My car got robbed, I didn’t call the police​

My car got robbed, I didn’t call the police​

rethinking justice and taking responsibility for our communities health and wellbeing as a whole

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

I discovered my truck, back windows popped out and broken into a thousand pea sized glass pieces, late the night following Christmas on a one way in downtown DC.


It seemed inevitable, part of the price to pay for living in the city. Car break ins are common enough in DC. Drive around the right block, on a particular early morning, and piles of broken window glass will scatter about the road like rain puddles.



The crime statistics say that only one car burglary has been reported on that side of the block in the last two years. In the last year, crime stats for the city report only 492 thefts from cars. I’ve seen at least a dozen break-ins on that street in the last six months. People in my neighborhood know that spot is ripe for break-ins and avoid it.



This means DC is either failing to log these nonviolent crimes or the owners of these robbed cars made the same decision I did and did not call the police or file a police report.



A lot was stolen from my car, a huge box of Goodwill clothes, a very old and broken bike, bear spray and a six year old Bluetooth speaker. All in all, the person who wormed through my back cab pickup windows and tossed my car didn’t make away with anything of significant value.



I on the other hand am footing the bill of fixing multiple windows and replacing the few items I used – totaling close to $800. I didn’t call the police because I knew they’d be incapable of delivering justice or righting the situation.



For one, we know that police departments are understaffed and over worked right now, so a call or report would have likely been lost in the shuffle. But even if they’d pursued an investigation the likely hood of solving the case was low. AND even if they found the person who robbed my truck, they would have been thrown in jail and entered the court system, costing me and other tax payers more money.



I doubt the person who took old clothes, a broken bike and picked the most beat up car on the block to rob was swimming in a ton of money.


The current legal system does not offer me what I needed or wanted in this situation: enough money to fix my car from the person that broke it. I don’t even have grand aspirations of an apology.

The current legal system does not offer me what I needed or wanted in this situation: enough money to fix my car from the person that broke it. I don’t even have grand aspirations of an apology.
When I think more deeply about who robbed my truck, I think about gentrification and the violence of “progress” in predominantly Black cities like DC as prices soar and original Black communities are replaced by elites of all races, but mostly white people.


What is my price to pay for the impact of me living as a white women in a Black city as an outsider? In some ways, did I owe whoever was hard enough up on money to rob my truck? What does social accountability look like for me?


As we embark on a new year of 2022, I encourage all of us to consider what justice means to us. Is it punishment or accountability? Is it an emotional vindictive crusade for our ego or a journey to actually morally right a wrong? How are those two different?


I encourage all of us to look at what conditions and pressures make fertile ground for crime and how all of us as a society are responsible for giving birth to those situations. Crime is often looked at as an individual’s responsibility. But what if we addressed it as a community problem we all share responsibility in solving?

The True Agony of Facing COVID-19 While Locked Up

The True Agony of Facing COVID-19 While Locked Up

Covid is surging in prisons and jails across the 

country again, we revisit an essay exploring what that 

means for the mental health of the people inside. 

By Karim Diggs

Karim Diggs has spent the last 45 years in prison in Pennsylvania. He is an acclaimed legal prison scholar who has helped many prisoners find freedom in case appeals. He is a contributor to The Des. This is part one of Karim’s dispatch from inside. Next week we go over his proposed solutions for the incarcerated during the pandemic.

March 2020, changed my prison existence as I knew it. Immediate lockdown took place, and I was stuck in the cell with another person 24/7. This close living situation does not take well with anyone who has a drop of common sense and decency. I asked myself how long will I be in lockdown, and what type of disease is this ravaging the human population? How will state officials treat prisoners? Each day ticked by with no assurance or relief in sight, and the information on CNN provided me with unwelcome news. The news from the White House gave one story and the popular media gave another. My confusion grew, and I had no idea what to think. The image before me was death could come from the virus and prisoners were in the condition to suffer the most.

The overdose of news coverage and the fear gained from misinformation did very little to combat the prison officials humble request that we be patient. The officials made a commitment to address all our concerns and that our health was their priority. They would do every thing they could to make our situation as comfortable and safe as possible. We were given masks and told what to do to protect ourselves. The prison TV station was constantly giving us instructions and updates. I was given some confidence in the message because it appeared everyone in the administration was on board to do all they could to manage this crisis. I had to respect the professionalism and efforts.

But entire experience left out the psychological impact of forced confinement, and the agony of the unknown. Probably the worst part of this nightmare is the fear that I would get COVID-19 from another prisoner or a staff member.

I wondered if COVID-19 was as radioactive and deadly as it seems it would be? How would I handle it if I caught it and what would I tell my family? These were worries I had. While the Pandemic was catching fire, I was given a new cellie and he was young and seemed like a nice person. We got along well, until one night he was smoking some type of drug and I had to inform him I do not allow any drug use in my cell. He agreed to obey the rules. I caught him again. I told him we must get the housing manager to remove him to another cell. He was eventually moved to another cell. Before he left we argued again about the lighting situation. He slept on the top bunk which puts him directly in the eye of the light in the ceiling.

