Has cheese ever made you panic before? If you had asked me a few months ago whether a block of medium cheddar has the potential to send someone spiraling into a dizzying pit of despair and confusion, I would have said, confidently, no. As it turns out, I would have been embarrassingly wrong. My first day at The STAR Project, I met with a client, we’ll call him “Joe.” I’m contractually obligated to keep most of what I know about Joe’s life in confidence, and I would do so anyway even if I wasn’t bound to a contract, out of respect for his experiences. What I can share about Joe is that the first time I met him, he made a bulletproof case for the way that injustice breeds lasting trauma, with an anecdote that lasted less than two minutes. Upon his release from prison, Joe visited the grocery store- a simple enough task. On the hunt for cheese, he wandered over to the dairy aisle, unprepared for the incursion of horror that would strike when he realized how many varieties there were to choose from. Having spent two-thirds of his adult life in prison or jail, Joe was out of practice making decisions for himself, and something as simple as picking out a type cheese left him feeling disoriented, frightened, and angry, to the extent that he couldn’t cope with the physiological and emotional symptoms of his distress, and he fled from the store. While Joe has improved at managing his symptoms, he continues to deal with the mental health repercussions of having been incarcerated for so long. I’m unfathomably sorry for whatever injustices Joe faced during his time in prison that created and exacerbate the current mental health problems he faces today. It is undeniable that the systems and structures meant to rehabilitate Joe failed him miserably and left him high and dry, when what he needed was support and assistance. That is why The STAR Project is working over time to support Joe and other people with stories like his.
The STAR Project serves people with felony convictions in Walla Walla and Columbia Counties in Washington State. The organization is comprised of four programs: Pre-Release Transition, Case Management, Housing, and Employment. STAR’s Mission is to reduce recidivism by providing persons being released from incarceration – referred to as justice-involved persons – with the essential tools to successfully re-integrate into the community as productive, contributing, and healthy members. My role specifically deals with Legal Financial Obligations, or LFO’s, which are the costs, fines, and fees imposed by the court on top of a criminal sentence. Almost every person convicted in Washington state will receive a bill for LFO’s during the time of sentencing; the average amount of LFO’s imposed in a felony case is upwards of $2,000. Some of these costs are mandatory, but most of them happen to be discretionary. My internship project entails working with STAR Project clients on reducing their discretionary LFO’s; I meet with clients individually, gather information about all of their convictions, and help them brainstorm a game-plan for tackling the mountains of legal paperwork, which, if completed, promise a splash of financial relief. Because of how much paperwork is involved in the LFO reduction process, it may come across as more administrative work, which has a tendency to feel antiseptic and uncaring. However, reducing LFO’s can have a monumentally beneficial effect on a person exiting the criminal justice system, especially given that many justice-involved persons are considered indigent according to the federal poverty guidelines, and so waiving even a $20 fee can be extremely emotional for a client. The importance of reducing LFO’s imbues the paperwork with emotion and meaning for me.
Criminal justice reform marries my passions for civil rights, feminism, public healthcare, mental healthcare, nutrition, and social security, and my work with The STAR Project has made me more acutely aware of the systems and structures of racism and classism, which result in criminal justice being enacted differently across racial and class lines.