Inmate #081486. To the penal system, inmates are too often just numbers in a list. At Association House, we know them as humans who have stories, families, and a life outside the prison’s walls. Following a recent visit to Stateville to offer re-entry resources to inmates approaching release our Visions Substance Use Program Supervisor received a three-page letter from an inmate.

The inmate shared that he has been in and out of prison since he was 15 years old and now, he is 35 years old. He has struggled with addiction to cocaine and heroin. When he went into prison four years ago, he was told he would get help for his addiction and be able to earn his GED. However, during his four years in the system, he hasn’t received the promised help. To Kristy he wrote, “when I told you all my story you looked at me like I was a human, your facial expression never changed when I admitted the bad stuff I did in the past. Then when I went to write my name down, I put my IDOC number next to it and you said something that I have never heard before which was, I was not defined by that number, and you wanted me to write my actual name.”   

Reading this letter, we knew we had to catch up with Kristy about her experience at the Stateville Reentry Summit and how it relates to her work here at Association House. Prior to the pandemic, our team would visit Stateville twice a year. When Kristy and teammate Adriana Rivera went in October, it was their first visit in two years.  

Interview 

What does it mean to you to visit these inmates? 

It gives people inside the prison hope that someone will help them. We learn that people who leave prison and do not receive help within the first two weeks are more susceptible to going back to old behaviors. Those early weeks are the most crucial time to provide the resources they need to recover, especially with the opioid epidemic happening. Recently incarcerated people are 40 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose the first 2 weeks post-release. By us visiting, they now know our organization’s name when they leave the system. Even if they don’t get paroled out to Chicago or near us, they have one connection made that can help them find the resources in whatever town they go home to. I have seen people call me after being released and use our resources to survive. But everything must start from inside the system to really help the inmates. 

How do you think we can change our perceptions about the people within these systems? 

I believe that we should go into every situation believing the best in people instead of the worst. When we go into the prisons the inmates ask us, what makes you want to help us and what makes you believe us? That is because there is this huge stigma around the criminal justice population. We can change society’s perceptions about people within the system by reminding everyone that they are human beings, and every person deserves to be given an opportunity no matter what mistakes they have made in their past. If you just take the time to listen to their stories a lot of times you will see someone who struggles with some sort of mental illness or substance use disorder who has never been offered help. If you look at what rehabilitation is being given to an inmate in relation to their struggles you will see they are not receiving any therapeutic services that they need. That means they are set up for failure the minute they walk out the door. If we can provide them with the services inside the system and prepare them for when they are about to leave, they at least have a fighting chance.  

Why aren’t the services they need being provided? 

A lot of the reason services are not being provided is because of the lack of knowledge. Too often you see or hear about an inmate with a drug problem going into prison without being detoxified correctly. We struggle as a society to see how these resources are so important not just physically but psychologically. Another huge barrier is funding and lack of staff. Prisons don’t always have staff on site who are equipped to handle people who struggle with mental illness or substance use. That is where agencies like ours come into play. We can go into these prisons for free and give our time and energy to help. The more communities and organizations see this being done, the more they may be willing to learn, understand, or help.    

What do you think separates us from the other tables? 

When you go into an all-men prison, I think Association House brings in a different perspective than others because we offer a wide range of services besides just visions. The last time we visited, an inmate we spoke to about our services mentioned that his significant other shared with him that their kid wasn’t doing well in school, and he heard about our high school program at the house. Our services were there for him and his family. 

Why is it important to you to improve this system? 

I am deeply passionate about improving the system. Through Association House I have met so many amazing participants who came from the criminal justice system. After listening to their stories and hearing about what they have gone through it just puts so many things into perspective. These individuals didn’t always choose this way of life. Addiction is often looked at by 3 risk factors: biological, psychological, and environmental. Sadly, criminal thinking behaviors are adapted in very similar ways. At times, the people who are being sent to prison are often people who were taught so by one of those 3 distinctions. One way I try and improve the system is by giving presentations about this at PHIMC. We need to change the system from within because otherwise, it will be a revolving door. 65% percent of the United States prison population has an active substance use disorder. Another 20% percent did not meet the official criteria for a substance use disorder but were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime.  

That’s why it’s important for these outside organizations to come into these correctional facilities because the work starts from within the system. Association House was not going to judge someone based on their past experiences. There’s a lot of work to do when it comes to our penal system. Proud of the work our visions program is doing here at the house to help inmates within the system.