Deb Martinez's brother is currently incarcerated in Connecticut. In this episode, Deb shares her experience as an advocate for her brother as well as for other incarcerated individuals and their families. She also talks about when she was the victim of a sexual assault as a teenager, an occurrence that completely changed the trajectory of her life. Like most stories, Deb's is multi-dimensional and one you won't want to miss. Deb can be found on twitter as @victim2advocate, on Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Support the show
Deb Martinez Transcript - Amber
Intro: [00:00:00] Everyone has a voice; a story to tell. Some are marginalized and muted.
What if there were a way to amplify those stories; to have conversations with real people in real communities; a way to help them step into the power of their lived experience.
Welcome to Amplified Voices, a podcast, lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system.
Together, we can create positive change, for everyone.
Jason: [00:00:35] Good morning and welcome to another episode of Amplified Voices. I'm Jason, your host here with my co-host Amber.
Good Morning, Amber
Amber: [00:00:42] Good morning, Jason.
Jason: [00:00:43] And today we have a special guest right here in Connecticut with us. Her name is Debra Deb. Debbie. I'm not sure what we call you so good morning. You could tell us.
Deb: [00:00:53] Good morning you can call me Deb or Debbie It's fine
Jason: [00:00:56] Alright Debbie. So we start off our podcast typically asking the same question, and that is, tell us a little bit about your life before you entered the criminal legal system. And then what happened that brought you into it?
Deb: [00:01:10] So, my life prior probably had lower blood pressure, is what I would say. It was definitely the biggest significant thing.
What brought me into this. When I was 14 years old, I was the victim of a violent crime. And my case was not handled appropriately. And it was, as someone recently said, "A hot mess in a dumpster."
And shortly after that, I entered a special school to make sure my mental health was being taken care of while I was going through that process. And during that time I met my brother.
Jason: [00:01:50] Can I ask you a question? So, before 14, was it a normal childhood?
Deb: [00:01:54] Yeah, it was a normal childhood.
Jason: [00:01:57] Okay. So there was a real marking point. There was before whatever incident happened and after.
Deb: [00:02:03] Very clear, very clear. My life changed significantly.
I was sexually assaulted when I was 14. And the town I lived in, unfortunately, the police department didn't handle my case very well. They actually even gave out my phone number to some of the families of my offender. It was an extremely unpleasant experience.
Caller ID had just come out. You had to pay for it. There was no "track and trace" unless you got the state police involved. So, to do those things, your case had to be in their eyes significant.
Jason: [00:02:37] Was this like a family phone that everybody shared?
Deb: [00:02:41] Yeah, it's a family house phone. You know, I lived with my grandparents and so the phone was listed under their name. And my last name was different. There was a period of time where we would get phone calls every night, between 10 and 10:30 with kids saying some really horrific things. And they didn't really care who answered the phone, whether it was me, my mom, my grandmother, my little brother.
And that went on for months until we were able to get the state police involved, to do a track and trace. And eventually, they were able to locate and sort of hold those people accountable.
Jason: [00:03:17] Wow.
Deb: [00:03:18] It was a really, really difficult time. There was a very clear, distinct align, between who I was before that moment and who I was after. My ability to function on a day-to-day basis was impaired, to say the least.
My grades suffered tremendously. My attendance at school suffered. I ended up hospitalized in a mental health facility for a short period of time. The positive side is, I did have, and many people don't, a extremely supportive family.
I was fortunate enough that my mom was very involved. My grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, they were very supportive and tried to do everything they possibly could to help me navigate through what I was experiencing. Because at 14 years old, you know, something like this happens, the town I lived in wasn't enormous, but it wasn't that small either. I believe the population was like just under 60,000 people at the time. And everybody knows everybody over there. And so, you go back to school and everybody has their own version, right.?
Amber: [00:04:26] Right.
Deb: [00:04:27] And unfortunately at the time the school system wasn't necessarily one of those great support systems in attempting to protect me, at all.
Jason: [00:04:35] Was it another student.
Deb: [00:04:38] Not from the school that I attended. It was from the alternate junior high in my town.
Jason: [00:04:43] So you didn't have to go to school every day and see this person.
Deb: [00:04:46] No. Which one would have thought would have made even a little bit of a difference. But as I said, unfortunately in the town I lived in, everybody knew everybody and that didn't matter.
To this day, I only go back to visit my family when necessary, and I'll tell you why. I could go to the grocery store today with my mother or with my kids in that store, and someone walk by me who knew me back then, or didn't even know me, but knew of me, and they'll make a remark. You're talking 30 years later. Which just goes to show the lack of social-emotional intelligence that was provided for most of us back then.
Jason: [00:05:33] So, I mean, reading between the lines - they were blaming you for what happened.
Deb: [00:05:37] Yes. And it only got worse.
The first time I really left my house to go anywhere, friends had encouraged me to go out to a city-wide function, and I was jumped by two girls who were sort of in that click. And then I went to high school and high school was even worse. My freshman year was horrible. There were death threats in my locker. And my name, you know, written in places publicly that the school system, rather than get rid of it would leave it there for days. Did not make any attempt to protect me at all. None.
The value that I once had in myself as a person, or even the faith that I had in human dignity or other people, just plummeted.
