Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Furever Friends: adopt, don't shop!


Diane and Tillie
Today, I am sharing a conversation that I had with dog lover Diane Lattimer. She and her husband, John, have five dogs and two cats. One of their dogs, Tillie, was rescued in a dramatic way from a puppy mill in Ohio. Here is their story:

Tell me how it came to be that you rescued Tillie.

I belong to a group called Furever Friends Dog Rescue of WNY. In the beginning, we had someone who was going to Amish puppy mills in Ohio and she knew that I liked Frenchies (French bulldogs). She went to a farm, and they had Tillie, who was nine months ol. So he bred her, and she was too young. I would say that, say 99 percent of the time, bulldogs should have a C-section because their head is big and their pelvis is very small. They don’t usually let them deliver the regular way. And so this puppy miller decided that he wasn’t going to pay for a C section. So, when she delivered her puppies, her uterus basically went outside of her body, and the puppies died.

He was going to shoot her but, when this was happening, the person that we know was there to pick up another dog. She said, “I have somebody who will take her.” He said, “Here, you can have her.” So she took her to the vet. We had her spayed and then we brought her back to Buffalo. We were fostering her and we never had the intention of keeping her. We had two other Frenchies. Someone wanted to adopt her, and then they changed their mind. A second person wanted to adopt her. They also changed their mind because she has a lot of puppy mill traits.

Could you talk about puppy mill traits?

Because they never leave the cage, they don’t know about grass, and they don’t know about stairs. We’ve had Tillie for six years. She still puts her feet up on the fence to go to the bathroom because, in their cages, they would try to poop outside their cages so they wouldn’t step in it. She’s still afraid of loud noises. If she were to be in the car, she’s very nervous. She loves my husband, but she’s afraid of a lot of other men. 

Is it like PTSD in a dog?

Relaxation time.
Basically. If it’s thundering and lightning, she shakes. I actually bought her a thunder shirt. It’s supposed to keep them calm. She won’t eat out of a metal bowl because, if her tags touch the bowl, it scares her and she runs away. So she eats out of a plastic bowl. It took me about three weeks to get her housebroken because she didn’t know about houses, beds, or blankets. She didn’t know what a toy was. She was ten months old. She was still a puppy. But she never knew anything but a cage for her whole life.

She was pretty well traumatized.

Yes, for sure. We’ve had other dogs that were old that were in the mill for some time. Sometimes, their traits are really bad.

Do you think that’s why the people changed their minds?

The first people didn’t give her the chance to warm up to them. She didn’t know them. They came over, and she was just freaking out. The second people decided that she had too much energy for them. It depends on what type of dog you’re looking for, too. All of the puppy mill dogs that we’ve fostered have had some sort of medical issue. The puppy mills don’t do veterinary care. They don’t take them for dentals. Most of the time, they give the dogs basic immunizations but, if the dog needed a C-section, we know of cases where they did it themselves.

That sounds really awful.

That is awful because they should have anesthesia to do that. Another thing that they do is that they de-bark a lot of their dogs by shoving a pipe up their throats to break their vocal cords. If you have 300 dogs, you don’t want your dogs barking because people will find out.

So that sounds very abusive.

It is very abusive. They treat their dogs like they are a commodity. It’s not a pet to them. The dogs don’t go in the house. They are usually in a barn with no windows and maybe one door. There are four or five dogs in one cage. You could say, "oh, it’s a big cage." No, they have four or five Frenchies in a cage that’s meant for one dog. They never leave that cage unless they’re having a litter of puppies. Then they take them out but, normally, they don’t. They go outside but it’s in a wire cage. They have a little doggie door to go outside. But when it’s really cold outside, some of the people don’t heat the barns. During the summertime, it’s brutally hot. There have been cases where we’ve seen dogs dead in the cage because of the heat or the cold.