I wondered if COVID-19 was as radioactive and deadly as it seems it would be? How would I handle it if I caught it and what would I tell my family? These were worries I had. While the Pandemic was catching fire, I was given a new cellie and he was young and seemed like a nice person. We got along well, until one night he was smoking some type of drug and I had to inform him I do not allow any drug use in my cell. He agreed to obey the rules. I caught him again. I told him we must get the housing manager to remove him to another cell. He was eventually moved to another cell. Before he left we argued again about the lighting situation. He slept on the top bunk which puts him directly in the eye of the light in the ceiling.

Karim speaking at an event in SCI Phoenix.

A very bright light when you sleep on the top bunk. We came to an agreement on how we would manage the lighting system. I had to read and write and do legal petitions in my cell etc. The system puts anybody in a cell without their psychological profile being considered. This is dangerous and it causes extreme conflict and stress.


In my opinion, the failure to consider how to deal with the mental health aspect of close confinement on an entire prison population is cruel and punitive at best and allows a silent deterioration self-worth and sense of being. Any sense of having control of your life is eliminated by the daily confinement in such a small space. Breathing, moving in the cell, sharing every inch of the cell, creates a limited world that brings no degree of peace or self-worth.


Men and women should not suffer without fresh air or space to be at peace within your own skin. These mental health requirements are absence in the plan to deal with prisoners. It appears that it is not even an issue. Just as the use of the vaccine for the prisoner population has been at the bottom of the list. I have yet to hear a whisper of the need to bring the vaccine to the prisoner citizens. I think of these issues and I feel the disregard for humanity as part of a society who is bragging about human rights all over the world. We condemn China, Russia, Korea and other places as savage nations when it comes to human rights. We need to be consistent in our position when it relates to people no matter where we find them or put them.


Vitamins are not part of the treatment of people in prison. We lack sufficient vitamins especially D. The lack of sunshine is lost due to the confinement we endure. The food is not supplying the needed Vitamin D which is necessary for good mental health. The psychological effects from this deficiency is not put into the equation in how the state could help preserve our mental health while in the lockdown. Aging and other health problems are coming from the long and sustained diet of starches and other foods that do not give us the vitamins we need.


At any time of the day, you will find nearly 99% of the cells are dark with no lights are on. The prisoners are sleep and they turn off the lights. For whatever reasons, the dark is the place most find peace and comfort. Nobody is reading too much and when going to the library it is not to do much research, but simply to talk with a friend or homey. There is an intellectual breakdown as a result of the inadequate handling of the large prison population.


Social distance is the major way to prevent the spread of the disease. I agree with the masks and separation form each other. I do believe the state should develop a computer system that we can operate our own small computer in our cells. This would create activity in the cell that keeps the brain alive and working.


The man on the top bunk from suffering overdose of light in his or her eyes. It would also prevent arguments and people sleeping all day in the dark!


I have seen most of the men who are dying and going to the hospital are elderly men. These have been working and exercising for decades, but the March 2020 Pandemic lockdown has revealed sickness, disease and other problems that were not known or not brought forth until now. 


The Pandemic also has driven some men to refuse further treatment for cancer and they have died in my opinion from hopelessness. They were convinced there is no relief and absolutely no compassionate consideration in releasing men and women due to the ending of their lives.

Compassionate release is a legislative law that permits after certain requirements are met, a prisoner can be released on a medical court order decree. But very few prisoners are granted such relief.


Section Pennsylvania Statute codified as 42 Pa. C.S .& 977 allows a sentencing judge to grant relief in a properly filed Motion. You must be seriously ill and not expected to live more than on year. And medically, your needs can be treated more appropriately in an outside facility. What usually destroys the last reason to release you is the DOC medical doctor will not say they are unable to treat you. They always alleged we provide the best treatment available and thus your application for compassionate release will fail.

Punished and not let out

Pete with his granddaughter.

Punished and not let out

Struggles with alcohol landed this Montana man in the justice system, but what kept him there? 

By Pete Leek
By Pete Leek

Pete lives in Montana.

[Pete’s wife interviewed him. This is a summary from the full audio that is available to listen below. Pete has been reluctant to share his story due to fear of retaliation through parole, but he is now sharing hoping that his story will encourage change.]

"He felt like his defense lawyer was against him from the beginning"

Pete Leek’s addiction to alcohol eventually landing him in Montana’s State Prison. He was convicted of aggravated assault after threatening his ex-girlfriend in a drunken altercation. He started drinking at a young age after his mom kicked him out. He drank to drown out the pain, “It drowned [out] all my pain and everything I had growing up as a child. So I just kept drinking.” It cost him relationships with loved ones and his children, and then sent him to prison. He felt like his defense lawyer was against him from the beginning, scaring him with a maximum sentence of 150 years if he did not plea despite him having a completely clean record – minus killing a gopher on a ranch as a minor which was thrown out only after he spent over two months in jail.

