By Debra Mendoza : Pathways 2 Resilience Case Manager at Planting Justice

Last week a team of three from Planting Justice were granted direct access to inmates behind the walls of Santa Rita County Jail. At the Re-Entry Expo, over one hundred community based service providers gathered to inform five hundred of the three thousand inmates of the support services potentially available to them upon their release.

With an early morning set-up, we shared the life stories that fuel the justice work we do as we waited for the inmates to arrive. Many of us were birthed into this work after trial by fire as we have experienced the results of systemic and institutionalized racism or see the impact of it in our communities.

The Expo last week reminded me of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people committed to improving our communities, one life and one garden at a time. We saw the excitement first hand when we shared about the possibility of earning a living wage tilling the land. When we go back to our roots there is healing. Let the healing begin.

Coming against misconceptions, stereotypes and labels, felons and “ex-cons” have incredible barriers to overcome in order to successfully transition back into society. Without support, the cycle of re-incarceration and recidivism will not be broken. What most people fail to realize is more likely than not, the individuals who end up in the criminal justice system did not have a support system or protective factors in place prior to their arrest, thus, after a period of isolation from community, re-integrating poses many difficulties, which can be exacerbated by a multitude of factors including terms, conditions and restrictions upon release.

In 2011 under AB109, Re-Alignment shifted responsibility from the state giving counties unprecedented discretion to utilize the accompanying funds to provide rehabilitation at the county-level. The goals are to cut state spending, reduce prison overcrowding, and improve the system. Most counties opted to expand jails but others, usually after public pressure, have allocated some of the money to community-based organizations, such as Planting Justice in its partnership with Innovations In Re-Entry, to provide services to this re-entry population. With collaboration, transparency, and accountability, it makes sense that community agencies will have a greater success rate at supporting this population from re-offending.

The funding of programs such as Pathways to Resilience, a Permaculture Job Training, and Certificate program, indicates the shift in thinking as we address recidivism and rehabilitation through a holistic lens.

We have a long ways to go but we are on the path. I put myself in their place and wonder how would I maintain my dignity and worth when a system by its nature dehumanizes me. To shuffle through a housing unit converted into a make-shift exposition while dressed in an orange uniform takes an incredible amount of resiliency and strength of mind to not let your circumstances or past mistakes define you, especially when society continues to hold them against you. Until we see our lives and destinies intertwined as a community, we will continue to segregate and place people with criminal histories in second class status. Planting Justice gives people real chances to rebuild their lives and those chances unfortunately are still hard to come by.