My gosh. That’s so horrible. So Tillie has already been through having a litter of puppies who all passed away because they didn’t do a C-section. It was a painful delivery. She came to you very traumatized. How were you able to help her adjust and to be a happy dog? It seems that, now, she is a happy dog.

Probably because we had Stewie, another Frenchie, and my other dog, Lola, who is now passed away. Lola was very motherly to her. I would say, "let’s go outside," and Tillie would be like, "‘what?" She learned how to go up and down the stairs by following the other dogs.

She was with these other dogs. Tell me more about that.

Paws for Love dog at the
Taste of Grand Island.
Dogs are pack animals so they learn from each other like a mother dog teaches puppies things. Lola had had a litter of puppies so she kind of took Tillie under her wing, so to speak. She was always licking her or sleeping with her, and Tillie seemed to like the comfort of that. She still has one toy… as soon as we got her, she had that toy. She picks it up and carries it in her mouth, as if it were a puppy. I think that she knew that she had puppies, but she never had to take care of them. She’ll take a toy and put it on a bed and lay on top of it.

So she still had that maternal instinct.

Yes. We do foster care for puppies and, sometimes, she’ll want to lick them or lay with them. She’s gentle with them. Who knows what goes through a dog’s mind when they have been traumatized like that?

That’s so horrible to treat dogs like that.

Making a new friend.
Yes, it is. There’s no real law against (running puppy mills), and we’re trying to change that so that millers can’t have 100, 200, 300 dogs and breed them over and over because that’s what they do. And, when a dog gets to be a certain age, and they don’t have any puppies or if they have only one or two dogs. They are of no use so they either shoot them, drown them, give them away, or sell them.

Tell me about your dog family and then tell me about your human family.

My dog family is five French bulldogs. There is Stewie, who is going to be ten, Gabbie is eight, Tillie is going to be seven, Edison’s three, and Fiona’s a year and a half. I live with my husband, John, who is a vet tech with the Erie County SPCA.

One of the many rescued
dogs from puppy mills.
So our rescue group gets dogs from the dog rescue. We bring the dogs in and surrender them to the SPCA, where they get their shots and they get spayed or neutered. Then they get put up for adoption. People who know us are very aware of what a puppy mill dog is. I have three daughters. They all have puppy mill dogs. Most of my friends have puppy mill dogs. So people are aware of what a puppy mill dog is. Those are the ones that need a new home because they need love. They are the most receptive dogs to giving you more than you could ever give them. When we put them in the car to bring them back from Ohio, they know that they are going to a better place. They appreciate it. They’ve never seen a toy and they’ve never had decent food or a blanket or a bed to sleep in. All of those things are new to them but they sure take to them right away.

They’d never been in a car before, and you’d think that they’d be really upset. I swear, and everyone else who does transports swears, that the dogs know that they are going someplace better. They know that we are kind, we are going to comfort them, and we are going to help them.

How many people usually go to collect these dogs?

It depends on how many there, are and how many places we have to go to pick them up. There could be two people or four people. They are doing a transport this Thursday and Friday. There are twelve dogs from Ohio. We have to take them to the vet there because we have to have a health certificate to transport the dogs across the New York State line. If they are old enough, they will get a rabies shot. Any other vetting they need gets done at the SPCA. We used to get some dogs that were in really bad shape. They would need a lot of work, like surgeries and amputations, eye removals, eyelid surgery. The dog that my daughter has is a shar pei mixed with a basset hound. That’s a really weird combination. He had something called teary eye, which is when the inside eyelids flip out. It’s very painful. He was a puppy. The miller took him to the vet to put him to sleep. We got to the vet. They said, ‘Do you want this puppy because we’re going to put him to sleep.’ So we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take him.’ So he had his eyes fixed at the SPCA, and my daughter adopted him. He’s the greatest dog ever. Beautiful dog. They call him Mr. Handsome.


So tell me what got you into the business of rescuing dogs?

