Panelists discuss prison system and post-incarceration struggles

In a country that holds nearly 22 percent of the world’s prison population, the U.S. continues to struggle with youth incarceration. Presented by the Pre-Law Society and the Criminal Justice League, UW Tacoma hosted an event entitled “The School To Prison Pipeline: Kids or Criminals?” to discuss what contributes to such populations.

Moderated by Pre-Law Society President Isabell Murray, panelists Tarra Simmons, Omari Amili and Christi Tillinghast addressed audience members inside UWT’s Carwein Auditorium.

The panelists — all formerly incarcerated — discussed what contributes to continuing misbehavior in youth. One factor included the lack of help throughout schooling that leads to behavioral improvement. Simmons explained that schools can push students away instead of nurturing them when in need.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have counselors … There wasn’t anyone in the schools finding the root cause of [my trouble],” Simmons said. “Instead, they were expelling me, suspending me and kicking me out.”

Despite contrasting circumstances, Tillinghast experienced a similar lack of care from educators.

“My experiences were very similar to Tarra’s and Omari’s, except I grew up in a middle upper-class suburb,” Tillinghast said. “I had affluence around me my entire childhood. Teachers had a conversation about ‘how do we just pass her through and get her out of here?’”

Tillinghast added that counselors failed to address her behavior correctly.

“The counselors in the school just didn’t really care,” Tillinghast continued. “It was more so ‘she’s bipolar’ or ‘she’s going through hormonal changes — put her on some meds and she’ll be fine.’ Whatever kept me quiet and looked good to outside people.”

Beyond incarceration, many individuals experience consequences after release. But when asked about the current impact of previous mistakes, Amili highlighted the positives.

“In some ways [my life experiences] have been negative, but I’d rather focus on the positives,” Amili said. “Every tough time I’ve been through has made me a stronger person. They allow me to serve a greater purpose where people from similar backgrounds can be introduced to new possibilities so they can be given hope.”

Panelists additionally referenced the New Hope Act — a bill that would ease the difficulty of completing a fresh start once reentering society. Those previously incarcerated endure obstacles with housing, debt and job opportunities, to name a few.

Simmons described how the New Hope Act positively affects those ready to rebuild their life.

“The New Hope Act just expanded eligibility,” Simmons said. “Currently, under law, you can only vacate one misdemeanor ever in your life, but you can vacate multiple felonies if they are drug or property offenses. But we find people caught in a cycle of poverty, incarceration … [it] takes a while to finally get out of that … people can rack up a lot of different offenses while caught in the (sic) life.”

Simmons —  now a law school graduate working in Olympia to improve policy change —  pushed for public involvement with council members and officials.

“If you have the opportunity to talk about ‘Hey, how can we help people instead of putting them in jail?’” he said. “[Then] … that is really the answer.”