Panels seek answers to mental illness, incarceration of women at symposium

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer


Finding ways to separate mental illness and crime is one of the challenges that the criminal justice system is trying to come to grips with, a local criminal court operations consultant said while discussing the issue during a recent re-entry symposium.

The consequence that women face during imprisonment also was among a lengthy list of topics covered during the two-day event at TCC’s Center for Workforce Development.

Finding answers to those and other problems confronting ex-felons was the primary reason for the symposium, said Keith Parker, who was instrumental in organizing the event.

“Some of the real aspects of why people do the things they do; we are all impacted by life experiences,” said Parker, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at FAMU. “There were some very touching stories about absences from our lives; an absent mother, an absent father, or an absent place of belonging.”

Throughout the symposium, former prisoners told their stories about how drug additions led to their imprisonment. Some also said their incarceration was the result of dealing with trauma they experienced early in their lives.

Kendra Brown, a criminal court manager for the second judicial district, said in part the conundrum that the penal system faces in trying to figure out how to handle mental illness is because the system is not equipped to deal with the problem.

“It’s not that criminal justice doesn’t understand the struggle, it’s just that we are not the ones that actually put services in place,” Brown said. “We are asking the community to put certain services in place.”

She went on to say that getting to that point will take agencies in the Big Bend joining forces to find solutions.

“Everybody is doing a different thing in their little neck of the woods,” Brown said. “Everybody has their own little meetings and it gets us nowhere. We have all the parts for this car but we haven’t put the parts together so this car can run.”

Leon County Commissioner, Bill Proctor,  who was on the panel with Brown, said he could relate to the mental health and substance abuse issues, something that his son is living with.

Proctor suggested that the criminal system should consider leniency in cases when a mentally ill person is charged with a crime. In some cases, Proctor said, a mentally ill person will put themselves in a position to be incarcerated because prison is their refuge and a place to get their medicine and food.

“We have collectively failed,” he said.

Making the point that mental illness should be treated the same as any other illness, Carolyn “Freda” King, a supervisor at Disc Village, rebuffed a suggestion that individuals sometimes attempt to manipulate the system.

 “At the end of the day, they are not well,” she said. “You’re thinking they know how to play the system, but you’re dealing with someone that is sick.”

King, who often uses her personal story of how drug use led to being incarcerated, also said childhood trauma affected some of the decisions that she made.

“Lack of education is traumatic,” she said. “Going to bed hungry and not having a stable home is traumatic. Being homeless is traumatic. I was homeless for three years and that’s traumatic. Very traumatic.”

The effects of women’s incarnation also were very much a part of the discussions. Carla Laroche, a visiting clinical professor at FSU who works as director of the gender and family justice clinic, brought to light some eye-opening statistics about women in Florida’s prisons.

For example, she said DOJ statistics show that Florida has one of the highest rates of incarcerated women in the country. Additionally women are more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than men, she said.

During her presentation, she invited Patricia McCray to share her story as a reformed ex-felon. She later said her incarceration was the result of an abusive marriage that forced her to writing bad checks to support her three children.

A decade after serving three years for bank fraud, McCray said she is now helping incarcerated women deal with life in prison and preparing for re-entry.

She takes her message to the FCI prison in Tallahassee and one in Marianna because women need to hear it, she said. 

“You’ve been told all the time in prison that you will not succeed,” she said. “I started to read to change my mindset but when I came home I was overwhelmed with guilt. The guilt of leaving my children (and) not having a job and not being able to take care of myself.”

While the symposium was about creating a path for ex-felons’ return to society, Parker said he is committed to making sure fewer individual spend time in prison.

“My hope is that we will renew our commitment, and biblically speaking, become the Amos and assume responsibilities for our brothers and sisters,” he said, adding: “As early as elementary school and continue working with them throughout as much of their lives as much as we can.”