He received 20 years with ten suspended. “Prison sucked,” he said. “It’s nothing but kids.” He was sent to Montana’s sole private prison, a CoreCivic facility. He said the medical care and food was horrible – chicken with feathers in it.  “They’re just money swindlers,” he said of the private corporation.

Pete said there were financial inconsistencies with a dog program from the Montana Inmate Well fair Fund that he believes originated from prison officials stealing money from the fund.

He was assaulted while in prison – kicked in the head 15 times – but simply stayed in his cell for a month to recover so he could avoid being thrown in solitary. The prison put three bunks to one cell which made it so crammed some inmates would act out just to go to solitary to be alone.

"When Pete got out after ten years, he was shocked"

After being denied parole twice, when Pete got out after ten years, he was shocked. The last time he saw people wearing yoga pants was when spandex raged in the eighties. “I almost passed out a couple times when I was in Walmart because my anxiety had me really freaked out.” He wants private prisons like the one in Montana where he experienced poor medical care and dental treatment to disappear.

“I wasn’t the monster they thought I was. It was just a bunch of alcohol."

Listen to the full interview here.


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Still locked out of the ballot box

 An estimated 4.6 million Americans are still unable to vote due to felony records despite reforms. This includes more than one in 10 Black adults in eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.


Bail industry gets away with murder, costing defendants and citizens alike

An investigation was published indicating that six NYC bail bond companies were using fake trade names in order to continue operations without being shut down by state officials for large amounts of debt. The ability of agencies to continue to profit off of the bail system despite state laws that allow officials to suspend agencies owing large sums of money is the sixth loophole emphasized by the report.


Mass incarceration punishes kids too

The arrest of a parent can be traumatic and severe for children whose parents are incarcerated, causing emotional, physical, educational and financial well-being difficulties. According to a  new study, kids of incarcerated parents are likely to become incarcerated themselves.

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Prison Is No Substitute For Health Care and treatment of HIV

Prison Is No Substitute For Health Care and treatment of HIV

Over half of U.S. states still criminalize HIV. More resources should be allotted to care, treatment, and prevention not prison time

By Stephen Hicks
By Stephen Hicks

Stephen Hicks is a researcher, writer, and public speaker. He is the 2021 Narrative Justice Fellow at the Counter Narrative Project. His bylines have appeared in TheBody, TheBodyPro, HuffPost, Architect Magazine, and VICE.

We would only use the criminal justice system to solve public health concerns if we’re stuck on stupid or set on continuing oppressive practices. But what a choice we still choose.


In over half of the United States, a person can find themselves in court due to their HIV status. Criminalization of non-criminal acts is a deeply rooted practice in America – the criminalization of HIV, a disease most often transmitted through exchange of bodily fluids, is no different. Americans address this public health issue with the criminal justice system instead of public health solutions.


Twenty-six states throughout the U.S. have laws on their books aimed at criminalizing HIV, according to The Center for HIV Law and Policy. Guilt is often based on not disclosing one’s status and a host of what-if scenarios. Proving a person’s intention to transmit HIV  — is near-impossible; but the legal system, not health experts, determine whether a person will serve prison time for living amongst the general public with HIV. 


These HIV criminalization laws render people disposable solely based on a health condition. Yet, if we go beyond mere surface analysis, the health status of living with HIV is further complicated by racism, homophobia, transphobia and poverty. HIV criminalization statutes prioritize outdated hysteria rather than evidence-based research. These type of laws in the South and Midwest are exceptionally horrible and stretch from Washington, D.C. to Mississippi.


“We know that HIV criminalization laws are a hodge-podge of antiquated, draconian policies that unnecessarily regulate HIV-positive people’s sexual citizenship—denying them basic rights to sexual health, wellness and pleasure,” Riko Boone, a researcher at George Washington University who conducted extensive research on HIV criminalization’s consequences, said.


The U.S. has a sick obsession with targeting the most marginalized communities while simultaneously underfunding their resources and gaslighting them, asserting that it’s their fault they haven’t done enough.


The prison industrial complex thrives from this negligence of people living with HIV. Meanwhile, those living with stigmatized health conditions are pushed into the shadows with deadly consequences. Any criminalization of HIV further brands people who live with it and blocks them from care.

Those incarcerated due to these laws contribute to the America hosting the largest prison population in the world per capita. 


At the end of 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 2.2 million people were locked up in the U.S., including 1.5 million in federal and state prisons and close to 741,000 in locally run jails. Another four million people were under supervision, either on parole or probation. Black males are specifically incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Though Black males made up only 12% of the adult U.S. population in 2016, they represented 33% of the individuals behind bars.