My husband John is a vet tech at the SPCA, and we’ve always done foster care. And someone who works at the SPCA said that she knew of this person named Deborah who went to the puppy mills to get dogs, and she was always looking for a place to see where she could take these dogs. She asked me to go to Ohio with her, and we went to a puppy mill, basically. There are hundreds of dogs that they auction off, sometimes for five dollars a piece. They would say, ‘this is an ’02 model,’ meaning that the dog was born in 2002. If it was a male, they would say that it produced many litters of puppies, or if it was a female, they would say that it is still good for breeding. Mostly, they were all purebreds. There is a website which features all dogs from Ohio and they sell them for hundreds and thousands of dollars. The buyers are thinking that they are getting this really great puppy. But if they knew where the mother and father lived, they wouldn’t want to buy a dog from there.

That’s pretty horrifying.

Yeah, it is.

So it’s really about lots of money because people pay them cash. Who’s going to know that they could make $100,000 a year selling dogs?

Tell me how you feel about your rescue work.

The world is a big place
for a dog, but a cozy place
for a dog who has been
adopted into a loving home.
I wish that more people were aware of what happens in a puppy mill. You could go to the SPCA in Niagara or Erie counties. You could go to the Buffalo animal shelter. There are always adoptable dogs there. But people think "I’ve got to have a purebred." I would never buy a dog off the internet. If you’re a reputable breeder (she got Fiona from a dog breeder friend), you don't sell dogs that way. Any dog can have a genetic defect. Both of Fiona's parents were grand champions. They were health tested. She happened to have this back problem. But the millers don’t do health testing. They don’t care that they’re breeding something that could cause a defect. They breed strange combinations, like a Pomeranian to a Husky and call it a Pomsky. It’s like a designer dog. But it’s not a very interesting combination.

So you would say, Adopt, don’t shop.

That’s right! That’s what we always say.

So tell me what you like to do when you’re not rescuing dogs.

I actually work at John Oishei Children’s Hospital as a nurse, and I’m going to the Niagara Culinary Institute for baking and pastry arts.

That sounds like fun.

It is fun. I do baking anyway, but I’ve always wanted to do it the right way. I went back to school in January, and I’m just having the best time. And then I take care of my grandchildren, and I take care of my husband and my dogs. I have a busy life. But it’s enjoyably busy. I’ve always loved dogs. I’ve always loved animals.

Did you grow up with dogs?

Cats, dogs. We had a goat. We had chickens.

Where did you grow up?

When I was really little, we lived in Barker, N.Y., on a farm and, then, after that, we lived in Tonawanda.

I don’t have any more questions. Is there anything that you’d like to add?

If people are looking for a dog, it shouldn’t be a whim purchase. They’ll see a puppy, and they’ll say, "Oh, I’m saving it." Or they’ll go to a pet store. Don’t go there. Chances are that it came from a puppy mill. If you really want a dog, you should research breeds and what your life style is. Little kids shouldn’t be getting a 100-pound Great Dane, unless they know what they’re getting into. On the other hand, people say, "I want a really little dog." Well, is it going to fit into your lifestyle?

A mutt is for anybody. Mutts are great. It doesn’t have to be a purebred dog. I’ve had mutts for most of my life. I happened to get into Frenchies because I was at a show and I saw one and I wanted one.

I think that mutts tend to be pretty healthy.

Yeah, they do. A lot of time, purebreds tend to have defects and a lot of problems. I think that all kids should grow up with a dog. You should have more than one because they are pack animals. They like to be together. We used to call ours the dog army because they were always together.

If you are in Grand Island, take a look at my article about Furever Friends in Friday's Island Dispatch!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Geechee Kunda museum

Last month, I participated in a walk from Savannah to King's Bay, Georgia. The walk was titled the Disarm Trident Peace Walk, and we were walking to bring attention to the King's Bay Naval Base, the home of Trident II submarines, which can carry up to twelve D5 missiles. Each of these warheads is six times more powerful that the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. These weapons are among the most dangerous weapons ever invented. 

