After working in the jail for more than two years, there are themes that have become clear and conversations that tend to cycle and recycle with the turn over of inmates. One of the most common conversations I have with women in jail has to do with knowing when to give up, and when to keep fighting.
Over the course of two years, having met hundreds of female inmates, I have only met one woman who made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I have yet to meet a bad woman in jail. I don’t encounter bad people – I encounter good women who have made bad choices, usually out of desperation.
The most common reason given for crimes committed is desperation. While many of the women I encounter are repeat offenders, they have committed crimes out of a good desire gone bad. The desire to feed their children, pay off a car, put food on the table, keep clothes on their kids, keep an elderly family member on medication, etc, has fueled many criminal choices and I don’t see circumstances getting better any time soon.
Please hear me when I say there is no good excuse to commit a crime. I do not aim to justify the actions of the men and women in jail, but rather to engage an empathetic conversation that needs to happen in order for our society and judicial system to change.
I can’t tell you how many times I have made a poor choice out of desperation. There have been many weeks over the last several years where I had to choose between putting gas in my car or food in the fridge. The money just wasn’t there. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. When I was in graduate school I had a scholarship, was raising support, and worked 3-4 part time jobs at any given time. But living is expensive, and there were many weeks I was just trying to get by.
Right now we live in a culture that ostracizes and punishes poverty. Rather than empathizing with people’s pain, we push them away out of fear. And when a poor choice is made, a good person becomes criminalized. And, whether you believe it or not, race and economic status do play a factor. When I was arrested for underage drinking in college, I had the tools and resources to have that charge expunged so that I could start over and pursue life without a criminal record. Most people don’t have that luxury, and once they are in the “system”, it is nearly impossible to get out.
Tomorrow I will spend most of the day at the Orange County Courthouse, waiting for a woman who has become a dear friend to be sentenced. She has been in jail for nearly four years awaiting trial, and even though she may be relieved with time served, she will always have this record and she will always struggle to be a mom to her children. While she did make some very poor choices to get to this point, her circumstances will continue to make it very difficult for her to live an honest life.
The American “system” has made it very difficult for people with poor circumstances to make healthy choices – from what they eat to where they work. We need to do better. We need to be better. Desperate times will always bring the temptation of desperate measures. If you have never been in that situation, thank God. Thank God, but also consider those who have, and how you can provide a hand up, rather than a hand in the face.