I Stole to Feed My Family and Was Incarcerated. We Need Resources, Not Prisons.

“A menace to society,”At the age of 14, that was what the judge called me. These words rang in mine and stabbed me in the heart.

“Not my baby,” she cried, “Not my baby.”

I was a bad child in the eyes of law. They called me a bad kid and I wore that jacket for many, many years. It was fitting considering my origins. It was the jacket that all the children who were born into poverty in my neighborhood wore: promiscuous; too ghetto; nappy hair; liar. Why are there so many jackets that have labels? I’m not what you call.

I want your words to paint a picture so that you can understand. I want them to tell a story about a 12-year-old Black girl who lives in a shelter with her parents and siblings; riding the L train north to south; and being amazed at the differences: Some people are wearing nice clothes. There are clean streets, gardens, and lawns. But there are also people surrounded by broken glass, broken buildings, and broken dreams.

I want you to ask the questions with my words. “Why are there no resources?” “Why isn’t there any help in Black and Brown communities?”And “Why should anybody have to go to prison or jail to receive support?”I want my words and thoughts to help you understand how welfare, mental illness, and justice systems work in communities of colour.

Both my parents worked hard to provide for me growing up. They wanted the best for their children: Catholic school, dance, and music lessons. It became increasingly difficult to pay for expenses. My father was a well-known Chicago tap dancer and choreographer. He was 62 when he started his family and 70 when I was born. When you’re a dancer, you rely on your body, so once his health started to decline, his business did too.

My dad was an artist so the arts were important to me. My parents spent money on piano lessons and dance classes. I was almost ashamed of that because other kids around me didn’t have it. But it was true. We didn’t have was enough food. I would see people who received food stamps, coming home with all these groceries, and I’m like “Dang, they got a lot of food.”

But my mother didn’t want to accept government assistance to get what we needed because she felt that we would all be trapped. They might say she wasn’t capable of caring for us, and then the child “welfare” system would have stepped in and taken us. She would always say to me, “Honey, we don’t get on welfare.” You see, my mother was traumatized as a child by public assistance because that is how she lost her father. She told me stories of how the aid worker said that her daddy couldn’t come into the home once they accepted support.

Before 1968, there was an established rule that prohibited you from using your phone. OnlyPublic assistance is available to any household without an able-bodied male member. This rule in the welfare system forced men who had lost their job or didn’t have enough work to choose between abandoning their children or watching them struggle with hunger: punitive systems of separation that broke down our families in exchange for basic support.

But even though we didn’t have the kind of food other kids had, my family was rich in love because we had each other. Despite all the hardships we faced, my siblings and I always found time for laughter and jokes, even after losing our home.

I’ll never forget coming back from school and seeing all our things, clothes, pictures, dumped onto the street, my father standing in the middle of it all with our dog. I was twelve years old, and was walking home with my brother, aged 11, and four of our younger siblings. My brother and myself were so ashamed that we ran away and took the L tracks to our destination, just before my dad saw us. My younger siblings ran to meet their dad. They surrounded him with their fears and asked questions while he struggled to find the right answer. You could see the look on his face of determination and overwhelm. He was 74 years old and trying to provide for his children.

After trying for a while to keep our sanity, we were finally able to find a place in the projects. This is when I realized that I was poor. When you are in the programs, poverty affects every aspect your life.

When I look at the projects and the structures of how they were built, it is clear that Black and Brown people were separated, labeled poor, labeled lazy, labeled not wanting to work and labeled with receiving assistance. Labels that did not take responsibility for the history of oppression that left us impoverished and squeezed into a concentration camps. My mother didn’t want to go back to the projects, but we needed housing and the system gave her no other choice.

My parents were working most of the time and my older sister was left to watch me and my younger brother. My sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia during that time and her behavior was very unpredictable. I was a victim of her attacks. It was quite scary. But my mom didn’t want to believe it. My sister needed mental health support and treatment, but my mother didn’t want that kind of help: another punitive system for the poor that might break up our family. “No, those places are bad,” my mom would say. “We’re not going to put your sister in an institution.”

My sister was ill and I was the oldest child. So I stepped in to help. I would dress up in Sunday clothes and shoplift to provide for my siblings and me. My parents would be at work and we would get tired of eating government bread and cheese so I would steal food and then cook it.

Or if you needed shoes I mean, we had shoes, hand-me-downs, thrift store stuff, but as a child you always want what other kids have — I would dress up and head to Favor’s. I don’t know if you remember Favors? It’s a store like Pay Less. And I’d be like, “Don’t tell mom where you got them from.”

