On the Record Stories
Impacted community interviews took place in 2018 and 2019. The information gathered from these interviews further drove our conversations with local and national criminal justice policy-makers, committee members, and community engagement teams. The results of these interviews and community dialogues informed the recommendations in this report.
Interviews can be read below. To jump to a specific interview, select a name from the list below.
Chris Huff is a Black Chicagoan with a disability who was incarcerated at a young age in Cook County. He has a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s in political communication and economic development.
He feels like his incarceration was one of punishment and being treated as an adult even though he was a teenager at the time: “Much of my understanding of the justice system is rooted in my experience being incarcerated when I was 15 years old.”
He believes the trauma of being a person with a disability while incarcerated made him very sensitive to his environment. This sensitivity made him easily triggered by his confinement, creating severe chronic depression. “I would describe my disability as an information-processing problem that leads to emotional instability and what would be considered erratic behavior.”
He feels his time in detention was worse as a person with a disability because there was no acknowledgement of his disability. When he was going through court procedures, his attorney did not bring up his disability, saying it would be detrimental to his case. He said the attorney instead wanted to focus on him being a positive member of society, his good grades and his supportive family. Disability was left out of the discussion completely, and the attorney didn’t acknowledge that someone can be both a person with a disability who needs accommodations and a positive contributor to society. Huff explains, “Being a person with a disability is a very important part of my identity, not a part that can be dismissed.”
He further explains that stigma is very detrimental to disability identity and accessing accommodations in jail. He was never asked if he needed accommodations in jail nor were they provided.
Huff said his incarceration labeled him, and placed him in a box constructed from systemic racism that’s rooted in violence. He explains, “My experience is a system that’s one of punishment and not of rehabilitation, one of condemnation rather than redemption.” He believes the criminalization of people like himself hurts communities and perpetuates the development of violence in the community.
“I think the fear of government puts my community in this sense of paranoia and that sense of paranoia can lead to frustration on how to escape violence that comes from the government, that comes from the system, and that frustration makes my community angry at the government.”Chris Huff
His interactions with the justice system have made him want to take on a leadership role and shape laws and policies to transform the system so nobody else will have to experience what he did, and carry with them that which he holds onto.
“I just got pulled over with my best friend, and they treated me like, as if I could get up and run away from them. They pulled out they gun, I said, ‘Man, what is you doing? I can’t even walk. I’m paralyzed, I can’t do nothing. Only thing I can do is move my upper body. Officer, I ain’t got nothing.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do? I can’t even kick my legs. He said, “Get out the car.’ I said, ‘Is you for real?’ I said, ‘I feel as if you’re trying to disrespect me now, because I’ve told you I’m a paraplegic, and you told me to step out the car. I got to put my hands down here so I can get my leg up, please don’t shoot me.’ Like, you got to give a person instructions, with a person that’s a paraplegic, that’s not cool. You shouldn’t even be done like that.”Efferson Williams
Efferson Williams is a young, disabled, Black man from Chicago whose positivity and infectious smile light up the darkest of rooms. We first met Williams a few years ago when he applied to volunteer as a mentor to youth with disabilities at Access Living.
Efferson was 11 the first time he interacted with the criminal justice system. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the Randolph Towers, a former housing project. He was raised by a single mother; his father was not present. Efferson, like many others criminalized in their youth, joined the local economy by selling drugs in his neighborhood.
Prior to becoming disabled, he spent time in a youth correctional facility. After his release he had several minor criminal violations and then felony violations. Efferson was arrested for aggravated battery of a police officer after an officer beat Efferson and the officer injured himself in the process. The officer charged Efferson with assault.
After being shot two years ago, Williams became paraplegic and disabled. “I have no problem with my disability,” he said. “I want everyone to know that.” Simultaneously he noted that he has never felt so much hate and judgment in his entire life until he started using a wheelchair.
His criminal record, combined with his newly acquired disability, have made it virtually impossible for him to find a job and housing. To get any criminal charges removed from his record, he must petition and pay. While finding a job and housing seem like uphill battles due to his criminal record and issues with accessibility, coming up with money to pay fines can seem insurmountable.
Efferson says of the system, “They drain you instead of help you … if it’s called the Department of ‘Corrections,’ then why are people coming home, going right back into the jail one month, two months later?” People are being sent back out with several barriers to face and no direction to navigate these obstacles, particularly if they have a disability.