To say that it rippled through my family is an understatement. My family went through a great deal of pain and suffering watching me suffer and not knowing how to fix that. You know, they couldn't do anything but be there. And didn't know necessarily what to say or how to navigate that.
Jason: [00:06:46] So, you lived through this horrific sexual assault at a really critical point in your development, which is awful. When you went to the police, did they not believe you?
Deb: [00:06:57] No, I was in the emergency room the evening it happened. It was that there was conflicting stories between what I said versus what he said.
At the time there was a local haunted house that occurred in an empty building each year. And you know, my mom never relied on anyone to give me a ride home. When I tell you never, my mother was very, very involved and this was the first night ever that she relied on someone else to bring me home because I really wanted to go to this.
And while I was there, there was groups of kids hanging out and there's a restaurant next door. And there used to be bushes there and there aren't anymore, they took them down. And I was over near those bushes. And I remember getting hit on the head with something and sort of being dazed, um, and waking up in the bushes with somebody sitting on top of me. Sitting on my chest.
Amber: [00:07:59] I'm so sorry that happened to you, Deb.
Deb: [00:08:02] Well, I don't want to depress you too much, but.
Amber: [00:08:05] No, it's important to understand that this is a life-changing event for someone. And as we're having this conversation, you have such a breadth of experience to share with us and this is a very important starting point.
How did you navigate and work through this trauma?
Deb: [00:08:24] It didn't. I didn't. I just tried to keep moving forward.
I ended up going my freshman year of high school - so, this is something I've only said one other time in my life recently, about a year ago - to a large group. My view of my self-worth and my value became extremely distorted. And my ability to advocate for myself was non-existent.
And so, when I entered my freshman year of high school, I had experiences with other males who were, sort of in that crowd and in that group, that were extremely intimidating. And it became something where if I didn't comply to what we said, my day to day experiences at school got worse.
So, if somebody wanted any sort of sexual contact and I did not comply, they made my life a living hell. In English class. In civics class. Um, they sat next to me and would casually was first threats or remind me that the reality was there was nothing I could do. That the police hadn't helped me a year before and that nobody was listening to me. And so I complied. I complied every time.
Which I've spent years feeling extremely guilty about because at that point, I then, you know, sort of unintentionally reinforced this view that I was something or someone, when the reality was I was terrified. And I, at that point, didn't even know how to say no.
Jason: [00:10:23] You were abused by an entire community. I mean, that was, that was not your fault.
Amber: [00:10:29] Absolutely. And I really appreciate the vulnerability of sharing that.
As a survivor of sexual assault myself, the thing is that everybody handles things very differently. And this is actually a common response for survivors of sexual assault to feel powerless and to feel that pain and to act in ways that they normally wouldn't act.
And when I talk to people all the time, the period of time after I experienced an assault, it was like, I didn't know who I was. It was like, I would do things that would again, reinforce stereotypes. You know, I was in the military at the time, and women were viewed in a certain way and it just completely changes your life. It completely changes the way you feel about yourself in the world. And it is important for people to understand that. That everybody does respond in different ways.
Deb: [00:11:32] Absolutely. You know, at 14 years old, if you think about the abilities and the tools and the skills that you have, right. And where your brain is in development, to begin with. And then have something like this happen and not be supported necessarily by the people that should. We rely on our community, rely on our police departments to protect us.
You don't anticipate going to the police department and having a detective grill you repeatedly and make it very clear that he doesn't believe you. He did not believe me. And later turned out that it's just because he knew so and so's parents, or he knew this one's parents or this one's parents worked at city hall.
And so when you realize that the powers that be can't help you, you become aware to exactly how helpless you are and you truly go into survival mode. I look back at that time and all I can say to people is I survived. And I don't mean that in sort of a casual survivor sense. I mean, I literally survived every day going to school and making it home, with whatever small amount of dignity I had left.
And I did eventually speak up. I did eventually say something. But that was as a result of my behavior. Then all of a sudden I was acting out and I was being disrespectful to my mother and she couldn't figure out why, because in her mind she was doing everything she could to support me, with respect to what had happened a year before. And she didn't know what was continuously going on day-to-day.
Jason: [00:13:16] That's a lot of weight to carry.
Deb: [00:13:18] It was. It's still is. Especially 30 years later and people still want to bring it up, you know. And I try really hard to remember that that's about them and not about me, in the middle of the stop and shop.
Amber: [00:13:31] Right.
Deb: [00:13:32] But, and just say, you know, I say things like, "It's really nice to have run into you. I hope you're doing well too." And I keep it moving and then I sit in my car and I cry for 15 minutes.
Amber: [00:13:43] Right.
Deb: [00:13:44] Which is why I left and I don't go back there often at all, other than to visit my family.
And as a result of all of that, I ended up going to an alternative school where on the first day, I'll never forget the teacher Miss Nolan said to me, "If you show fear they'll eat you alive, and if they throw something, duck."
Amber: [00:14:07] Wow. That's intimidating.
Deb: [00:14:10] Right? So, in my mind, I'm going to this school to be safe because it's going to be a better place for me. And I was terrified because the kids who ended up with this alternative school were, in theory, behavior issues, or, you know, they were kids that were skipping school, or. The truth was that they were no different than the rest of us.
To this day those are my best friends.