My mom used question everything, of course. I would say, “Oh… my boyfriend’s family gave them to me,” or something like that.

When I was finally caught at age 14, I stood before the judge and he called me “They pose a threat to society” The family shoplifter of meat and shoes, a menace to society.

Did the judge ever feel hungry?

Did the judge have any idea of what it was like growing up in poverty?

Did the judge understand what it was like for you to be taken from home and dumped on the streets?

Is it possible for a judge to admire the determination shown by a young Black girl to not give up? She looks in the mirror, adjusts her best shirt, and recites to her reflection. “Poverty no more. Poverty no more!”?

The judge didn’t recognize that there was no threat or malice in my heart at that time, but only love for my family members and a desire provide basic necessities for every child.

I was 14 years old when I was sent into juvenile prison. There were so many people from the projects caged in there — I couldn’t believe it — and they were in for doing a lot more than shoplifting. I was able to step up my game. I learned how to commit larger crimes. Instead of helping me and my family the punishment system dragged me deeper into the crime scene and into the streets. As a young adult, I had 18 convictions for theft and forgery. I was viewed in my community as a role-model of survival, and the coldest shopper from Tri Nine. I adopted that identity. It was mine. It belonged to me.

And when I wasn’t sure I could keep it up, heroin gave me the feeling I could steal, or take anything. Before I knew it I was addicted to heroin.

I could easily tell you that if the judge had asked me why I was shoplifting at age 14, I would have told him. He might have seen me as a strong, loving child who tried to do the right thing for my family.

In truth, though, I wouldn’t have told the judge if he had asked. Because if he knew about our hunger, my sister’s mental collapse, he might not just have taken me away. He might have put all my siblings in another system called the Department of Children and Family Services. So I didn’t mention our poverty, and instead of losing us all, my mother just had to cry for one child; I was the only one sent away.

Why are there so many systems? Why are they so harsh? Who created them? Why do they separate us from each other? Why?

Women and men with no legal economic opportunities are surrounded in poverty and forced to go into the underground market to survive — whatever that underground market looks like: Sometimes it is selling drugs; sometimes it is selling your body.

But you would rather say that the story is about criminality, drug addiction, or evil.

The story is really about poverty. The history of poverty in the Black community is directly tied to Jim Crow, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and all the redlining laws that the government imposed on us, putting us in projects instead of our homes in the suburbs. This story is about America, not me.

But you don’t see the violence American history has caused Black Americans. You deny the violence your punitive systems create. So instead of listening only to my personal story as part of this monologue, let’s look at the story of state violence caused by multiple systems that America creates — violence under the watchful eyes of the law.

When I speak up for my community and say, “We need safe housing for women with children,” the system instead offers us parenting classes led by people that don’t look like us, don’t understand the true story, and label us with their judgments.

When I say, “We need mental health and drug addiction support,” the state representatives say, “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough treatment facilities for your community. So folks will have to go to prison to get treatment and keep communities safe.”

What? That’s not what we need, not what I needed! Prisons didn’t make me safe. Jails and prisons shouldn’t be our mental health facilities, or our treatment facilities.

I am reminded of how many times I have relapsed during my struggle with heroin addiction. Every relapse resulted in jail, not healing.

What about harm reduction? Your systems’ harm causes more trauma that is passed from parent to child, generation to generation. It gets worse when parents are sent to prison, and children lose the love which is their greatest wealth.

We need to see resources flowing into our communities and not going to jails or prisons. If we had all the resources we need to be happy, there would be no need to go to prison or jail.

America, your close observation could have made a difference in my life’s trajectory. It would have been different if you had seen me. America, I see your pain. I see the pain that you have caused — and will continue to cause, if you don’t look at racism, sexism, classism, and all the other ismsThey are woven into your systems: systems you say are for justice; mental health; public assistance; but they are tainted and governed by directives that harm the lives of my fellow citizens.

Please remember that I was incarcerated prior to going to prison. I was imprisoned by the injustice and poverty that I experienced, and the shackles contained more rings that I can count. These rings were extended once you were inside your system and the permanent punishment was hell.

I wanted to tell you through my words the story of my past hopes and dreams, which were destroyed by the system’s first arrest and incarceration at 14. Please also know that I survived and thrived through it all. I also work to eliminate punitive system. My experience as a former prisoner has helped me become who I am today. And I won’t hold on to shame or guilt.

Remember me for the person I was at age 14 and the person I am today. A leader that is filled with love. A leader who encourages all Black and Brown girls, to speak their truths and declare:Poverty is gone.