Beth, Dandelion, and Ralph.
On September 7th, the fourth day of the walk, a few of us were looking for a good site for a lunch break. We were just outside of Midway, Georgia, and we had already rejected a few sites as not having enough shade when we found the Geechee Kunda Museum.

The Geechee Kunda Museum is located in Riceboro, Georgia. It is dedicated to the history of the Gullah Geechee people. The museum is full of artwork and information about life in the low country of the southeastern coast. 

Welcome to the Geechee
Kumba Museum.
When we arrived, we were met by Dandelion, who invited us to look around. We went into a small historical museum, which had a good number of interesting artifacts. There were a few other buildings, as well, that we visited.
When the rest of the walkers arrived, a man named Greg told us about the museum and about the history of the Gullah Geechee people. He said that the Gullah Geechee people were descended from Africans, who were brought to the southeastern coast to work as slaves.
They were specifically chosen because they had an expertise in growing rice, and the European planters, who wanted to establish rice plantations, had no idea of how to grow rice.


The slaves were required to clear ground to make it suitable for rice growing. They had to do all of the work, without the benefit of farm animals.
Abuse of slaves in the United
States was an everyday
occurrence. Above are some of the
 tools of torture used by
slaveowners.
 
The slaveowners decided that clearing land was too dangerous for animals, but not for people, especially if those people were slaves. Approximately ten percent of the slaves who worked in the rice plantations, which were considered to be killing fields, died between 1833 and 1861. 


The slaves worked on a "task" system. They had a variety of tasks that they had to accomplish in a day. Once they were done with their tasks, they could have free time. They ran businesses during their free times. In cities, such as Savannah, some of them hired themselves out as artisans. 

They had more autonomy than slaves in other parts of the south, probably because the slave owners were afraid to go into the rice plantations because of the risk of malaria. People of African descent had more immunity to malaria than those of European descent. There were other dangers, too, such as cholera epidemics and a dramatically higher infant mortality rate than for the plantation owners, who, when summertime approached, moved away from the coast and the swarms of mosquitoes to inland plantations, called "retreat plantations."

This is a Bible verse, written
in English and translated
into Gullah.
The Gullah Geechee people had come from various parts of Africa and they did not speak the same language. They created two languages, one called Gullah and the other called Geechee, so that they could communicate with each other. Geechee is a Creole language that combines elements of various African languages with some Spanish and some English.
It developed in the sea islands, off of the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Gullah is a combination of English and several African languages.

After the Civil War, the plantation owners fled from the coast, because of the mosquitoes and because of a series of hurricanes. The Gullah Geechee people remained and were able to maintain their traditional culture until the middle of the twentieth century, when developers started transforming old plantations into resorts. The Gullah Geechee worked hard to prevent development from spoiling the land that they had owned since emancipation.

Later in the afternoon, a small group of walkers
went to visit Midway First Presbyterian Church. 
The pastor, the Rev. Jamil El-Shair, came to meet
with us in the morning, and he invited us to come to
his church for a beverage or just to relax. We also
met Hermina, Glass-Hill, an historian, who is writing 
a book about a woman named Susie King-Taylor. She
was born a slave and escaped to one of the sea islands
at the age of 13. She became a teacher and a
nurse. She was the first black woman to serve as
a nurse in a military unit during the civil war.
She wrote her memoirs in 1902.
Today, about 250,000 people along the southeastern coast speak Gullah, which is recognized as a Creole language. For years, Gullah speakers were called ignorant for speaking their native language. Attitudes later changed when Gullah started to be recognized as a distinct language.
The language, however, survived. In 2005, a Gullah version of the Bible was published, and, in 2017, Harvard University offered a course in the Gullah language.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Fall festival at Kelly's Country Store


Yesterday, I went to the fall festival at Kelly's Country Store. It is an annual event to celebrate the harvest.
There is produce available for sale,
including grapes, apples, and squashes. There are pumpkins of all sizes, from small "pie pumpkins" to big but not monster sized pumpkins.
Personally, I prefer the smaller pumpkins because they are considered to be the best for cooking and baking.
Pumpkins come in several colors, from bright orange to white. There were gourds, which are used mostly for decorating.
And there were mums in a wide range of colors.