He said it hurts that people treat him so differently now, but despite that, he has no room to hate others, even the person who shot him. He referenced the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who taught us to work together, not against one another.
Patrick was incarcerated in Illinois as an innocent man for more than 20 years. He was recently released after being an exonerated by a ballistics report. While incarcerated, he acquired physical and mental health disabilities, as many prisoners do. Though Pursley appears physically fit on the outside, incarceration has taken a toll on his mind and body. “I basically get through my days with a handful of pills starting in the morning and a handful of pills at night.”
Patrick’s cell measured about nine steps toe-to-toe in length, and smaller than the width of arms extended, wall-to-wall; he shared the cell with another man. Incarcerated people spend about 23 hours a day in their cells. Many activists have been fighting to reduce confinement for people with mental health disabilities, asserting that such confinement is inhumane.
While Patrick was confined, he wrote and taught himself law. He eventually challenged the evidentiary rules that had led to his confinement by proposing that the state not be able to convict using new technology unless the state also exonerates using new technology. This led to a state bill that in turn led to testing the evidence that convicted Patrick. The evidence was deemed false, leading to his release and exoneration.
We asked Pursley what he thinks should be the top priorities for policy-makers. He said, “Review at every level. Watchdogs at every level, whether it’s a conviction, whether it’s retaliation from guards, whether it’s physical safety, medical issues and demonetization. Accountability for cops and forensic experts and prosecutors who lie.”
Patrick said he wishes that the criminal justice system understood that “disabilities are intergenerational in impoverished communities. So the conditions and the lack of education, the crime and the ignorance and the poverty lend itself to the next generation of broken families. And, you know, that’s it, basically. The harm, historical harm.”
“There’s economic differences … the two tales of America,” he said. “Every 28 hours, a black man gets shot down by police. I fear driving. That’s why I only wear collared shirts when I’m out in public, because I want to pass. I want you to look at me and think I’m a professional, and let me get the fuck on. I fear the day I get pulled over by the Illinois State Police … and they pull up my name.”
“My disability, the genesis of my disability is due to my environment. … You know, my level of illness is a result of poverty and substance abuse. When you live in an impoverished state, like, resources, basic amenities can’t be met on a daily basis. Then you try to escape the reality by turning to drugs and alcohol or other kind of addictive behavior and then that addictive behavior turns into a mental illness because life can’t function without drugs and the drugs just mess up your mind and biology to the point where, for a long period of time, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.”Ray Robinson
Ray Robinson is a community engagement and outreach coordinator for the Alumni Association in Chicago, established in 2009 by graduates of substance abuse treatment programs in Cook County. The social network group is comprised of formerly incarcerated people dedicated to sobriety and to strengthening ties and positive contributions to their communities. They provide positive, peer-based support to assist other formerly incarcerated people with their transition back into the community. The group has locations on the South and West sides of Chicago, in the Auburn Park and Lawndale neighborhoods. Ray also does outreach work for the Lighthouse Institute, providing outreach and community services to people who have substance abuse addictions.
Ray was formerly incarcerated in Cook County Jail and knows firsthand how difficult it can be for a person with a disability to access accommodations and services. He explained his disabilities started when he was a young child and were compounded by the toxic environment surrounding him, and then further compounded by being in jail. Ray explained that being inside Cook County Jail is like going into survival mode; the No. 1 objective becomes survival. He explained that with a mental illness, you have to try and conform your behavior to safely navigate the environment. He said a person’s mental illness is exacerbated, and once released, the person is worse off than when he or she went in.
In terms of accommodations being provided within the jail, Ray describes it as, “A quick conversation, like a drive-by, no sincerity, just part of a routine.”
His take is that most people do not want to get sent to Cermak, the health department section of Cook County Jail. Many people try to cover up their disability to not only avoid going to Cermak, but also to avoid being labeled: the “disability” label in jail can lead a person to being more vulnerable to others, including both peers and corrections officers
Ray stressed the dire importance of not covering up the truth of mass incarceration in the United States. “One of the biggest failures in the system is trying to make a lie work,” he says. “It ain’t going to work. I know truths don’t have no friends. I understand that. I know that. … But the reality is, when you’re in a position to help people and you’re a provider or you have these resources … it got to be a deeper level of integrity there.”