“By and large, Black people have always faced and continue to face huge inequities in both regards. And therefore, HIV criminalization laws – much like the criminal justice system writ-large – [are] inherently anti-Black and yet another example of how structural racism is baked into nearly every system in the U.S.,” Boone added.

ACT UP 30th Anniversary Gathering Rally at the NYC AIDS Memorial at St. Vincent Triangle Park at 200 - 218 West 12th Street in the West Village in Manhattan, New York City, NY on Thursday afternoon, 30 March 2017. by Elvert Barnes

 This past July marked the 40th year since The New York Times reported on HIV impacting gay men. As more people who were not gay men were diagnosed, a sense of urgency ensued, but bigotry disguising itself as genuine care also emerged. HIV wasn’t a concern until it was discovered the disease didn’t discriminate.      


We, as an electorate on the local, state, and federal levels, have trekked further in this discriminatory direction policy-wise despite other progressive evolutions, which adds more obstacles to people living with HIV. We’re long overdue to head in another direction. This direction should include greater health equity resources like expanding Medicaid, better cost-sharing with pharmaceutical companies and housing-first policies which prioritize housing for people no matter their health status.


About one in seven persons living with HIV pass through a correctional or detention facility each year, reports The Center for HIV Law and Policy. And when these people look to re-enter society, they face even more issues due to the criminalizing of their health status.


Incarceration often interrupts HIV care and treatment and provides greater difficulties for returning citizens from prisons and jails. There is no solid, consistent pipeline to get people back into care after release. Therefore, criminalization heightens the following challenges: family support, neighborhood violence, relationship with law enforcement, employment, mental health concerns and medical care and medication management.

Most recently this year, Missouri and Illinois chipped away at their respective HIV criminalization laws; however, it’s important to note chipping away doesn’t mean overturning the laws. This is called modernization. In Missouri’s case, their modernization means reducing the charges and sentencing faced by a person accused of exposing someone to the virus. This isn’t a complete overhaul of a ridiculous law. To quote Molly M. Pearson of Missouri HIV Justice Coalition: “the modernization law doesn’t go far enough.”

Pearson writes in TheBody: “People living with HIV deserve to be seen and valued more than a little blue pill. I want every person living with HIV to celebrate their birthday, go to the movies, have great sex, and lay on the beach with a cold beverage. I want people living with HIV to live, and it’s on us to build a world where they can, without fear.”

The Missouri HIV Justice Coalition has been pushing for HIV decriminalization for a decade and deserve much of the credit for advocacy in challenging the standing statutes.

Maybe, living in a global pandemic that has infected at least 219 Million people worldwide should drive home why criminalizing a disease won’t work. This criminalization focuses upon those already experiencing state violence, over policing and discrimination – namely Black and brown folks, sex workers, and drug users. And the resources never seem equitably distributed to these communities dealing with mounting oppression. Instead, they receive the worst of it all: criminalization, ridicule and stigma.


More states need to re-evaluate their HIV criminalization laws. What’s currently in place deprives people of their human dignity, stamping them as pariahs which creates a less healthy and equitable America for everyone.

Redemption denied

Redemption denied

A Colorado woman’s search for clemency after 30 years inside

By Robin Farris
By Robin Farris

Robin Farris writes from prison at Denver Women's Correctional Facility

“We shall Overcome” epitomized the racial climate during the 60s. When these words were spoken, two questions arose: which class of people did “we” include, and what is inferred by “shall overcome?”

To me it meant that we shall overcome racial inequality, gender biasing, poverty, anti-Semitism, mass incarceration, disproportional prison sentences among African Americans, hatred, and all forms of discriminatory ideologies, and that to overcome any obstacles impeding forward progress we must take on a collective attitude. From the anguish of a single voice, “I can’t breathe,” emerged a new diverse generation of protesters this summer. This message traveled globally to affirm a 21st century intolerance toward racial injustice.

The death of George Floyd followed the disproportionate infliction of disturbing events upon African Americans. This form of systemic racism includes incarceration. African Americans must first jump over hurdles of prejudice when confronting the judicial system. The perspective of African Americans in this country follows those individuals into the courtroom. This stereotype typically assumes certain lifestyle choices like being a drug dealer, a prostitute or dependent on social assistance.

In 1991, I was sentenced to forty years in prison. But I am not a stereotype. I am a college graduate, and prior to my arrest, I was a group home counselor. I am also one of two African American women who have been incarcerated the longest in the state of Colorado — the last thirty years I have been incarcerated. 

"I am not a stereotype"

The origins of maltreatment against African Americans began centuries ago when slaves arrived on this continent. African’s Indigenous language became a concern for slave traders. Therefore it was concluded that all slaves should be silenced. The fear was their vocal protest, spoken in a language not understood by their capacitors. 