In addition to the food, there were activities for kids, which included horseback rides, facepainting,
and some games so that kids could try to win prizes.
Jaws: the cute version

Goats were on display but 
people were advised not to try to pet them because, apparently, they have a fondness for biting.

A singer-songwiter named Carly Beth offered a bit of live music in a tent, where people ate food that they had purchased at the food trucks that were parked at the event. Her website is: https://www.carlybeth.com/

Members of the Grand Island Historical Society were on hand to offer tours of the one-room schoolhouse that is located on the grounds of Kelly's Country Store.
Quite some time ago, this schoolhouse was an actual functioning school in Grand Island. The schoolhouse has interesting mementos in it and is a slice of life as it could have been in the late nineteenth century. It was fun to visit this schoolhouse. Plus anyone who wanted to could ring the schoolhouse bell, to summon people to school. Yep, I rang it, and it was fun!!!


A celebration of local food

Today, I went to the third annual farm to table community dinner, sponsored by Grand Island Farms, Inc.
It is a fundraiser for the farming group, a celebration of the harvest, and a fun community event.
This year, the community dinner featured music, a basket raffle, a 50-50 split, and an award to a friend of local agriculture.


Liz helped greatly with
planning, organization,
and clean up.
The dinner offered an opportunity for those of us who appreciate local agriculture to share a meal and enjoy one another's company.
My sister Diane shared her poems with the Rev. Cal VanderMey of the Bible Fellowship Center.
The three of us also discovered that we share a love for puns.


At this table, I found Lee
Tetkowski (weaver and retired
art teacher), Jerri Page (former
editor of the Island Dispatch), and
Nathan McMurray (town
supervisor).
I walked around before dinner and was so happy to see friends, both new and old, at the event, which was sold out.

The award, the first ever, went to Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray for his support of local agriculture. Nate spoke about the value of local agriculture. He said that agriculture has improved the Grand Island community, via a regular farmers market and a variety of events, designed to educate both and adults about locally grown and produced foods. For his efforts at supporting and encouraging local agriculture, Nate won a chicken, which would be good for display in a case or as a paperweight.





Friday, October 12, 2018

Magical doors

I really like doors. You open a door and walk through a threshold and you are in a different space than the one that you just left. Just like that. Almost instantly. Sort of like magic.

Over the past two years, I've heard more talk about walls than doors. Walls are good. They protect us from cold air. You can hang paintings from walls or you could paint a giant mural on a wall.
But the talk about walls isn't about murals or paintings or warm air. The talk is about how we want to wall off bad and scary influences. Strange people from strange countries.
We have to protect ourselves from THOSE PEOPLE. We have to protect the children from the strange people... because the children might get... ideas. They're very impressionable, you know. And not only are the children impressionable, they are also forgetful.
They might forget to be afraid, even if they are told over and over again that MONSTERS live on the other side of the walls that we build because we are AFRAID OF OUR OWN SHADOW


Can we really wall off our own shadows? Those darned shadows. They keep following us everywhere. Since it's virtually impossible to escape from a shadow, we may as well make friends with them. And then, there are the people. Unless we want to become hermits on mountain tops, well, there are always going to be other people around.
People who come from the house across the street and people who come from the other side of the world.  People who have different ideas and different stories to tell. I can't wait to meet them and, to make that happen, all I have to do is to open a door.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

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 forward. 

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 amendment.

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 creator.

