Throughout Lycoming County, there are many people working hard to reenter the community after a period of incarceration or probation supervision. Lycoming College students stepped out of the classroom recently to interview participants of the Lycoming County Reentry Services Center in an attempt to draw awareness to the challenges of reentry and humanize the specific struggles individuals face, including substance abuse, mental health issues and employment.
This is the fifth feature in a week-long series highlighting reentry participants in Lycoming County.
Jon-Marc Flores-Diaz and Leslie Escamilla-Ambrosio tell Vivian’s story
A strong woman who has gone through many experiences and challenges in her life is Vivian, a mother, daughter and grandmother who is now an example of how people who re-enter our society can change for the better. Vivian had struggled with drug abuse as a young adult after the emotional and psychological abuse by her stepmother as a child and has been through multiple situations that led up to her making different choices in her life.
Throughout her interview, a main point that Vivian stressed was the love she has for herself. This love helped her overcome her addiction by having her realize that she doesn’t want to put these toxins in her body any longer. Every morning, according to Vivian, she kisses her hand to remind herself of the self-love that she has. After having a tragic childhood, her addiction started at the age of 18. When Vivian was the age of 4, her mother, only 19 years old, had been found dead in her cousin’s house due to liquid methadone that was placed in her drink earlier that night. Following the death of her mother, Vivian’s father had made the decision, along with her now stepmother, to move in together leading to a house of chaos. The emotional abuse that Vivan went through is something that she has not been able to forget. At the age of 8, she recalled to hearing these words from her stepmother, “You ain’t s*** and you will never be s***. You gonna die a f****** junkie like your mother.” This type of mental abuse was created due to the stepmother’s alcohol addiction leading Vivian at a young age to start consuming alcohol. She believes this is what led to her addiction.
Vivian was a former addict who got treatment to fight against her addiction. Today she is 21 years sober and never felt better. While going through this process, re-entry participants often need a support system. Vivian mentioned the love she has for her grandchildren and children. They are her motivation to continue in this process of staying clean, getting high is just not worth it anymore. “… That is all I keep in my head, just, it’s not worth it, it’s not. I had one day clean when my first grandchild was born, so I celebrated 21 years clean on July the 30th… [My grandchildren] didn’t go through none of that storm that I took my children through and with that I’m the best ‘Mima’ in the world.”
Now Vivian has big dreams and has goals for the future including opening up a Norma’s Recovery House in Lycoming County. Vivian’s goal for Norma’s Recovery House is to help women who are seeking recovery. Vivian described her goal in detail mentioning ways that these houses can impact a woman who has children. She described that in these houses women who have younger children would be able to get a room. During the daytime when these women are doing what they’re supposed to do, such as going to AA or NA meetings, or even looking for jobs, the program could have a daycare with people qualified to look after their children in order to help these mothers out in their recovery. Vivian is all about trying to help those who are going through a path like hers and those who have families.
Vivian’s motivation is to “… stop talking about it and put some footwork into it and see what I can come up with.” Vivian wants to demonstrate that she can be a figure in the community to help others who are dealing with a similar situation that she has gone through. Along with continuing her journey of staying clean and being a productive person in the community, she wants to be a helping hand.
There is stigma on those who have a criminal record. Many believe that those who are ex-offenders are horrible people and that they shouldn’t get a second chance. What many people fail to realize is the hardships that people who are released from jail and prison face, such as rebuilding family connections, employment, and the struggle of dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, among other things.
When asked “If there was one thing you wish the criminal justice system could change to help support people, what would it be?” Vivian replied, “Locking people up because they use… [It] is not going to get them clean. I mean they’ll get ‘em clean, but their mentality ain’t gonna change and that doesn’t make sense to keep throwing somebody in jail for that. Put them into rehab.” The percentage of people who are in jail or prison for drugs and related charges is high, which has contributed to the mass incarceration that is occurring in the United States. The drug epidemic across the United States has led to tougher sentencing. What people need to recover from drug abuse is not jail but rehabilitation and reentry programs.
Employment in Vivian’s life seems to be going well. Vivian is now a worker for White Deer Run, which has helped her see the issue she once faced, helping others with the same conflicts. Employment for those individuals who have just been released from prison has proven to be a much more difficult task to accomplish, which results in high rates of recidivism. When applying for a job, a question that is asked in various forms is whether a person has a criminal record, which can affect their chances of becoming employed. One thing Vivian wanted to let the community know was “Give them jobs, even if they start volunteering in places, such as Careerlink. Give them more schooling. You need to educate people, even in jail.” Education increases the likelihood of employment one could have after their release.
It has been shown that education programs in prison that help prisoners obtain their GED and take college classes to work up to their associate’s degree could help these individuals toward a better future and lower the recidivism rate. According to Jacob Reich in his article, “The economic impact of prison rehabilitation programs”, states such as New York and Ohio, which offer college classes, have seen a drastic reduction in the recidivism rate. For example, according to the article, prisoners who are in the New York program that earn a college degree while incarcerated are almost half as likely to get arrested after released from prison compared to inmates who did not earn a degree. Vivian has benefited from the education programs that Lycoming County Prison has to offer. In the interview we asked her, “What additional programming could be offered to better support individuals who have a criminal record back in the community?” to which she answered, “You need to educate the people, even in jail. That’s where I got my GED at, inside Lycoming County Prison in 1999.”
Overall, Vivian is a person that can be looked as a good role model. The changes that she made has improved the life that she now has with her family. Not only does she have a stable environment, but she has found forgiveness in her heart for those who led her down the wrong track, including her stepmother. The complexity of everyone’s situation in the “Stories of Reentry” has brought to light the challenges and difficulties these individuals face.