Jason: [00:14:32] Yeah.
Deb: [00:14:33] And I credit that school and the community at that school, and those teachers, very much for my success in life.
Jason: [00:14:40] You go to a place where people would think this is where the problems are going to be. This is where the problem people go. And what you find is people that treat you a whole lot better than this wonderful civilization that you left, where everybody pretends everything's okay, but you were being tortured every day.
You know, one of the things we've talked about a lot with folks, is just in terms of these perceptions versus reality, and that really highlights it, what you just talked about.
Deb: [00:15:11] So, a lot of kids who graduated or went to that school, they feel a great amount of stigmatism around the idea or the fact that they went there. Whereas I'm extremely proud. Like I proudly say I'm a graduate of ACES. I would not be here had my mom not pushed me to be anywhere outside of where it was. And I think that it plays a lot into my view now about seeing the person.
Because, you know, I went to school and I met kids that were quote-unquote misbehaving or acting out or being violent or skipping class. But the reality was they were just human beings that were hurting, right. And they were hurting just as much as I was just in different ways. And that was our connection.
You know, a lot of the kids that went to school with either grew up in foster care or they were runaways or their lives were just as riddled with an insane rollercoaster as mine had been. And I think that that's what makes that connection.
Jason: [00:16:18] Yeah, it gives you comfort to realize you're not alone at this point. It was very isolating to be the center of all the attacks and then you go somewhere where everybody has, it may not be the same trauma, but it's shared trauma.
Deb: [00:16:31] At the same time you don't actually know.
So, it's funny because at that time, years ago at ACES, they had like levels. Like a point sheet, a salary sheet. They were like behavior interventions and I didn't misbehave. So I was always on what they call gold card. I could go to the bathroom without asking her permission. I didn't get in trouble. I didn't cuss at the teacher. I didn't walk out of class.
So, very quickly, it became apparent that it was questionable as to what I was doing there to other kids. And for a while, it remained that way, because remember now at that school, everyone comes from all over the state. It's not just from one town. And so no one knew me. No one knew my name. No one knew what happened. No one knew the stories. And so it was like an empty page on a book. I could literally begin to write my own story without intervention.
You know, there was a period of time, there was actually a day, I remember when someone came to school and said, "I know why Debbie goes to ACES." And began to give the version of a story he heard at a party over the weekend. I remember sitting at a table, and remember, I'd never really been violent or acted out in those kinds of ways. And I'm sitting there and this kid is spewing these words. And I quietly got up and pushed my chair in and I walked around the table and by my pregnant teacher, and I began to just pound on him.
Jason: [00:18:01] This is just a random student.
Deb: [00:18:03] Yep. He had at a party the weekend before and it was in my town, and he got information that he thought was a big thing. Why did the girl who doesn't misbehave come to school here? And the short version of that is when I returned to class from in-school suspension several days later, the kids in my class, they were sitting there waiting for me and they said, We don't care." They literally sat there and said, "We don't care. We don't care what he said. We love you. You're Debbie, you're Deb, you're the girl we call when we're in trouble. You are our friend and sister." That was the response I got. That was the response somebody should get from a community.
So, actually got where I met my brother. He went to ACES with me and we became friends. And then after high school, I did do a brief period of time in college. I kept in contact with my brother.
Jason: [00:19:01] You refer to him as your brother but you say you met him in school. Did your parents adopt him?
Deb: [00:19:07] Yep. He is legally my brother.
So, we had lost touch for a little while when I left for college. I came back and he had written a letter, but it had gone to my grandmother's house. So I didn't get that letter until three days after he was sentenced. And immediately reached out to find out what was going on. What had happened.
And his life was very different than mine. We grew up in what we call two different worlds. And he had been convicted of the crime he's currently incarcerated for and over a period of months and time, you know, we visited, we called, we supported him. And one day my mom said, can I adopt him?
To this day it brings her to tears when she talks about the fact that she didn't know that he was running away from foster care when he was hanging out at her house. She didn't realize or know what was happening in his life. And he did a very good job of hiding it.
He'll tell you that being in my home felt amazing in one moment and warm and loving and kind, and then in the next moment he was uncomfortable. Extremely uncomfortable. Cause he wasn't used to that.
So, he was sort of just in and out. He was my best friend. He saved my life.
At one point in high school, I had made the decision that I was going to end my life. And I was sitting in my room with a court of Demerol. And my phone rang. I had resolved, there was no outcry. I didn't tell anybody what I was about to do. I had resolved that I wanted the pain to end and that this was the only way to do it. And I was sitting there with this quart of Demerol, the phone rang and it was him. And he was in trouble because he had gotten involved in something stupid.
He was in panic mode and was like, "I need you to come get me now." I was also the only one out of any of my friends who had a license or a car. And I went and I got him and came back, and he realized what was going on. And when I tell you he didn't leave my side, that's an understatement. He made sure that I pulled through. That I came out the other side. That I always knew how valued and important I was. And that, that was never, ever to be an option or a consideration in the future.
So, to say that we were best friends is an understatement. We just have a bond that I'm lucky to have with anyone in the world or to go through my life and be that connected with another person.
And so, when I found out, you know - cause we had lost touch a little bit when I'd left, like I said - now he was incarcerated. He was in his early twenties serving a life without. He has absolutely no chance of parole.
