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Turning Trauma Behind Bars Into Advocacy for Incarcerated Pregnant Women

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Tuesday, November 16, 2021   

By Ashley Mahoney for the Charlotte Post with support from the Pulitzer Center.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for North Carolina News Service, reporting for the Charlotte Post Media-Public News Service Collaboration


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jail shattered Kristie Puckett-Williams' remaining sense of self-worth.

Drugs and alcohol had dulled the pain of domestic violence. Crime supported her habit, which landed Puckett-Williams in the Mecklenburg County Jail for "months," she said. Facing a cocaine trafficking charge in 2009, she took a plea deal to avoid giving birth in lockup, and twins Kade and Kaiden were born premature five days later. They spent 21 days in neonatal intensive care.

"It took a huge toll on my already fragile mental health state," Puckett-Williams said. "I entered into the system as a victim of severe domestic violence. None of the system's responses to that violence promoted any healing or transformation of that trauma. The only thing it ever did was exacerbate and compound that trauma."

Probation dominated much of Puckett-Williams' adult life, with the fear of returning to jail always hovering in the background. She participated in a mandatory 10-month treatment program as part of her plea deal, and the Department of Social Services required parenting classes in order to keep her children.

"I found myself out [of jail] with a whole lot of trauma," she said, "and a whole lot of lists of things to do in order to remain free, in order for my children to remain free. I had to focus on that list of things that I had to do."

UNC Charlotte social work professor Dante Bryant PhD describes the American criminal justice system as one designed to punish, not rehabilitate. Dehumanization of the incarcerated is a byproduct.

"Our local jail here, they've started all these different types of programs, to try to help facilitate [re-entry]," he said. "But the reality is that programs only emerge when there's a problem. A program always emerges in response to a deficiency. A criminal justice system that is designed for rehabilitation shouldn't need programs. It should be the program."

Puckett-Williams said sheer will to protect her family helped with navigating re-entry. In addition to the twins, she has an older son, Julian Aguilar, 20.

"I was determined that I was not going to allow the system to win," Puckett-Williams said. "I just made it up in my mind. They weren't getting my children. They weren't getting me."

Punishment and re-entry

Mecklenburg County's Criminal Justice Services department consists of two jails: Jail Central in Uptown and Jail North on Spector Drive. The average daily population for both facilities between January-March 2018 was 1,492, with 1,253 incarcerated at Jail Central, according to the county's latest Jail Population Trend Report.

Men made up 89% of incarcerated residents; girls and women comprised 8% and boys 3%. Black people accounted for 67% of incarcerated, followed by whites (21%) and Hispanics 11%. Sixty-four percent were held pretrial. A total of 4,927 people were released.

Mecklenburg County provides re-entry services to people returning from jails, state and federal prisons, many in collaboration with local programs such as Center for Community Transitions and City Startup Labs' ReEntry Entrepreneurship Program.

"We assess or screen for what all their needs and barriers are," county re-entry manager Hope Marshall said. "Then we have probably 100-plus partners that we can refer to help out with each of those barriers and challenges. [People at] the highest risk, highest needs, you don't want to send them to five different places all at once, you need to prioritize and kind of walk through [and] walk with them, to get all these services in places."

Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, wrote in a 2019 report that re-entry programs have a gender gap that ignores the unique needs of women.

"A handful of programs have sprung up in communities around the country to meet the needs of women returning home: some founded by formerly incarcerated women themselves, some running on shoestring budgets for years, and all underscoring the need for greater capacity to meet the demand of over 81,000 releases from prison and 1.8 million releases from jail each year," Sawyer wrote. ... "While many people are released from jail within a day or so and may not need reentry support, jail releases can't be overlooked, especially for women, who are more likely than men to be incarcerated in jails as opposed to prisons."

Said Bryant: "If you want to know what a system is designed to do, look at what it produces consistently over time."

Indicting the system

Going to school was on Puckett-Williams' to-do list upon re-entry.

"When I went to Central Piedmont Community College, I found myself in a welcoming space with people who just wanted me to learn and to be the best version of myself that I could be," she said.

"As a result of being in that type of environment, I found myself in the human services program focusing on substance abuse. I learned so much about mental health and mental unwellness and wellbeing through the human service program, that I learned a lot about myself. What I learned at the end of the day was that the things that have happened to me and my behaviors, my 'criminality' was a response to trauma that had been unanswered."

Puckett-Williams took it upon herself to critique and investigate the system she was caught up in. She earned an associate's degree at CPCC, bachelor's in human services from Gardner-Webb University and a master's in addiction and recovery counseling from Liberty University.

Puckett-Williams feels called to fight for people who are still in the trenches of addiction, abusive relationships and incarceration.

"For me," she said, "it is about telling the truth, and in indicting a system that indicted me, that indicted my poverty, that indicted my trauma, and now I'm in guiding it, because instead of addressing my poverty, or my trauma, it only ... compounded those issues. The system did absolutely nothing to help.

"I had to heal before I could show up in the world as my true, authentic self. I knew the state's version of who I was, was not who I was. I had a duty to tell who I am, and not just who I am, but the value and the worth of people who have the same life experiences that I have, because society will say that we have no value, we have no worth, we have nothing to contribute. My existence in this world is a clapback to that."

Still fighting

Puckett-Williams is the statewide campaign for smart justice manager at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and a working scholar in mass incarceration who focuses on the treatment of women, including those who are pregnant.

She advocates for legislation like the North Carolina House Bill 608, Dignity for Women Who are Incarcerated. HB 608 was introduced in April and passed 113-0 in May.

"We know we have to legislate exactly what people need in order for it to happen," Puckett-Williams said. "That is how we approach our work. What do the people need? How will we get them what they need? Dignity for Women Who are Incarcerated is a huge example of that."

Limited use of restraints, cost of care, nutrition and body cavity searches are included in HB 608.

For instance, leg and wrist restraints, restraints connected to other incarcerated persons and waist shackles would be barred during the second and third trimester of pregnancy, during labor or delivery, as well as six weeks postpartum. Pregnant incarcerated people would receive free prenatal, labor and delivery care which Puckett-Williams did not have. She also did not have feminine hygiene products while she was incarcerated, which HB 608 would provide.

"I was incarcerated while pregnant, received no prenatal care, [was in] shackles, all the things," Puckett-Williams said. "I had been in jail before and did not have access to menstrual pads. It was bad."

Triage upon return

Re-entry comes with barriers that may push a person's mental health to the back burner. Immediate needs such as housing and employment dominate the conversation, with less consideration given to the trauma of imprisonment or what led to incarceration in the first place.

"Overall health plays a huge role in your re-entry and mental health, this is a huge component of a person's total wellness," said Puckett-Williams, who utilizes therapy and advocates for transformative healing spaces. "While you're inside of a cage languishing, your mental health is definitely at risk."

Mental health concerns for returning citizens extend beyond depression and/or anxiety. For many people, including Puckett-Williams, self-value is key in rewriting the narrative and moving forward.

"Your self-image, how you view yourself, how you view the world, how you view yourself in the world, your contribution to the world, all of those things are impacted by incarceration," she said. "How do you process this ... deep trauma that you've experienced, with no resources, when your immediate needs are an ID, someplace to live and somewhere to work? What are you going to eat, what clothes are you going to wear? Those are the most immediate needs that a person has.

"There has to be a way that we can allow people to re-enter, come home and navigate everything that they need to navigate with assistance from the community."

Ashley Mahoney wrote this article for the Charlotte Post.


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