Kitchen, I wondered how that statistic could change, how the man behind the stories could achieve a strong relationship with his daughter, a college degree, and a stable job.

 

Shortly thereafter, I pitched a proposal to study matters on mass incarceration for my school’s Honors Research Program, in which students are paired with a mentor to explore a specialized topic and conduct their own research, and earned a spot in the program.

 

Did others at your school, in your home, family, or neighborhood know about this isssue before you came upon it?

With both my parents growing up in Detroit and many of my relatives working as policemen or for the FBI, I grew up hearing stories about the Detroit riots, divisive racism towards minority communities, and the long history of racial conflict in Detroit. I’ve always been taught that it’s my responsibility to embrace less embraced voices and to wholeheartedly oppose injustice. For me, the phenomenon of mass incarceration is simply impossible to ignore.

 

Nonetheless, none of my friends or family knew very much about mass incarceration until I began rambling about it at the dinner table and at school.

 

Why do you think it is important for people to care about this issue?

The lecture I attended by Dr. David Harding at the University of Pennsylvania is where I discovered a need to raise awareness about these pressing issues.  I was stunned at the research that Dr. Harding unveiled, explaining that 1 in 33 Americans is under some form of supervision of the criminal justice system, meaning on parole, on probation, or in prison or jail. I came to contextualize mass incarceration as an epidemic that we as a society need to address.

 

What research have you looked into so far?

After studying Harding’s 354-page manuscript, “After Prison: Reentry and Reintegration in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” I set off to grasp the causes, implications, and solutions to today’s epidemic of incarceration. Quickly, I realized there was a glaring gap in much of the existing scholarship on the phenomenon of mass incarceration: the female prison and reintegration experience.  In addition to the inherent general obstacles of reentry from prison - housing and welfare insecurity, stringent parole guidelines, fragmented relationships with family and friends, the stigma that follows a felony record, difficulty finding a job that corresponds with parole or probation stipulations, lack of access to transportation - women face a unique set of adversities which are largely excluded from scholarship on prisoner reintegration. First, there are higher rates of mental illness among female prisoners than male prisoners. According to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 73% of women in prison reported having a mental illness, versus 56% of men. These illnesses are rarely recognized and addressed; therefore, undiagnosed or untreated illnesses may define one’s experience of reintegration, especially when formerly incarcerated individuals are expected to maintain jobs, stay sober, satisfy strict parole guidelines, and endure the emotional setbacks of incarceration. Furthermore, women are often primary caretakers of children, as 60% of women in prison are mothers, according to the New York Times. Along with the responsibilities of caretaking (healthcare, childcare, healing an interrupted relationship), many women must work to gain custody of their children after being separated while in prison. Even more complicated are the toxic or unsafe relationships that many women seek to escape when they return to their families, communities, and social networks upon reentry into society. This is especially a concern for women who were previously involved in prostitution.

 

Why do you think it is important for people to know more about this issue?

The first step in my journey was discovering the vastness of inequities faced by incarcerated individuals and their families. With incarceration on such a massive scale, the criminal justice system is just as relevant to our lives as Americans as banks, schools, and other public institutions. In my next blog, I will be interviewing Dr. David Harding and discussing the value of community-based punishment and how these inequities can be addressed in our society.  It will be well worth anyone’s time to learn more about the theories of punishment and how community-based punishment benefits each and every one of us.

Ava Richards is a senior at Marlborough High School in Los Angeles. She likes volleyball, creative writing, and journalism. She hopes to continue exploring contemporary issues through social science research in college. 

Ava Richards and Riley Hewko, Esq.

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Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People's Movement Western Regional Conference

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Formerly incarcerated and convicted people, family members, community and spiritual leaders, elected officials and government employees will all come together to strengthen our relationships and work towards making change through community empowerment. We invite you to Voice your opinion, learn your rights and learn what changes we can make together. All of Us or None Contact: (415)-255-7036 ext. 337 www.prisonerswithchildren.org

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