Jason: [00:22:04] How old was he when he committed his offense?
Deb: [00:22:07] 20. And he had only been incarcerated one time previously, for 18 months, on an assault charge for a fight. He served that 18 months, most of which at Northern Correctional on 23 hour a day lockdown.
Jason: [00:22:21] We have people listening who are not from Connecticut and they have no idea what that means. So, can you share what that means to be incarcerated in Northern?
Deb: [00:22:30] Sure. Northern Correctional, at that time, was what I can only describe as, hell on earth. Northern is 23 hour a day lockdown. The officers that work at Northern are the toughest of the toughest.
I remember once he called, you know, you get one phone call a week, if you're lucky, depending on which pod you were in at the time, to have connection with family. He called once because there was ground glass in his mashed potatoes.
You know, you're locked in this cell. You have no contact really with the outside world on a day-to-day basis. You experience things and you act out. Safety and security is DOC's number one thing, and I get that, but human dignity has to exist. And human dignity does not exist at Nothern Correctional.
Jason: [00:23:23] Didn't they declare it in violation of...
Deb: [00:23:25] Yep. As cruel and unusual, yes. I judge eventually declared that Northern was a violation of people's constitutional rights and that it was cruel and unusual, and they were to close. And slowly they closed certain areas in Northern. It's my understanding only a small area is still open. The problem with that is that at the end of the day, Northern will always be Northern.
I know officers who worked at Northern, who bragged at family parties about the things they would do to incarcerated people. How horrible they would treat them. And my brothers, without telling his stories, because I'm really, really firm on allowing people to own their own stories.
Amber: [00:24:09] Right.
Deb: [00:24:10] There were things that we experienced while he was there that were gut-wrenching. And you can't do anything. You have no power, especially when your loved one who's incarcerated is legally an adult. Um, you're only entitled to certain information. You are left in the dark most of the time. And most of our phone calls with him were, he was 20. Being 20, yep, you're legally an adult, I get it. But you're not legally old enough to drink.
Amber: [00:24:39] Right.
Deb: [00:24:41] Well we are legally an adult, okay. You're 20 years old. You are now facing the idea that you will die in prison, which by the way, he was practically born in prison. His mom was in prison when she was pregnant with him. So you're born into this world and now you're going to die there.
He was at Northern when my mother adopted him and he had an attorney who represented him and it was not an easy task. I will tell you, the judge at the time said to my mom, "This has never been done. So you need to give me a really good reason to do it. You can love him without adopting him." But the reality was, she said, "But I can't. Because when everyone is throwing you away like trash your entire life, believe it or not, that one piece of paper makes a difference. The fact that someone would take that step or want to take that step was a big deal. I don't think he really thought it was real until it actually happened.
But also at the same time, when, when someone you love is incarcerated, if you're not family, you're entitled to even less.
Amber: [00:25:49] I was kind of thinking that as you were telling this, in addition to being extremely moved and choked up, I just think this is the most amazing outpouring of love on your mom's part and your family's part. Especially since it was kind of difficult and the judge was kind of like, well, why are we doing this? That gesture really is amazing. And to have those privileges as family members, when somebody is incarcerated, if you're just somebody's friend, you just really have no access.
Jason: [00:26:24] What was that day like?
Deb: [00:26:25] So, here's the thing. So, even at Northern, at the time, just so you know, you couldn't even get a visit from someone if they weren't your family.
Amber: [00:26:32] Right.
Deb: [00:26:33] So, you were really disconnected from the world.
So, I remember my mom went to court and originally he was supposed to go to court. We had filed a habeas, so he could be there. It wasn't granted. The Department of Corrections wasn't overly enthused with what we were doing either, by the way. They just weren't. And he did have an attorney representing him, right. So he didn't actually have to be there.
And so, the judge met with my mom for an hour and wanted to talk to her, and then finally came back and he said, "Okay." He said, "We're gonna do this." And said, "I can't change his name. Like he's gonna have to keep the same last name he has, just given the circumstances." And my mom was ecstatic.
And people say it all the time. They're like, "Why would you do that?" Why would she do that? It doesn't make sense to them. They can't wrap their head around it. But he had always been a part of our family. He really had always been a part of our family and it was really just some dumb piece of paper that was standing in the way.
Um, unfortunately, we couldn't go see him to tell him at that point. So his lawyer called to let him know that he had officially been adopted. And, you know, as fast as we could get that paperwork, we printed it out and mailed it to him so he could - he couldn't hang it up in his cell, it was against the rules - but so he could see it. And it could be as close to real as possible.
But you know what though? The truth is that I think for him, as great as that day was, it took him a long time to even really believe that we were serious. And here's why: plenty of people have family; blood family that we grow up with. And he has blood-family but was abandoned by them.
So, what was to say that we wouldn't eventually get sick of this? And he says all the time, "What do people get for loving me? They get to support me. They get a $750 a month phone bill. They get a $300 a month commissary bill. They get, you know, a one hour visit is really for anyone who's ever gone, like a two-hour ordeal for me, and I live 12 minutes from the facility he's in. If you live an hour away or 40 minutes, you have to get to a visit early, you have to sign up. What does someone get for loving me?
In his mind, if someone didn't want me, because they birthed me. If someone didn't want me, because I was their blood family, why does this family want me?
