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02.19.2020

Reflections from Prison: Treehouse Meets with ‘State Raised’ Inmates

By Jesse Colman, Treehouse Public Relations Specialist

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Alongside elected officials and representatives from the child welfare, school, juvenile and criminal justice systems, a group of Treehouse employees and board members were led single file through a series of locking doors and security checks. Asked to leave their cell phones behind, their connection with the outside world closed behind them. For the next seven hours, they would get a small glimpse at prison life.

In partnership with the Raikes Foundation and the Monroe Correctional Complex, this convening took place under invitation from The Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO)—a group of incarcerated men who aim to better themselves and the community. Many of these same men call themselves “state raised” because they also experienced the child welfare system growing up.

Together, they have a powerful story to tell and a unified mission: disrupt the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

“I found freedom in prison through fellowship,” one inmate said. “Why did it take prison for us to find out we’re not alone?”

Many of the men shared their stories that led them from foster care to prison. They recited personal poetry, gave speeches and led breakout groups to brainstorm solutions. Although the day was just a small glimpse into what these men continue to experience, it had a profound impact on all who attended.

Here are reflections from Treehouse staff about that day:

Danielle Wilson, Organization Talent Development Manager
“As I reflect on my experience at the event and in conversation with members of CLO, I struggle to put it into words. By the end of the day, I was full of emotion and gratitude for even having the opportunity to share space with this group of truly amazing people. Along with gratitude, I had a mixture of feelings—from those of anger, sadness and frustration, to those of inspiration and hope. I truly appreciated the vulnerability and authenticity that the participants shared with us. They trusted us to honor their life experiences and do our best to create change for young people that are currently in similar situations.

“This is such an important part of our work and the work of any organization or group that is trying to have an impact on a marginalized community. It’s one thing to know of theories and issues faced, and it’s another to have conversation and take the time to embrace and listen to the people who have faced those issues. Imagine a world where we actually treated youth that have experienced foster care as though they were our own children. We believed in them, loved them and supported them unconditionally. This is what the men in this group needed. I’m so happy that they found that in the State Raised Working Group, and I am deeply saddened that we as a society failed them. There isn’t enough justice or efforts towards prevention and rehabilitation in our systems.”

Jessica Ross, Chief Development Officer
“I was amazed by the vulnerability the men demonstrated during the presentations and table discussions. To see this in a prison environment where I’m guessing being vulnerable has very real safety consequences was inspiring. If the men can do this inside a prison, I (maybe we) should be able to express this way of being in the world outside the bars.

“The way the pathway to prison seemed to be laid out for most of these men was jarring and a failure of our society that I want to understand better.”

Sarah Mazur, Launch Success Coordinator
“It was eye opening and heart breaking, but it also motivated me to continue the work that we are doing at Treehouse. Their stories were like so many other stories I have heard during the past seven years from youth who have experienced foster care. Children in the foster care system are our children, even after they grow up and become adults. One of the incarcerated individuals stated that the foster care to prison pipeline isn’t a pipeline but a conveyor belt. We institutionalize children in care at a young age, and it becomes all that they know.

“Our system preps them for more institutions, and this becomes a way of life. They go in and out of juvie and often that is the most consistent care they ever receive. This is not okay. We need to keep families together, we need to provide early intervention services and support. We need more diverse foster homes where the parents look like the children they are caring for. We need more social workers and reduced caseload sizes. We need to stop placing children in detention for noncriminal behavior. We need to fight white supremacy culture. We MUST do better.”

Janis Avery, Chief Executive Officer
“Twenty-five years ago I had the opportunity to visit with Concerned Lifers to talk about foster care. I left that experience changed. How can we lock anyone up for a lifetime for a crime committed as a young person? What I learned in that interaction, multiplied by 1,000 at this presentation, is that we are wasting tremendous talent, wisdom and maturity that should be harnessed and dedicated to reforming systems and strategies for support.

“Our bad outcomes—the foster care to prison pipeline—will not change until we fearlessly change policy frameworks, systems and staff behavior to fundamentally support youth and their families. The criminal justice system based in punishment and retribution will not produce anything besides criminals. A child welfare system based in response to difficult behaviors instead of facilitation of strengths and normal development will continue to sever attachments and lose whole generations to extreme trauma and loss.”

Chandler Gayton, Treehouse Policy and Advocacy Committee Member
“Going to Monroe to speak with the ‘state raised’ group was a blessing for me. I believe that too often people in positions of power assume they know what is best for those in situations they could never fathom, like a system that was designed for foster youth to fail, especially those who are black and brown. For Treehouse to take the initiative to seek out those individuals who have been dealt a tougher hand—and to take the time just to sit and talk to them—was an experience I will never forget.

“In order for the system to change, we all need to take into account what everyone heard at Monroe and be persistent in changing the foster care-to-prison pipeline. I hope that Treehouse provides this opportunity again.”

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About the Author

Jesse Colman is the Public Relations Specialist for Treehouse. He is passionate about building relationships, storytelling and community development.


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