Ex-offenders discuss challenges in panel at CSUN

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A panel of eight former inmates and program coordinators of the Ex-Offender Task Force shared their prison experiences and struggles trying to live a normal life after prison on Nov. 9 in the Whitsett Room in Sierra Hall.

Students, faculty and staff attended the panel discussion that dealt with the obstacles, barriers and challenges ex-offenders face when attempting to integrate into the community after exiting prison.

“I’m not making excuses, but it’s not easy for people to walk out of prison and get a job,” James Harris, a former inmate and current outreach organizer of Ex-Offender Task Force at Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment said. “It is not easy making it back from a lifestyle of crime.”

Lorraine Dillard, program director of the Ex-Offender Task Force, was one of the guest speakers on the panel.

Dillard said the Ex-Offender Task Force program identifies barriers to help people successfully get back into society. The program is also a community coalition for substance abuse prevention and treatment.

“What we do at Ex-Offender is knock down some of these barriers,” Harris said.

Many CSUN students came out to the event, which was hosted by the Women Studies Department and organized partly by Stephanie Nanghoors, senior women’s studies major at CSUN.

“I thought it was really great,” Nanghoors said. “People don’t think criminal issues affect college students. Incarcerated individuals need a second chance and need someone to fight for them so that they can become proactive in our communities.”

Jessica Valles, panelist and supervisor for HomeBoys/Girls Industries, said she was 20 when she choose to stop gang banging.

“I wanted a life without limits,” Valles said.

Valles said she choose to be a guest speaker at CSUN because she wanted to help people reduce stereotypes about gang members and support women.

She said she is “not an active gang member, but I’m still from my gang.”

Valles said she grew tired of the violence and of constantly looking over her shoulder.

She said she wants to receive a degree.

“I really want to be a lawyer or a paralegal,” she said.

After surviving two gunshots and one stab wound to the head, Valles said she is counting her blessings because it is clear to her that she is still living for a reason.

“I’m alive and that is what counts.” Valles said.

She said she did not always have this positive an outlook on life.

“I used to blame everyone and everything,” she said. “We put ourselves in that position. I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore.”

Valles started gang banging when she was 15 years old. She said when she was younger the violence and the respect gang members endured intrigued her.

“I was into the violence when I was younger,” Valles said.

Valles parole recently ended and is now working at HomeBoy/Girls Industries, supervising kids that are not enrolled at school.

Valles served prison time twice; once she was convicted of second-degree robbery and the second time was for violation of parole.

“My parole officer (put me in violation of my parole) for having a kitchen knife in my living room,” Valles said.

Two million people are incarcerated in the United States, and 10 percent of the prison population are women, said Gretchen Heidemann, program director of a New Way of Life. There are 10,000 incarcerated women in the United States, and 12,000 women are on parole. Women are the fastest growing population in prison, she said.

Two-thirds of women inmates were convicted of property or drug-related crimes, Dillard said.

She said when inmates are released from prison, few receive help finding a job, a home, or remaining clean when they get out of prison. In some instances, women inmates are deprived of help because of their previous convictions.

According to the Department of Corrections, all inmates are put on parole, and “nearly half of these women violate the conditions of their parole and end up back in prison. More than 90 percent of those violations are for non-violent behaviors.

California ranks 49th in the number of offenders in the United States who successfully complete parole.

“The obstacles (for ex-convicts) are huge. When you see someone who overcomes it, it truly is a miracle,” Heidemann said.

Maribel Bermudez, a member of the Women’s Council Prison Project and a former inmate, said she considered herself as one of those miracles.

The former inmate said she has been in and out of the prison system. Bermudez said that where she comes from, “It’s gangs and drugs.”

Bermudez said she lost her 16-year-old son due to her drug addiction and her lifestyle. She said her son was shot and killed because of gangs.

“My son got caught up in gangs because of my lifestyle,” Bermudez said.

One and a half million children have a parent that is incarcerated. At least 65 percent of incarcerated men and women have an underage child, Heidemann said.

“There are a lot of children out there who have a mother who is incarcerated,” Heidemann said.

Erin Echavarria, a community service supervisor assistant with HomeBoys/Girls Industries, said every day is a struggle for her in society because she was institutionalized.

“It is difficult for me to pick out my outfits every day because I’m so used to being incarcerated,” Echavarria said. “It’s a struggle for me to do those things because the system is there to institutionalize you so you can keep going back.”

Echavarria, 19, has been in and out of the prison system since age 13. Echavarria started gang banging at a young age and was one of the first girls in her gang, Westside 18th in South Central Los Angeles.

“I was young and on the streets when I started kicking it,” she said. “I wanted to be in the crew.”

Echavarria recently relocated to North Hills.

“My homeboys know I’m moving on with my life,” she said.

She said gang banging is not all fun and games, “we lose people.”

“I got tired of getting shot at,” Echavarria said.

She said her goal in life is to stay out of jail and not let the system win.

“I want to have a normal life,” Echavarria said. “My main goal is to be happy. I don’t care about material things; I just want to be happy.”

Valencia Bankston can be reached at vbankston97@hotmail.com.