And it took him a really long time. Even to this day, every once in a while he'll say something and I'm like, don't even go there. Because you can hear that fear in his voice, even as a grown man, that when you're abandoned as a child, you constantly wonder if you're going to be abandoned again?
He absolutely is my guardian angel in so many ways.
I've been married 20 years and then I have three kids and my brother is extremely active in my children's lives. My oldest son is disabled. He's 20. He was diagnosed with autism when he was just under three and my brother attends his PVTs. My youngest son also has a special ed program. He attends their PVT's by phone.
My children's teachers know exactly who their uncle is. When one of my sons was going through a difficult time and acting out, my brother was right there on the phone, talking to the teachers about strategies and ways to support them. You know, there are people that I know I've come across that say, "You don't think that's kind of odd?" And I'm like, no, I do everything I possibly can, my husband does, my mother does, our other siblings, to create a life and an environment for him where he knows that he is a part of our life every day, as if he was home.
So, we even have my home office and my house is called Ishcar's room. My kids will say, "Oh, mommy's going to Ishcar's room." So, he knows, if and when you ever come home, this is home. You have a place here. You are not being thrown out.
When we go on vacation, I print a picture of him and I laminate it and put it on a stick. You wanna get some looks. This is how you get looks when you're at Disney. when we go on rides or we take photos, we include him in those photos. Um, and then I make a book through Shutterfly and I send it to him. So, he knows, you know, he did go to South Carolina, he did travel the East Coast with us.
Those are ways you keep connection, right? Those are ways you remind someone that they are a part of your family.
It's important to him to be a part of his nephews' lives and his nieces' lives because that's what would happen if he was home, right? So why would it be any different now?
Jason: [00:31:28] Now do you or he have hope of him being released from prison?
Deb: [00:31:33] So, I wish I had the letter in front of me. He has an acronym for the word hope and, uh, it's not good.
So, here's the thing about hope for someone who's incarcerated. It is the worst thing you can give them. Someone who has a sentence like his, and here's why, at least in my experience with him. Because the fall when things don't work out, like his appeal. We weren't a hundred percent we were going to win, but when we walked into his appeal, we were really thinking it was a long shot. We walked out of that oral argument and thought we had a shot. And I made the mistake of expressing that excitement to him and passing that to him. And the fall from that, when it was denied. It was like he fell a hundred thousand feet and hit concrete.
Amber: [00:32:24] So, he's serving life without parole. Is that correct? I just want to clarify.
Deb: [00:32:30] Yes.
Amber: [00:32:30] Okay.
Deb: [00:32:31] It's a capital felony crime, which there's only a handful of ways you get that. One is killing a police officer, rape and murder in the same transaction. For him, it's the murder of two people in the course of a single transaction. And the reason that language is important is because if I were to go on a shooting spree right now and shoot one person, but I don't get caught. And I'm out on the streets and living my life for the next 24 hours and then I shoot someone tomorrow. That's not the same transaction. So I'm going to get two separate charges. I'm not going to be charged with capital felony. I am not going to face ultimately what is a death sentence, but in prison, because I took a break. That's the difference because I took a break in between. Whereas, because it was a street fight where two people were shot and killed; because it happened at one time, that's what makes it a capital felony crime.
And under the current laws that we have, not only is he not eligible for parole, he's not eligible for a sentence modification, because it's a mandatory minimum sentence. And it's capital felony. So, under the current language we have, he can't even do that. The only option we have at this point is a commutation, which the Connecticut Parole Board hasn't been hearing those in a significant amount of time.
So, is it my hope? Absolutely. Will I continue to be the loudest voice in the room until we either change the language on that sentence modification or the parole board opens up to hearing those? Absolutely.
The week before COVID shut everything down I was up at the Capitol testifying in front of the judiciary committee regarding the sentence modification bill. It was that Monday. And I said, I'm not asking you to send my brother home. I'm asking you to make it fair. I'm asking you for the opportunity. We exclude mandatory minimums. We're excluding those people. That's not balanced. That's not fair. Let the Pardon and Parole Board do their job. Their job is to look at the situation, determine if that person is rehabilitated. But you have a handful of people that you don't even allow to apply. He doesn't even have the option to pass.
And so for me, it's hard. The Department of Corrections, put my brother on national television. They endorsed him as rehabilitated. They used him as the face of their efforts to be innovative and creative and develop programming. And yet that means nothing.
You know, my brother did not go into the True Program for that reason. In fact, when he went, you know, into True, it was because of all those conversations we had previously had about what are you going to do with the rest of your life? You're in prison. What are you going to do with it?
Amber: [00:35:19] Could you explain what the True Program is for the individuals who may not be aware of what that is.
Deb: [00:35:26] Sure. The True Program is the first program like it of its kind in the country. And it was developed by then-governor Dan Malloy and Commissioner Scott Semple. (They) had gone over to Germany and Norway, you know, their recidivism rate is 50%, and seeing what they were doing different. And the difference is over there that they treat people with human dignity. That your incarceration is your punishment. There's no need for additional punishment while you're there.
Um, and they came back and a group of people got together and created a program where we house 18 to 25-year-olds with lifers. So, it started off with 10 founding lifers that they put in an empty unit. They collaborated with the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and said create something. And so that's exactly what these lifers did.