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 together.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Justice Creator: Tarra Simmons' story (part one)


Today and tomorrow, I am sharing a conversation that I had with Tarra Simmons, a formerly incarcerated individual who decided to devote her life to advocating for people serving sentences and for people with criminal records. In 2014, with the encouragement of the attorneys who helped her rebuild her life after incarceration, she entered the Seattle University School of Law. She graduated magna cum laude in 2017. She earned many honors, including a Skadden Fellowship. On the Skadden Fellowship website, Tarra described her goals while working with the Public Defenders Association as a Skadden Fellow as: “Direct representation and policy advocacy on behalf of former justice-involved individuals to remove barriers to successful entry. Will particularly work to overcome barriers to employment, housing and legal financial obligations.” The Skadden Fellowship, a two-year program, is considered to be very prestigious. Tarra hit an unexpected roadblock when the Washington State Bar Association tried to prevent her from sitting for the Bar Examination. She challenged the Bar Association in court. With the assistance of attorney and Georgetown Law School faculty member Shon Hopwood, himself a formerly incarcerated individual, she won a unanimous decision by Washington’s Supreme Court in November 2017. In February 2018, she sat for the bar examination. She was formally admitted to the bar in June 2018.

Alice: Can you tell me when you discovered your passion for the law, which, for you, seems to be a calling and not just a job?

Tarra: When I was in prison, I was served with divorce papers from my ex-husband.  There were lawyers who came to the prison who had me learn to advocate for myself from prison. When I was released from prison, I saw how people were not given a second chance. We couldn’t find jobs. We couldn’t find housing. I realized that all of those things were created by laws and that we could change the laws. I went to law school so I could learn how to change the laws. I saw how important it was to have access to an attorney in dealing with my legal issues that came from my criminal conviction, such as the divorce. Because I had access to a lawyer, I had favorable outcomes, but a lot of people didn’t have access to a lawyer. I thought, if I can go to law school, I can help other people with these situations, too.

Alice: Tell me more about how you see your passion for the law and working with the legal system as you being able to create change in our society.

Tarra: Because I am equipped with a law degree and because I am white, the decision makers, the system players listen to me a little more, and I am able to speak their language. They kind of relate to me because they see a white woman with a law degree. I am always trying to recognize my privilege in terms of race and of profession to be as good of an ally and an advocate as I can be. I do think that having a knowledge base of how the system works and having some experience advocating for others in the court system and working on policy changes gives me credibility. I have been able to form relationships with system actors. I try to meet them where they are at, and I think that they are more willing to allow me to come to the table.

Alice: So it sounds like your goal is to be an advocate and is it also to change policy?

Tarra: Yes, so I work with the legislature a lot, doing statewide advocacy, to work with judges and others, to develop diversion plans, to create opportunity for people to advocate for themselves. I’m also advocating for other individuals in matters, such as clearing their court debt, vacating criminal records, and those types of things.

Alice: Could we talk about diversion programs because I find that to be a great way to help people who get in trouble not end up in a toxic system.

Tarra: I work for the public defender association, where we started the law enforcement diversion program in Seattle in 2011 and that program, the LEAD program, has taken off nationwide. What that is, is that law enforcement, instead of arresting someone, can take them to case management, immediately, on the spot. I really like the LEAD program because it is a harm reduction program, so folks don’t necessarily have to stay clean and sober. We know that there will be a lot of people who relapse. In drug court, if you relapse, you’re sanctioned. The LEAD program is more about reducing the amount of harm that you are doing to yourself and to the community. LEAD is an amazing program, and I’ve been working on getting that established in the county where I live, which is just a ferry ride away from Seattle. It is a stark contrast because, in Kitsap County, we have been so far behind the times that we won’t even allow for methadone programs. It’s been a challenge, but we are making progress.

Alice: What does LEAD stand for?

Tarra: It stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.

Alice: That sounds good to get people into case management right away, to help them with their difficulties. You mentioned drug addiction. Could you address issues having to do with that?