To prevent any uprising against enslavement, a device was created to silence those disembarking from slave ships. A crude metal clamp was fashioned with a locking mechanism. This device affixed around the mouth securing their lips shut. A practice referred to as muzzling. We witnessed the continuation of this practice as a Black man was face down on the pavement, straining to speak the words “I can’t breathe.”

In 1991, during my trial, the District Attorney instructed me to rise from my seat. My height, weight, and additional physical attributes, were displayed for the Caucasian jury. I felt dehumanized as if I were a slave placed on a block before auctioning began. I was left speechless.

Racial silencing enacted four hundred years ago is actually a modern day outcry for justice. Prison is not a social media like free speech environment. I’m determined to have my voice heard. Women sentenced to large amounts of time rarely reoffend which is often overlooked when reviewing requests for clemency. I have applied for Executive Clemency for a second time faced with this obstacle. Colorado has never selected a Black woman for clemency. Former Colorado Governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, John Hickenlooper, could have chosen to speak for those unable to do so by granting my clemency. He did not. 

The past cannot be the only catalyst for change. Inequalities taking place today should be a new inspiration for protest. Equal scales of justice must be restored. I am aware of the enormous variables that must be considered when determining who will be granted clemency. The highest level of rehabilitation must be met. Rehabilitation is synonymous with restoration.

Prison is a justified consequence for my actions. Three decades of incarceration has changed my soul. During the last three decades I have educated myself in juvenile law, computer aided drafting and business technology.

"Three decades of incarceration has changed my soul"

I was granted an academic scholarship from the University of Colorado Boulder. I’ve earned accreditation in counseling, totaling over 2,000 hours. Additionally, I was awarded numerous certificates signed by former District Attorney Council members. I pray my future allows me to return to usefulness outside of prison.

Whether it is said, “We shall Overcome” or “Black Lives Matter,” when the truth is finally realized will I be allowed to speak?


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left to die

new report finds ten of thousands of people over fifty who are sentenced to life without parole face increasingly grim conditions


Overdose Deaths Behind Bars Rise as Drug Crisis Swells

Even if Alabama’s prisons and jails are especially overrun by drugs, death, and violence, their problems are not unique in the U.S. Within three weeks this spring, incarcerated people died of overdoses in Illinois, Oklahoma, New York, and the District of Columbia.

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To be shot at

Azria stands protesting on May 30 in Denver, Colorado

To be shot at

The violence of the justice system spills into the streets – a young protester writes on facing the police brutality


Azria, is 19-years-old and works full time in the Denver area. Growing up in the “Sunnyside” neighborhood of Denver, Arroyo now lives in Wheat Ridge Colorado. Read Azria’s account below.

Thursday May 28, was the first day of the protests in Denver. It was a peaceful, calm and organized gathering. Once law enforcement showed up, chaos began to erupt almost immediately. Police arrived in full riot gear forming a line in front of the protesters. The standoff began.

"Unprovoked, officers began to shove us"

Unprovoked, officers began to shove us. We kept our hands up as a display of non-violence while officers became increasingly aggressive. They charged people from behind, throwing them onto the ground, and attempted to run their police truck into the crowd. Tensions grew when four officers attacked an elderly black man in a wheelchair as he tried to cross the street.

Saturday, May 30, was my second day at the protest, I went knowing there was a very real possibility of getting hurt. It felt necessary to go not only to stand in solidarity with the BLM movement, but to stand against our Police departments history of misconduct, discrimination, abuse of power, and their militarized response to what began as a peaceful gathering against police brutality. The first time we were tear gassed was at 4 p.m., four hours before the newly ordered 8 p.m. curfew. The energy was positive as we marched through the streets. We approached the police station. There was a line of officers in full riot gear, and armed officers on rooftops surrounding the area. Officers covered their badge numbers as we tried to note them. Another protester yelled, “That’s  illegal!”

Some officers were smirking at us, as if they were enjoying themselves. Suddenly, everyone was frantically running as officers shot into the crowd and deployed tear gas canisters. While running, I tripped over several people. I panicked as three canisters of tear gas landed at my feet, releasing thick smoke burning my eyes and skin. When I tried to breathe the pressure in my chest and lungs felt as though I was drowning.

Many vomited in the streets. A volunteer medic rinsed my eyes out. The effects subsided over the next hour, but lingered days after. We re-gathered and marched towards the Capitol building. We arrived at a swarm of police, Denver SWAT, and Colorado National Guard armed with “less than lethal” weapons. Standing head to head with officers, we chanted “We don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?”.

Officers who lay near bushes with weapons aimed at us looked like a scene out of a war zone. The standoff continued, until officers started indiscriminately firing “less than lethal” ammunition into the crowd. We ran into the park. Tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flew into the street. Some protesters picked them up and threw them back. Cops started charging into the park. I saw 40 millimeter baton rounds cut through the crowd. Protesters near me were hit in the eyes and head and fell down.

