b'ing stigma-free

 

Recently, my daughter Laurin and I attended a tech conference in Boulder, CO: the T-3 Summit. As the conference began, we were asked to break into groups of four people for an icebreaker activity. The instructions given were – each person will present three statements to their group. Two statements will be the truth and one will be a lie. The group members will then try to figure out which statement was the lie. I felt pretty confident I could get away with the lie I had chosen, so I offered to go first and made these three statements:Prison Policy Initiative

  1. Pointing to my daughter in another group I said, I’m here with Laurin, and she is one of my 4 sisters,
  2. “I’ve been to prison,” and
  3. “I don’t know how to code.”

When it was time to guess, one person stated that Laurin and I were sisters; that assumption made me smile and my daughter roll her eyes. The other two guessed that I did know how to code. None guessed that I had gone to prison. To their defense, I was at a tech conference and most of the people in attendance could have probably built an App over the weekend; it might have been easier for them to believe that I could code, versus having once been 1 of 2.4 million[1] people who are incarcerated in either a prison or jail in America. (See pie chart above.)

The truth is, decades of media coverage and our own personal biases have helped many of us create mental images of what “those people” who go to prison look like. We then try to predict their future actions, and as a society, we have created many methods for locking them out of our communities. Many Americans who go to prison don’t fit the stereotypes, and are therefore not stigmatized at a cursory glance. For better or worse, I am one of “those people.”

My conflict with the judicial system began in 2001 and has lasted so long that it has consumed nearly one-third of my life. Initially, disclosing the fact that I went to prison was difficult. But eventually I found that, for me, it feels more authentic to share my experience, allowing me to fully present all of who I am. Even now there are days when I still can’t believe I went to prison. I know that might be difficult for some people to understand, but it’s the truth.

Transitioning into incarceration was very difficult for me. It was hard when the staff of Alderson Federal Prison Camp, where I served a 70-month sentence, spoke to any of us in a derogatory manner. My skin crawled when we were referred to as “inmates.” It was hard for me to identify with or accept that label, because I have always understood that words, titles and labels do matter. Regardless of what the correctional officers thought, I would never let “inmate” define me.

Transitioning from prison to freedom was also challenging for me. Even though I mentally fought to maintain dignity while behind the gates, when I was released from prison, I initially found it difficult to process and receive random acts of kindness, human decency and courtesies from strangers. Yet, I was filled with so much gratitude when I was treated as normal. At the same time, I was disgusted and infuriated when I would hear kind people refer to the formerly incarcerated as “ex-cons,” “felons” and “convicts.”

Now, stating that you’ve been to prison leads to discrimination from individuals, corporations and institutions; it makes “returning home” and pursuing a life of purpose and productivity seem, as Marc Mauer and Jeremy Haile of The Sentencing Project describe in a 2013 Huffington Post article[2], an impossible journey. As a result, so many are forced to live in shame as they hide their personal stories.

Each time I reveal to someone new that I’ve been to prison, I notice two general responses:

  1. Either they seem to have a stunned or puzzled look on their face, tilting their head as if they are trying to process this new information; or
  2. They take a sight step backwards signaling their dismay in a deeper way.

Fortunately, I get to authentically live it out in the organization that Laurin and I co-founded, Mission: Launch, Inc. and the community effort we manage, Rebuilding Re-Entry. It is here where we lead our teams’ efforts in improving the outcomes for the nearly 700,000[3] people who are annually released from prison or jails in America.

Many of us who have endured systemic and/or institutional stigmatization lead the charge of equality, fairness and inclusion. This work may not always be easy, but the timing is right. I’m especially committed to eliminating stigmas concerning how we view people exiting prisons and/or jails – our returning citizens.

 

[1] Wagner, P., and Sakala, L. Mass incarceration: The whole pie, March 12, 2014. Prison Policy Initiative. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html, Accessed 7/9/15.

[2] Mauer, M and Haile, J. The new assault on formerly incarcerated individuals, July 29, 2013. Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-mauer/the-new-assault-on-formerly-incarcerated-individuals_b_3659935.html, Accessed 7/9/15.

[3] The US Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, August 22, 2013. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-and-education-departments-announce-new-research-showing-prison-education-reduces, Accessed 7/9/15.

 

 

Teresa HodgeTeresa Y. Hodge, a passionate advocate for people with criminal connections, is committed to reducing the lasting harm caused by prison. It was a 70-month federal prison sentence for a white-collar, non-violent, first-time offense that introduced her first-hand to the justice system and mass incarceration in America.

Upon coming home, she and her daughter Laurin Hodge co-founded Mission: Launch, Inc. a non-profit focused on introducing technology and entrepreneurship to previously incarcerated individuals as a way of ensuring self-sufficiency. Additionally, the organization founded and manages the Rebuilding Re-Entry Coalition, a citizen-led movement committed to creating a more just and inclusive society for returning citizens (persons who exit prison or jail). The Coalition and its members desire to leverage its efforts within the greater Washington DC region to ensure a more efficient and safer re-entry for everyone.

As the Director of Strategy & Innovation for Mission: Launch, Inc., Teresa plays a critical role in building strategic partnerships and establishing social enterprise models for greater reach and sustainability. Prior experience as an entrepreneur allowed her to maximize her time in prison looking for best practices to help her and others get back on their feet upon release. Hodge is a certified life coach, with a specialty in prison re-entry. Her memoir and private coaching practice, Pearls & Prison, continues to bring meaning and closure to the time she spent in prison. In 2014 she was selected to be one of the initial cohort members of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization committed to ensuring that the voice of the formerly incarcerated is equipped to advocate for prison reform.

Teresa is available to speak to your organization or classroom. You can contact her for speaking engagements at: Teresa@Mission-Launch.org. If you’re active on social media please feel free to follow her on Twitter @TeresaYHodge or on Instagram at TeresaYHodge.


 

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