Tarra: I think that judges and even prosecutors are frustrated that the legislature is having the criminal justice system handle a public health issue, which is substance abuse disorder. I think that everybody is looking for a new way to handle addiction. We all know that the War on Drugs has failed. It is troublesome to me that now, because of the opioid epidemic, we are paying more attention, where, when it was crack cocaine, it was OK to have a war on drugs. It just speaks to the racial inequities and the racism that continues throughout our system. Hopefully now, with the opioid epidemic, folks are paying more attention because it is now affecting affluent white communities. We can try to make sure that we are centering race in our policies and in our communications about what has happened truthfully in the failed war on drugs.

Alice: Yes, absolutely. I observed that racism, too. Many of the women that I met when I was in the Federal Prison Camp in Danbury, Connecticut, were there for drug charges. And many of them were serving what I thought were excessive sentences for crack cocaine. My bunkie had a twenty-year sentence, which seemed to be very excessive. I was wondering if you could talk about the racial disparities a bit, as well as your opinion of it. To me, it seems blatant and shocking.

Tarra: Yes, it is blatant and shocking that we allowed the War on Drugs to be excessively punitive. The drug that was mostly aligned with the black community was crack cocaine. Powdered cocaine was aligned with the white community and it was treated much differently and much softer. It was very blatant and very obvious. You don’t need a law degree to see the disparities and to see that racism is alive and well in our country.

The racism is horrifying. As the mother of two black sons, I wonder what’s going to be the next horrifying example of racism in our country. The response to the crack cocaine epidemic, as compared to the opioid epidemic, is one. I don’t think that we’ve rid our country of racism. It bothers me. I’m constantly worried for my two black sons. What are they going to excessively criminalize in a way that disproportionately impacts black and brown people? It’s appalling and it causes me a lot of anxiety.

Alice: I can imagine that it would. You want the best for your sons. You want them to have a successful, happy life and not be abused by a toxic system.

Tarra: Yes, exactly.

Alice:  People who have criminal records are called “justice-involved” people. It seems that you are now a justice involved person in a different way. You are working to create justice.  Can you tell me what your hopes are for a better opportunity for people?

Tarra: Right now, I’m appointed by the governor to the statewide re-entry council, where we are trying to develop a system in which folks who are coming out of prison have peer support. So they have somebody who was formerly incarcerated, who has successfully overcome most of the stigma associated with their criminal history. For example, they are able to find employment and housing and re-unify with their families and things like that. We envision everyone re-entering from prison having peer support. What that takes, though, is going to the legislature to ask for money to re-invest away from the criminal justice system. This is recognizing that re-entry is one of the politically safe things right now, to get some bi-partisan support. 

We all want sentencing reform. We want all people to be diverted away, even those who committed violent offenses, by using restorative justice instead.  There’s a lot of controversy and not a lot of political will to see those programs come to fruition. It doesn’t mean that I stop advocating for them. But, one place where there is a lot of political will is in the area of re-entry. If we want to reduce recidivism and help people succeed, they need a holistic approach upon re-entry, which includes housing, education, employment, identification, child support. They need peer support and mentoring also.

Also we've worked on banning the box for employment*. We’re thinking of banning the box for housing now. We’ve banned the box for higher education this past year. So those are the types of reforms that I’m actively working on. Also, I’m working with some individuals on a case-by-case basis and am advocating in court for them to get specific relief now. I’m looking forward to taking on some clemency cases here, too.

*Washington is one of eleven states that has "banned the box" for employment. Questions about criminal history have been removed by law from employment applications. This helps ex-offenders focus on their skills and qualifications for a job before being asked about their criminal record. The goal is to reduce recivism rates by giving ex-offenders a better chance at obtaining employment.

Tomorrow: Tarra talks about the challenges faced when women are sentenced to prison and families are separated. She also discusses mental health issues in prison and the mental health issues that formerly incarcerated individuals experience after release.