"We see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?"

Volunteer medics came to their aid, making an improvised stretcher from fencing. I saw something flying toward me. I quickly ran backwards, but my leg was hit with a 40mm baton round, that knocked me off of my feet. It was surreal.

There was a girl crying next to me and someone yelled, “She was hit with a rubber bullet.”

The remainder of the day was chaos. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I found out later, about someone who had been at the protest that day having eye removal surgery, as a result of less than lethal ammunition fired by police. I wasn’t surprised by his story. I felt lucky to only have a bruise and a swollen leg, while others left with permanent reminders of what they’d endured that day. 

Azria said that she had trouble breathing days after being tear-gassed and had nose bleeds. She is biracial, with parents from Senegal and Mexico, and has faced discrimination growing up.

Denver protests on May 30, 2020

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Shaking off the dust

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New report debunks 2020 youth crime wave

politicians and pundits are peddling youth gone wild but a new report says the most recent data doesn’t support their claims and harsher sentences won’t stop crime


The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

Just because prison overpopulation is usually discussed in regards to males, America also has a glaring problem of over incarcerating mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. There are currently 108,000 women in prison in the United States — accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated females.


Fighting for a second chance

When Dontrell Britton returned from federal prison to his mother’s DC apartment in 2017, he didn’t have tens of thousands of Instagram followers or over 400 thousand TikTok followers on his team like he does now.

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Beyond Bars

Photos by Rikki Devlin

Beyond Bars

Flathead public defenders provide lasting solutions to incarceration 

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Virginia “Tiny” Charlo is technically a Salish princess. The maroon grizzly paw that covers the top of her left wrist — the outline inked in jail by a sharpened staple — pays tribute to her great grandfather Chief Charlo of the Salish Tribe.

The paw was filled with a muted maroon at a real tattoo shop in Missoula after she was released from jail in 2011 for a felony DUI charge. Despite stifling her screams as the staple poked her wrist bone, Charlo couldn’t stand the pain of her jail tattoo after the solid outline.

Charlo’s grizzly paw is her only tattoo not rooted to a past relationship. It’s one of her favorites. The rest of her tattoos stand as reminders of physically abusive partners.

When Charlo is tempted to do “bad things,” she thinks of her case manager, Susette Billedeaux, sitting on her shoulder and giving her advice.

These are the things that could break her sobriety or probation, prolong her driver’s license revocation, keep her away from her beadwork and family, and ruin her dream of owning a house with walls covered in painted mountains, streaming water and Native American art. But not real water, she is quick to point out.

Even when Billedeaux is not physically around, Charlo can hear her voice telling her to do the right thing, and she listens to it. Charlo met Billedeaux in 2016 through the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) Tribal Defenders Office, where tribal members are provided a public defender.

While in jail on charges of driving with a revoked license in 2016, Charlo heard about the re-entry program that the CSKT tribal defenders offered. After jail release, she entered the program when she returned to the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was a turning point in a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and trauma that caught Charlo in a continuous cycle of drinking-related offenses.

The funding for the re-entry program ended last year, and its future is uncertain.

Unlike most public defender’s offices in America, CSKT’s Tribal Defenders Office combines social workers and legal attorneys in a single office to address the underlying causes of clients’ criminal activity to keep them out of jail.

This model follows traditional indigenous beliefs which focus on the person instead of their crime. Most public defender’s offices in America concentrate on their clients’ courtroom appearances – they do not offer services beyond legal defense.

The CSKT tribal defenders address the issues that can lead to arrests including poverty, mental health, addiction, housing problems, cultural disconnection, and historical trauma through multiple unique programs.

They are the only office in Montana, and one of 24 in the nation, practicing this model of public defense. It is a “holistic model,” that the New York Bronx Defenders pioneered in the 1990s to tackle the issues that push people into the criminal justice system.

The tribal defenders’ frustration with their clients continuing to show up in court inspired them to look for solutions in 2008 for outside factors that contribute to criminal behavior. This eventually led them to apply for technical assistance in 2011 from the Bronx Defenders, which they received.

This model of defense gained recognition in 2017 when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill establishing a state program that will directly mimic the “holistic model” of the CSKT Tribal Defenders Office.

Ann Miller, the managing attorney of the Tribal Defenders Office and Charlo’s attorney, calls Charlo her superstar. When Charlo entered the re-entry program in 2016, she was struggling with a life-long alcohol addiction that started when she was 15 years old.

She never remembers the desire to drink, but she does remember wanting to fit in and be accepted. At 16 years old Charlo became involved in a physically abusive relationship with a man 18 years her senior. He moved her to Great Falls where he kept her locked in an apartment with their daughter while she was pregnant.