They gave them all this training on trauma, on social-emotional learning. So, then the mentors got together and they created everything from a currency system, where these guys learn how to balance a budget and pay rent, and everyday programs focused around figuring out how you got there and why you're there.
It takes two full years to actually complete the True Program. It's housed over at Cheshire Correctional. They took a unit, an old psych unit I believe, and emptied it out. They had recruited then warden, Scott Murphy, who was old school. He was old school corrections. This was not something that I think he would have thought of ever in his career.
And I believe the commissioner, the new commissioner Quiros, I just saw an interview. I don't know how accurate the numbers are, but he said that about 26 guys have gone home from True and 21 are still here. Still home. Have not re-offended. Have not returned.
The True Program also is the only unit - it will be four years old at the end of this year - there has not been one single act of violence in that unit in four years.
Amber: [00:37:37] Wow.
Deb: [00:37:38] Not one fight. Not one code. Not one assault on an officer. So, at the end of the day, even if you put recidivism aside, True makes prison safer for the staff and for those who are there. It really, really does.
The difference is they're out of their cells. They come out at 7:45 am. They don't go back until 9:45 pm. They do have a small break where they're locked up for count at around two o'clock. But they're out all day.
True is exhausting. That's what the mentees will tell you. You know, general population you're in cell. If you have a TV, you can watch TV. Nobody's asking you to look in the mirror. Nobody's asking you to figure out what your trauma is and how you got there, and to look at the decisions you make and how you navigate the world. Well, in True, that's exactly what they're asking you to do all day long, every single day.
Jason: [00:38:27] So, you've learned more about the correctional system than, um, than you probably ever expected, you would learn. And you do a lot of advocacy work, a lot of public speaking, a lot of social media. Can you talk a little bit about how that is for you and what you're doing? And specifically about concerns around COVID as well?
Deb: [00:38:48] Sure. So with respect to advocacy, I started about a year or so after True. I decided to start a support group. It's a unique support group and here's why: So, what we do is, everyone who's in the true unit we have a private online group for all of the family members and the support system for anyone in that unit. And we communicate.
So, when a facility goes on lockdown, most families are left in the dark. You don't know why they're on lockdown. You don't know if their loved ones okay. You have no idea. With our support group we do. So, if something happens, somebody posts it. If I'm having a bad day or I have a mom of a mentee who's having a bad day, let's say she just needs to hear the voice of her child, right? On any other day, you just have to wait for them to call. And they may call today. They may call tomorrow. You never know. But not with our group. We post it. So, someone will post, "Hey, can someone get a message to my son to call?" And sure enough, very quickly that message is passed. Because then as soon as another family member talks to their loved one it's, "Hey, can you tell John DOE his mom needs to talk to him??
We support each other. We have conversations. When you know, I've had moms who are like, it's my birthday and I'm just so tired of crying. Well, this is a community that gets it.
Amber: [00:40:10] Right.
Deb: [00:40:10] We're all living the same life.
When the guys do things. They graduate programs. They write essays. We post it. Everybody is aware of what their loved one is doing, what their successes, and when there's a bump in the road too. When someone's not necessarily doing what they're supposed to be doing. It's funny because these guys don't necessarily just have to answer to their family, right? Like, now they're answering to the community.
It's allowed us to do events together. Last Christmas, we got approval to do an event where we purchased a hundred Build-a-Sounds. Those are little voice boxes that go in Build-a-Bears. And the warden approved a project where the guys got to record a message to a loved one on these Build-a-Sounds. And then I went and stuffed them into a hundred bears. And we have a yearly function where everyone comes to a lunch and it was after Christmas. And we handed out all the bears. So, you know, and there's guidelines. Like I said, it had to be like a mom or a sibling or a niece or nephew. Couldn't be just some random person that writes you. Your pen pal. It has to be your support system.
We've done that. We've had projects where, recently during COVID. You know, there's perks to being in True. You know, I want to be clear that it's not that the Department of Corrections doesn't do this in other facilities. In every unit you're in there's programs. And being a part of certain programs comes with certain things.
And so during COVID it was, it's difficult. Everyone's been away from their families. We haven't had visits since March. We asked permission to do a video. So, what we did was family members got to make a video with a loving or fun, or creative message. And then we put it together and then they watch it as a community. So, they sit as a community and they get to see their loved ones and hear those messages. They actually just watched that video of this week.
So, we get to do really awesome things. The department, I think at first was very nervous about this support group. And I understood why. I had lots of meetings with the warden and the deputy warden. And I get it. Like, especially with social media, we all know that social media can go South real quick. But I can tell you that not once have we ever had any negativity or drama in this group. Not once. Everybody is supportive of each other.
I also provide things. So, True doesn't necessarily have, unfortunately, a lot of resources. So I provide some programming and movies for programming. Recently, they have some people who are of age. So, they've aged out of the school system, but you know, they're guys who can't read. There are guys with disabilities - or I tell them it's their superpower - but like dyslexia. So, I will find resources for them. And, you know, I send them in. And it helps the mentors support the mentees in a way that normally they wouldn't be able to in general population.
