Justice Creator Tarra Simmons’ story (part two)

Today, I am sharing the second of two parts of a conversation with attorney Tarra Simmons. She is a formerly incarcerated person who has successfully reinvented herself as an advocate for people in prison and experiencing re-entry, as well as for policy change at a statewide level.

Here is a link to part one of the conversation.

Alice: Let’s talk about mental health issues in prison. Many people come out of prison with PTSD, and I
think that they’ve really been traumatized, especially people who have been put
into segregation for long periods of time. That is psychological torture. So I
was wondering if you could talk about this and about how we can get
mental health professionals to help.

Tarra: I think that, in this country, we are
under-resourced for mental health, even if you have money. If we had as many therapists
in this country as we have lawyers, we would all be doing much better. A large amount of people have PTSD before entering prison. We also know that substance abuse disorder
is just a secondary effect of the trauma. If you didn’t have PTSD before you came
to prison, you would definitely have it after you leave. Even if we are not in
solitary confinement,  we are given constant
strip searches. Our womanhood is dehumanized by a lack of access to sanitary
napkins. We are moved away from our children.  We are called by a number and not a
name. We are just dehumanized. So it sets us backward, instead of helping us go

We experience a lack of programming, a lack of opportunities during our prison
sentence, and a lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment. I don’t know anybody
who actually gets a therapeutic relationship with a mental health counselor
while in prison. If they do, it’s a very small amount of people who actually
get that. They will be given medication, but only if they have a serious mental
illness… schizophrenia or something. 
Even in our general society, it is hard to find mental health care.
Then, in prison, it is worse. People progress in their mental illnesses.

The only help that I got was from volunteer programs. I just
felt that, if it weren’t for the recovery programs, the faith-based programs, I
wouldn’t have gotten the help that I needed. I’m very grateful for those
volunteer programs that came inside.

We are a traumatized people, who have experienced a lot of horrific conditions our entire lives that lead us to prison. So we need to have access to substance abuse disorder treatment and mental health services and peer support and hope. And we need somebody to pick up our phone calls at midnight when we are thinking of using or committing another offense and things like that. So doing a holistic approach for people in recovery and re-entry is an area that we’re working on diligently.

Alice: One of the things that I observed in prison was that people who
were getting medication would get it at the wrong time. They would have to go
to pill line. And, say, if the pill line was at 5 p.m., right after dinner or
even before dinner, they were given their sleeping pills and they had to take
them right away. They were given other medications then. It didn’t make a whole
lot of sense. I’m thinking that the psychiatric medication must have been
distributed that that ridiculous fashion. I would think that would reduce its
effectiveness. I can see that the therapeutic aspect was definitely lost in
prison. The psychologist, who interviewed everybody, said, “if you expect to
have a therapeutic relationship, it’s not happening. I’m only one guy, and I
can’t do that with everybody.”

Tarra: Yep.

Alice: I’ll go to another aspect, which may have to do with
men, but women tend to be the primary caregivers for their children. Women,
when they’re sentenced to long terms in prison, are separated from their
children. Basically, the whole family is punished by the fact that the woman
has been sent to prison. As an advocate, do you feel that there is a better way
of handling this? What would your recommendation be for helping the children
who are losing their moms, since they are being separated?

Tarra: In
Washington State, we have what is called the primary caretaker bill.  The court can sentence the women. The women can
stay at home with their children, instead of going to prison. It is absolutely
the best alternative because, when women are taken away from their children,
the children suffer. So then, they end up by going through foster care, getting
adopted out, with permanently terminates their parental relationship, based on a
mistake that a woman made, a crime that she committed. The consequences to the
children is what is unfair. 

So how do we help the children? The children don’t know how to process that trauma.
Children don’t have access to mental health care or support systems. No one can
be there like their mother anyway. Those children will likely grow up to have system involvement related to their
untreated trauma and, potentially, turn to substances to cope with that
untreated trauma. Our system is creating these generational cycles by taking
away the mothers.

Alice: That’s very hard on the children. They don’t know how to process it. They are too young and they blame themselves if their mom goes away. 

I think that you’ve also mentioned the
school-to-prison pipeline. That sounds like another problem. Kids are supposed
to go to school to get an education and, instead, they are being fed into the
prison system, which is one of the last ways in which we can have a legalized
form of slavery because it’s specifically excluded from the thirteenth

Tarra: Yep. My son is dealing with that right now. He has
unprocessed trauma from me going to prison. He still feels abandoned. He’s super bright. He would thrive in
an educational setting. He doesn’t fit the norm of kids who come from a really
solid foundation, who know how to articulate their feelings. He doesn’t have
that yet. If I
hadn’t suffered with my own traumas and used substances, I could have been a
better parent for him. But, because I was suffering and incarcerated for two
years, he still suffers with fear of abandonment.

Alice: It’s a type of separation anxiety.

Tarra: Yes.

Alice: I was wondering if
there was anything else that you’d want to talk about from your heart: your
opinions, your feelings, your hopes and your dreams for your legal career, and
how you see yourself as a part of creating justice. I see you as a justice

Tarra: Thank you. I want to work with others in the
movement. I want to be a part of pushing through the reforms that we all
want to see happen. We want to see people treated with dignity. We want to see
people get the help that they need, as opposed to incarceration. I’m happy
to do my part and lend a hand to the movement, whenever it is requested.

Alice: Thank you so much. I think that you are fabulous. I
admire your tenacity. You’re such a role model, and I love you.

Tarra: Thank you. I love you, too, sister. We are in this

2 thoughts on “Justice Creator Tarra Simmons’ story (part two)”

  1. Very good! Much shorter than Part I but right on! BTW the state of Washington (where Tarra did her time?) got rid of their death penalty today via the high court in that state finding the d.p. unconstitutional. I've not seen the decision but that's good news. According to the Death Penalty Information Center there were 5 executions carried out there since (national) reinstatement in 1976; and the current death row population was 8 males whose sentences have now been commuted to life, whatever "life" sentences are in Washington.

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