Ray talked about the impact of incarceration on him personally. “It stole something from me. It stole my belief that the world and people that there is some good in it. It kind of robbed me of that.”
Ray says it is important that policymakers and service-providers meet people where they are. It is important that people do not assume they know what other people need and that they ask questions.
We met with Lisha Fields at a nursing home for our interview. She sat half propped on the nursing room bed with a cast on one leg. Lisha explained she is a product of her environment and that she has been fighting her entire life for the same opportunities as others.
“There are certain things that people shouldn’t be subjected to, but unfortunately, we are, and in those events, you have a choice – that neither option can result in a great outcome, but you must choose – to try to achieve your objective or goal to get in a better situation so then you can access greater choices.”Lisha Fields
Lisha grew up on the West Side of Chicago and never had any good experiences with the police. They didn’t come when they were needed, she said, referring to dead bodies in the streets and domestic violence in homes, but they targeted community members for petty things such as running a yellow light. Lisha said in the area where she grew up, police didn’t arrest people for killing other people even when everybody knew who did it. Lisha said she saw a lot of drug use, drug sales and violence while growing up.
Lisha says it’s important for people to know she went to college, had a good job and a good life and was independent prior to becoming disabled. This was despite being raised in a community with no support.
Lisha explains her disability as an inability to walk or stand for more than two hours. Affordable, accessible housing has been her biggest barrier, she said. In her experience, most emergency shelters are not for single women and are not accessible to people with disabilities. Lists for such housing are lengthy and sleeping in a car in the meantime isn’t an option because the police will cite, arrest or fine you.
Lisha’s top recommendations for policy reform would be for the police to represent the people’s needs rather than trying to look for what a person is doing wrong. “People that are police, they need to represent the community, and they need to represent the people and they need to stop representing the police organization. It’s as if they’re wanting to go back and have points or say that they got a lot of warrants … but they’re not really servicing the needs of the people.”
Lisha recommends a point system for saving lives rather than for making arrests. She feels strongly that having proper resources and police taking their focus away from low-level crimes would reduce barriers for herself and many others in the community.
She said the last time she was in jail, after being arrested for not having a valid driver’s license, her bond was $250,000, and her disability wasn’t accommodated in the Cook County Jail’s medical unit.
John Atlas has lived in Illinois since 1966. He has a learning disability and several mental health disabilities which he says he has learned to work with, not against. His interactions with police started while he was in his early 20s, when he received a few warnings for accidently trespassing onto property. John later spent time in Cook County Jail and in prison in Illinois and felt like he never understood what he was being charged with or what his legal rights were. He is still having problems adjusting to society.
As a person with multiple disabilities, John reported being removed from his medication and placed on new medication in the jail. He said that when he was arrested, no one asked him if he would like to speak to an attorney, would like to make a phone call or if he needed his medications.
After 13 years of incarceration, he reports having a hard time connecting with people. He doesn’t know how to communicate anymore in the outside world and his anxiety has worsened. John reported that sexual assault was common in Illinois prisons and people with disabilities were targets of peers and guards.
John said being having a disability made incarceration much worse. He explains regardless of the person’s disability – physical or mental – that person would be treated like anyone else.
It’s not an accommodating environment and medical care is poor, he said. He recalls that while in the medical facility at Cermak, he saw people with disabilities get “roughed up” by guards who would get upset when people didn’t or couldn’t comply with what the guards were asking.
The best improvement the criminal justice system could make, he said, would be to stop making assumptions about what a person wants and needs before talking to that person. The “system” thinks it knows what is best and sometimes, many times, those assumptions cause more long-term harm to a person. It would be a miracle if people assisting those in jail would adapt to a person’s needs to help them get better, he said.
John said he is concerned about the ways that people with disabilities are assaulted by law enforcement and in the jail simply for not being able to comply. He also thinks it is important that people with disabilities are not interrogated without accommodations and that a person has their rights read to them or communicated to them in a way they understand. John reports he was not read his Miranda rights until after being stripped naked, his arms and legs chained with handcuffs and shackles and after at least four hours of interrogation.
He wishes that the criminal justice system would adapt and improvise and not make people’s lives worse, particularly through false incrimination “for something they didn’t do.”