And when these mentees come out of true, I help them find housing or jobs. I have a mentee who lives next door to me. He got out a year ago on us. He served seven years. And convincing the landlord to rent to him was tough. They come out, they don't have a security deposit. They've just spent seven years in prison. And I remember the landlord looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Debbie, he's got a gun charge, an assault charge, a drug charge." And I said, "I promise you, he came out of a unique program. I promise you he will succeed."
Sure enough, a year later, that landlord says he is the best tenant he's ever had. Ever had.
Amber: [00:43:56] That's awesome.
Deb: [00:43:57] It really is the True Program is about doing something different.
And COVID. So, here's the thing. Everyone has had a very different experience with COVID. I've talked to families who they're told that in those facilities, they're not necessarily cleaning or providing PPE.
I can't necessarily speak to those facilities. I can only speak to Cheshire and our North Five and North Six units specifically. One of our units was emptied out and turned into the isolation unit and they combined the guys. There were a lot of things, in the beginning, I was fairly upset about and vocal about and didn't understand why they were doing it. And I didn't think necessarily that they were being thoughtful about the steps they were taking. I tried to constantly remember that COVID is a fluid situation. Every day, even out here, information was never the same. It was different every day - what guidelines we should follow, we shouldn't follow. And DOC, I think was faced with a task in which they didn't know what to do.
And the problem for families is, I find that families are more receptive to just say that. Say, "Listen, we are just as lost as you are. We're doing our best." But be open and be transparent and give us information. The worst thing DOC has ever done in the history of DOC in my interactions is shut families out. If you communicate with us, are there going to be people that are angry? Yeah. Are we always going to agree? Absolutely not. I don't necessarily agree with DOC on a lot of things, but I always try and at least see their side.
In our unit, our unit manager, the truth is I couldn't have asked for a better situation. We had a lot of guys in True lose loved ones during COVID. And I have to tell you, I emailed that warden on a Saturday, and he, in 60 seconds, came back and said, "Okay, I'm going to go have, not just have someone pulled out to give them notification of a death. I'm going to make sure they're mentors with them."
He was onsite Easter weekend. Chester is one where there's a house in front of it. It's called the warden's house. He was there. He was onsite. He was touring. He was talking to people. The unit manager was going out of her way to make sure they had extra cleaning supplies, holding everybody accountable, making sure her staff was wearing their masks like they were supposed to.
Did I want them to let my brother come home and stay with me during COVID, you know, I'm over-protective. Yes, absolutely. I think it's unfair that you exclude people. You'll send someone home with no resources - which makes no sense - just because you're trying to reduce population, rather than send someone home with resources temporarily.
I just think that they didn't necessarily think outside the box.
Jason: [00:46:42] Right. These are unusual. We have mass incarceration. You know, we've gotten here for a number of reasons. This was a time to do something; to prioritize health. And in some ways, and not just Connecticut, but the entire country failed. But I'm encouraged by your story because, uh, you know, we've heard of so many failings and to hear that there are places where things were done, right. I mean, we've got to acknowledge that and recognize that. So, I think that's a good thing.
Amber: [00:47:08] Jason, that's a good point in terms of acknowledging the successes.
And I appreciate Deb as well, that you really mentioned that communication piece of it. Because I think by and large, in the state of Connecticut throughout this crisis, there's been a lot of communication about everything that has to do with COVID, with a very large exception.
When you talk about people who are incarcerated, there has been a choice on the part of some in leadership, to not have conversations, and to ignore the voices of individuals who have family members who are incarcerated. So, on one hand, I definitely want to acknowledge the successes, but all people are asking for is a little bit of humanity and communication, so that they understand what's going on.
Jason: [00:48:03] And transparency, like providing the data. Like, we get daily updates for the general population in terms of the statistics: who's gotten tested, who's negative, who's positive, who's died. We're getting that, what, like on a monthly basis, if that, now for people who are incarcerated. And it's not always clear that the information that they're sharing is completely accurate and transparent.
Deb: [00:48:23] Well, because it's not.
So, on the flip side, I'm the gray area. Not everyone likes what I do. There were plenty of things during COVID that were done specifically to me as retaliation for speaking up. And times in which my brother directly said, you know, "She's on Twitter. She's posted on Facebook." You know, and some things that occurred that were wrong. And again, I will say the warden at the time kind of said, I can't change what's happened, but I can try and make it not occur in the future.
Department of Corrections and I have a love, hate friendship. We really, really do. Uh, I will be the first one to call them out on their crap. They're not transparent, they're not open. And with all due respect to the Public Information Office, the end of the day, they've worked for DOC. And even if you've had a loved one incarcerated and you hold that position, that's great. But your employer is the Department of Corrections. So, you're always going to lean on the side of what's best for DOC, not what's best for families. And fail to recognize that what is best for the Department of Corrections is to have this joint relationship with families, is to be transparent, is to talk about what the needs of families are and their loved ones. And I think very, very often they drop the ball in that area.
And we all know that there's some bureaucracy and politics involved in what did and didn't happen with COVID. And I think that that also muddies the water. And for families, we don't care. We don't care about the politics. We don't care about any of that. We care about whether or not our loved one is safe. We care about whether or not they're getting actual cleaning supplies. We want to know again, that goes back to this specific group. If my brother was in any other facility, I will, you know, if they took him to medical. I would have no clue. I would be left in the dark at home, just wondering why he didn't call. And that creates a lot of anxiety for loved ones.