She used alcohol to deal with the trauma. “I was always drinking to try to forget,” she said.

To escape that abusive relationship, Charlo stabbed the man with a butcher knife. She remembers jumping into her car and peeling out so fast from a parking lot she thought her car would crash.

She drove pregnant on an empty gas tank in her Toyota station wagon until her car ran out of gas right below Rogers Pass. She waited in the dark summer night with her daughter in the back seat for her brother and mother to arrive in a van to pick her up. She cried the whole way back to the Flathead reservation.

“I thought I’d killed him with the butcher knife,” Charlo said. She did not. But it was the beginning of decades of abusive relationships.

Charlo’s history is typical of women convicted of crimes in Montana.

Statewide and nationally, female incarceration rates are increasing faster than for men according to the Montana Department of Corrections 2017 report. “Women’s involvement in the legal system frequently begins with personal histories that include trauma, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, addictions and mental health concerns,” it stated. In Montana’s Women’s Prison, more than 75 percent of women had criminal behavior linked to one or more of these factors.

Native Americans are also overrepresented in Montana’s prison population according to a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in 2017. Native Americans represent under 7 percent of Montana’s population but account for 17 percent of Montana’s adult prison population.

The study also found that drug arrests which are most often linked to substance abuse issues, are one of the leading causes of incarceration. Arrests for drug offenses increased by 62 percent in Montana from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2015.

Virginia "Tiny" Charlo (right), 57, has been in the criminal justice system for 38 years. She began working with the Salish & Kootenai Tribal Defender's Office in 2016. She says that she has been sober and out of prison thanks to Susette Billedeaux (left) and the rest of the caring staff.

Both physical abuse and DUIs have persisted throughout Charlo’s life. The abuse started with her mother and continued onto six abusive relationships with men including two marriages. At 19 years old, Charlo got her first DUI charge. She was 56 when she was charged with her last DUI. Charlo has collected 13 driving under the influence convictions over the last four decades in Washington and Montana.

She spent six months in Montana’s WATCh program, a residential felony DUI treatment program, after a DUI charge in 2011. It was her fourth DUI in recent years, and she was sent to the treatment program instead of prison. She stayed sober for almost three years after graduating the program, but eventually relapsed.

A few years later, in 2016, Charlo was charged with her most recent DUI. The cops pulled her over a block away from home one night. She was trying to drive a stray cat away from her home after her mother, in her late eighties, tripped over it. She failed to use a turn signal at a stop sign. She said her blood alcohol level was barely over the legal limit, and she was still on probation from a previous DUI.

She remembers trying to hold together the tear in her nightgown with her cuffed hands while the cops arrested her. It was her fifth DUI, and she faced prison time or another six months in the WATCh program.

But Charlo’s recent enrollment in the tribal defenders’ re-entry program in 2016 before this DUI, allowed her to serve her sentence without leaving home. She is nearly halfway through her probation sentence from that night.

Before enrolling in the re-entry program, Charlo pushed through court appearances and sentences to simply be able to drink again. The support provided by tribal defenders helped change her outlook. Charlo has been sober for almost two years.

“When my mom passed away, I didn’t want to be brought back in shackles,” Charlo said.

The majority of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes government buildings sit within walking distance of each other off of Highway 93. The tribal council building holds council every Tuesday and Thursday.

The holistic model adapted by the CSKT tribal defenders represents a more traditional tribal viewpoint of justice according to Maylinn Smith, the co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana. She also represents tribal members in CSKT court in civil cases and has served as a chief tribal judge in Utah.

“They are a tribe I view as going back to that traditional model,” Smith said. She describes the defenders approach to public defense as providing “wrap around services” for the client.

“It is less punitive, more restorative justice,” Smith said. “Looking at how can you address those underlying issues that get them into the system, how can you address the impacts of historical trauma, how can you address the addiction issues that may impact them, because of that trauma that they have experienced.”

She compares their methods to restituition instead of retribution. She thinks their model can create systemic postive changes in tribal communities and restore customs and traditions.

Virginia "Tiny" Charlo helps take care of her mother in Arlee, Montana. She lives in a small trailer outside her mother's home with her German Shepard, Peja.

The tribal court on the Flathead reservation was established in the early 1950s and today sits next to the tribal jail in Pablo amid CSKT’s other government buildings. As  sovereign nations, Native American tribes can create their own justice systems depending on what they can afford.

Because they lack the funds to create their own justice system, many tribes rely on the federal government to enforce justice on reservations. Tribal judicial systems are limited to prosecuting only tribal members in tribal court — even if a non-tribal member commits a crime on the Flathead reservation, the tribe has no jurisdiction.

The tribal defenders are able to adopt a holistic model of defense because they have more liberty to change and room for growth within a tribal government than a typical overloaded state public defender’s office.

