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By Monalisa Johnson

I’m going to say something that should be obvious but needs to be said: Convicted felons are human beings.

That’s right. A prison sentence doesn’t mean you stop being worthy of certain rights, protections, and basic human dignity. Of course, I don’t condone crime, but the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the United States and their families are often treated as disposable by their government and rebuked by their fellow citizens. I should know. My daughter was sentenced with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in Georgia and has since been released.  

Incarceration’s toll on mental health

“Momma…. I’m in trouble, and I need you to stop whatever you are doing right now because I need your full attention.” Those were the desperate words coming from the other end of the phone. I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a journey that would test our resolve, willpower, and love.

How could the baby girl I sang lullabies to and changed diapers for end up in this situation? How could I, as her mother, have spared her from such a fate? I was devastated and had no clue what to do next. 

The strain being incarcerated takes on one’s mental health is unlike anything I have ever seen. Terrible things can take place in a prison that a person may never share with their loved ones. That kind of environment, coupled with guilt or shame for what landed them in prison (even those who are innocent), can seriously impact a person’s mental health.

Mass Incarceration affects all of us

Prison isn’t designed with rehabilitation in mind. It’s intended to dehumanize, punish, and crush one’s spirit. While it may be tempting for free citizens to dismiss this as “their problem,” many of those people won’t be in prison forever. Their trauma, recidivism, and difficulty adjusting to a rapidly changing world eventually become our collective responsibility, whether we know it or not. 

Take homelessness, for instance. Recently, celebrity and California gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner, shared her dismay at her state’s rising rates of homelessness in a Fox News interview. But what her vapid response failed to highlight were any of the underlying causes of homelessness, such as a lack of mental health services, inadequate veteran support programs, livable wages, and yes, housing and job placement for the formerly incarcerated. 

Then there’s the myriad of financial and mental health challenges suffered by the families of those imprisoned. Family units are broken up when a parent is sent away. Households lose entire income streams. Children lose the stability of a two-parent home. Parents and other loved ones left behind are forced into a never-ending game of financial Jenga as they juggle notoriously high-priced collect calls, mountains of legal bills, and the stress of simply surviving in areas where wages aren’t keeping pace with the rising cost of living. 

A mom’s journey on A&E’s “60 Days In”

When my daughter was arrested, I had to navigate these issues and more alone. I didn’t have anyone there to help me navigate our new circumstances, so I had to learn much by trial and error.

But anyone who knows me knows that I’m never down long. I understood that while I couldn’t change our current reality, I could impact how my daughter and I survived it. The petty judgments of others – and there were/are many – didn’t concern me. I had to dig deep to be a source of strength for my family. 

But like so many moms before me, I needed to do something to help my family, as well as others. Part of my journey included a stint on the A&E channel’s “60 Days In”, where I went undercover to an Indiana jail to understand what institutionalized life was like. The poor health conditions, bad food, complex relationships with other inmates, and heartbreaking stories of each woman helped fuel my desire to help families understand their new normal and bring healing resources to the table for all incarcerated people and their families. But the problem is so much bigger than a lot of people even realize. 

Prisoner of Hope

That’s a frightening position to be in when you’re talking about your child’s freedom. That’s why I launched my online YouTube interview series, Prisoner of Hope. In it, I speak with experts, the ex-felons and their families, and more to spread healing and compassion in this rapidly growing community. In addition to a free listing of available resources, I have developed a subscription-based online resource hub to help current and formerly incarcerated people and their families called The Vault.

People who are now part of the criminal justice system can discover regularly updated resources on mental health, finances, a network of experts and professionals, and most importantly, HOPE. It’s the resource I wish I’d had when my daughter and I first began this journey. Now, it’s my turn to help others in similar situations. 

But while resources like The Vault and Prisoner of Hope are game-changers for the incarcerated and their families, they’re not enough. We need a thorough overhaul of our criminal justice system, policing practices, racial disparities in sentencing and policies, and a lot more to help fulfill the full promise of the United States. 

I’m proud to be doing my part and encourage all Americans, regardless of their backgrounds, to consider how they, too, can help.

Monalisa Johnson is a mother and creator of The Vault.

Monalisa Johnson, Creator of The Vault

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