In our unit with this group, something happens, we all know very quickly. The only way DOC is going to prevent me and these other families from knowing something is they have to lock down the whole unit. And then even that they can only do for so many days. But I will tell you the moment those guys are out there on their phone and we all know. We all get loud and we all reach out.
But in general population, like, I recognized how difficult COVID has been for loved ones because they don't have that.
Amber: [00:50:59] Right.
Deb: [00:51:00] And so, I remember what it felt like, which is why I created this group. I remember clearly what it felt like for 16 years to not know. You know, on a five-day lockdown, you're holding your breath. You are literally holding your breath, waiting for a phone call. Is he in-seg? Has he been transferred? Did they four-point restraints him? Did he try and kill himself? What's happening? And so I just think that, that is one area in which Department of Corrections consistently drops the ball. And that's in their relationship with families.
I mean, we have over at Cheshire. I went out and purchased sweatpants and sweatshirts and put them in bags because if you've ever had a visit, there's always someone who can't get into their visit because it's either their first visit. Or things that you wouldn't think like you can't wear leggings. Leggings are like jeans. You know what I mean? Like, we wear those every day. People don't know and so they'll get denied visits. So, I handed out these bags to other, you know, regular families that I see cause I'm there four times a week. And so, when someone can't sit in, we say, Hey, we have these clothes. You can use it. Just need them at the end of your visit. That's family support.
At first, I got called into the principal's office over why I'm handing out bags. Don't do that. Don't call me into the principal's office for being supportive. You know what I did, I prevented somebody from getting mad at your officer and there being, you know, a whole to-do over the clothing. That's what I did.
Amber: [00:52:27] I saw this quite a bit and it happened to my children several times. Something that you don't think about precludes you from being able to enter. And sometimes it even depends on the officer who is screening you as to whether you can get in.
So, I actually had a situation where I saw a young woman come with her very young child and didn't have the correct gear or wasn't wearing the right thing. And she had driven three hours to get there with her very young child and was completely in tears because she was turned away.
I was denied entry into a facility because at the time I had left my ID in another jacket or whatever, but I did have my military ID. And so, the policy said you have to have a state issued ID. So the federal government that gave me a military dependent ID was not adequate and they turned me away.
So, these are the kinds of things that just really shouldn't happen, you know? I understand having to keep order, but it really behooves departments of corrections and jails and all of those people, to really understand that these family connections matter. And nobody's trying to really circumvent the system because they have a military ID instead of their state ID.
Jason: [00:53:56] So Deb, thank you. You've shared with us, something awful that happened to you, which transformed you into a person who's really making a difference in the community and touching a number of people in a positive way.
So, the advocacy work I hope you can continue. And I'm using the word hope intentionally. I personally believe that tomorrow can always be better than today. And I have to hold on to that. And that doesn't always mean that I hope for a specific outcome, but just that things will get better in some way that I don't even know about yet.
Before we closeout. I just want to ask you, is there anything that you want to make sure you cover that you didn't, and is there anything you want to plug, like have people follow you on Facebook or Twitter or anything like that?
Deb: [00:54:43] So, two things. During COVID I took out a commercial that played on 99.9 every night. It was directed at everyone in the Department of Corrections. It played for 30 days and it was to remind them of all the positive things. So, I just want to make sure you know that I don't take their word hope. My brother does. But you know, you have to see the person.
You know, I was a victim of a crime and I learned that justice is not served by putting someone in jail. If you just put someone in jail and you've locked them up and you don't see the person and you don't figure out why, then you don't ever prevent more victims from existing. You just continue the same cycle. It matters to see the person. And if we become a society where it is okay to treat someone without - no matter who, no matter what - once we crossed that line and we stop treating people with human dignity, then who are we? Really, who are we?
The 10 mentors in the True Program created an organization called HOME. It stands for Healing Ourselves, Mentoring Everyone, which they can find on Facebook. It's how we help the mentees who come out, you know, we support them. It's how we provide some of the programming. We do community outreach, things like that. But really everything that I do, everything, you know, that the families do, it's just because we love them. You know, I don't care if you're incarcerated at Cheshire and you're in True, or you're incarcerated at Gardner. You matter.
And if there's anything in the world to get out there, my brother has this saying. He says it to my kids all the time for years now: "You are loved, you are supported. And you matter."
And I would just hope that people recognize that that applies to people who are incarcerated too.
Amber: [00:56:33] Deb, we really appreciate you speaking to us today. We're gonna put some things in the podcast notes so that people can kind of find those things. And I know that, you know, you're involved in a lot of different advocacy from autism to social-emotional learning and all of those things. So, if you have things that you want to get in the podcast notes, that you want us to put out there, send us a quick email. We'll throw it in the podcast notes and it's an opportunity for more positivity to be thrown into the world.
Deb: [00:57:03] I appreciate it. Thank you guys for having me. It was enjoyable.
Jason: [00:57:07] Thank you so much for coming on Debbie. And, uh, until next time, Amber.
Amber: [00:57:12] We'll see you next time.
Outro: [00:57:13] You've been listening to Amplified Voices. A podcast, lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system.
For more information, episodes, and podcast notes, visit amplifiedvoices.show.