The CSKT judicial system handles misdemeanor charges within the reservation bounds of all registered tribal members, and the courts in surrounding state counties often prosecute the felony charges of tribal members.

“I think it is a wise use of resources to attack these problems in the way that [Miller] is,” said James Lapotka, the head criminal prosecutor in Lake County who prosecutes tribal members for felony drug charges.

“My job at its absolute base level is: I read police reports about probably the worst days of some people’s lives and I judge them off of a report of the worst day of their life,” Lapotka said. This method cannot address the issues in a defendant’s life or avoid negatively affecting positive things in their lives like jobs and housing stability.

“It is very easy to treat people like numbers and to focus on this specific criminal conduct that brought them into court,” Lapotka said. He said that a court can handle a drug crime for half the cost in the long run by putting an offender into an addiction treatment plan instead of jail.

“The best way to do that is maybe not to focus on that one really bad day of their life and give them some support on the things that they need,” Lapotka said.

Miller agreed:

“Our method of addressing our clients’ issues, is part of the solution to an overcrowded criminal justice system,” she said.

According to a 2017 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, Montana’s jail population rose almost 70 percent from 2011 to 2013, causing overcrowding across the state including in and around the Flathead reservation.

The defenders’ office works on an open-door policy and anyone can walk in with a question, whether it is about a warrant, driver’s license, eviction, or child custody issue.

This is the office where Charlo regularly checks in.

“These guys are my antidepressants,” Charlo said. To her, the tribal defenders helped her stay sober and out of jail.

With a recently adopted blind German Shepherd attached to one hip and her three-year-old grandson attached to the other, a smile absorbed Charlo’s cheeks. She talked about the success she feels she has reached with the defenders’ help. Success to her means no longer wanting to drink.

“I am not gonna say I’m living for my grandkids because everything I am doing is for myself,” Charlo said as her bashful grandson buried his head in her lap.

The re-entry program that Charlo went through in 2016 ran out of its main funding when a two-year federal grant expired. Parts of the program are still being strung along as the defenders wait to see if they receive grant funding in the fall of 2018.

The re-entry program has helped almost 300 tribal members returning to the reservation from jail or prison.

The tribal defenders’ re-entry program is tackling the numbers of tribal members who break the law after returning to the reservation from jail. Sixty-six percent of people released from prison did not return to prison within three years of their release in Montana, according to the 2017 Montana Department of Corrections biennial report.

The tribal defenders define recidivism more narrowly than the state, as any legal conviction, not just reincarceration. In the first year of serving clients through the re-entry program, over 64 percent of people in the program were not convicted for any crime.

Miller said this data suggests the defenders are on track to meet the same, or better, recidivism rates than the state of Montana. The defenders view their program as successful because the clients were lifetime repeat offenders prior to entering the re-entry program.

Desiree Fox, the defenders’ psychologist, said sometimes a person’s upbringing makes them more susceptible and visible to the criminal justice system.

“They do end up coming back to this community [from incarceration] so why wouldn’t we want to help them be successful,” she said. The psychology services that she offers to clients in the defenders’ office is unique to the holistic model of defense they practice. Clients who are being legally represented by attorneys can access mental health care in the same building.

Virginia "Tiny" Charlo has battled with alcoholism for over 40 years. On April 23, 2018 she stands in front of her trailer in Arlee, Montana. She has been sober for over 18 months and says that for the first time she knows in her heart that she will never drink again.

As Charlo restores her life, she wants to start to bead again. A large beaded bald eagle covers the back of her leather jacket. She explains how she made it while running her fingers over its raised yellow beak and white shiny feathers pieced together by sesame seed sized beads.

“I made up my mind when these guys started helping me,” Charlo said of the tribal defenders. She has relied on their services the past few years as she faced trauma and addiction problems.

A huge part of the tribal defenders’ practice is simply advocating for their clients outside of the courtroom with housing authorities, driver’s license issues and other stakeholders within the Flathead reservation’s community. They host community outreach events to show how the criminal justice system is not necessarily set up for positive change with their clients and how it can criminalize mental illness and addiction, Miller said.

“In order to advocate for them, we need to tell their stories because our clients are more than they are accused of,” Miller said. She believes the way the defenders use an all-encompassing approach allows them to understand the historical and cumulative trauma affecting a client and how resilient they are to survive it.

“The holistic defense practice is trying to build on people’s strengths and their right to live their lives in the context of their families and the context of their culture and community,” Miller said.

The years of abuse Charlo endured imprinted upon her that she was “nobody.” The support of the tribal defenders went beyond the services they offered her. They believed in rehabilitating her life despite decades of repeat criminal charges.

Everytime Charlo was feeling down, she came into the office, not to talk to anyone, but just to sit in one of the green waiting room chairs as people filtered in and out. Everything would lift off her as she sat there. After, she would walk out of the office and everything was okay.

“They have faith in me. I learned to have faith in myself,” she said.


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