"It's a process of elimination" - Esther Flowers, 49, is currently unemployed and living in Renton.
Real Change: What's your story? Describe your first interactions with the law.
Esther Flowers: I was addicted to crack, which lead to homelessness and crime. As my addiction got worst, so did my criminal activities. My first conviction was for theft- I stole clothes because I was cold. There was an assault charge because I was protecting myself because I was homeless. I even turned to prostitution to get money for my addiction.
During this time, they never addressed the issue: my drug addiction. They threw me into jail because of theft, but they never addressed the issue. They never gave me any treatment for my drug addiction. Sure, they'd tell me to go to a "drug counseling class", but those things are a joke.
RC: How did you escape it?
Flowers: Things got so horrible -- this cycle of addiction, homelessness and incarceration -- it just got to be too much. My family tried to help but got tired of it and gave up on me. I was failing everything. I even attempted suicide a couple times. Once they even brought me back to life at Harborview! After that, I just broke down and cried and surrendered myself to God. That's when I turned it around. And thanks to God giving me strength, I never looked back.
RC: Did the system help you turn it around?
Flowers: No, I had no help. I was getting GA-U ( General Assistance - Unemployable ), but it was a catch-22: either stay on GA-U, struggle with $339/month for a year and try going to school or work making $10/hr. I chose work. If I had to do it over again, I would've stuck it out and gone to school.
RC: How is your son in the same cycle?
Flowers: He's been a drug addict now for 15 years. He started when he was 16 years old. Because of my condition, he lived with foster parents. He was in and out of homes and not very stable. He started smoking crack in high school, quickly became addicted and started this cycle of homelessness. His folder now is four inches thick. He's institutionalized -- he's more comfortable in the prisons than out. He's got a bed, three meals a day, he can get drugs, all his friends are inside the system. So why should he want to leave?
I've begged them for treatment, that they treat his drug addiction. I've begged them, but they don't want to address the problem. They don't want to address his addiction. They just want to throw him back in prison. I've asked counselors in the prison to prepare him for some sort of life-skills, but they don't. They do "job preparation," but how does that work for someone who never had a job and is addicted to drugs? I would like them to develop a real life-skills type of course.
When they can see a pattern of drug abuse and institutionalization, they need to attack that problem, not just a basic drug and alcohol class. They need to tackle the deep-rooted issue through extensive one-on-one counseling. And not just for a month or two or a year, but until the issue is resolved, however long it takes.
RC: He does drugs in prison?
Flowers: I can tell you from personal experience, that you can get drugs, cigarettes, anything, in jail. Another example of how flawed things are: once my son was sent to a work release house in a major drug area in Miller Park, just off of Madison. I was sitting with him there on the front porch, and 30 feet away from us people are buying and smoking dope. I could tell that it made him very nervous. It made me upset too. Why have him there?
He lasted four days. He got there on a Monday and was gone on Thursday. He started smoking drugs again and broke his parole. I called up his PO and said they could find my son downtown at his same spot using drugs. It took them three months to go get him. All the police and detectives know what he looks like. They all know him by face and personally by name. But they let him stay down there and smoke dope and live on the streets for three months.
RC: Do the judges show any sympathy?
Flowers: No! He's 31 now. This issue has been going since he was 16 years old. So when he has a file that is four inches thick, and you can see he's been on this merry-go-round since he was 16, and you see it's drug related, and you hear a parent who after 15 years is still pleading to deal with the drug problem and not just lock him up, what do you do? All they do is shrug their shoulders.
RC: Not even concern?
Flowers: None. The drug problem is just not addressed. A few years later, he'll get out and there won't be a treatment program. They just release him to the streets, to the parole officer's address.
RC: So if he doesn't have a home, they just release him to the PO's address?
RC: Nothing else?
Flowers: They'll try finding him a shelter to live in, but the shelters are all in the drug-infested area. How long is that person going to last? Maybe two days, then they're on the streets again.
RC: Where's your son right now?
Flowers: He's in Stafford Creek [Corrections Center, in Aberdeen] for another six months. He got out last September and was incarcerated again three months later. He'll get out and get another PO who'll find him a shelter, most likely in the Downtown Emergency Service Center, in his familiar area where he smokes dope. He'll last there probably less than a week. It's going to be the same thing. Nothing's been addressed.
RC: How would you characterize the criminal justice system based on your experience?
Flowers: The criminal justice system is failing. But I believe they're doing what they want to do, what they are designed to do: fail the poor, the addicts, the homeless, and cast them out of society. It's a process of elimination: they have the power to eliminate you, if need be, or you can end up eliminating yourself. Whichever one you want to do.
RC: What would you like to see instead?
Flowers: The system cannot overlook the severity and the great number of people who are addicted, homeless and mentally ill. Don't overlook it, attack THAT problem, instead of just throwing people into prison. Everyone has to suffer the consequences of their crimes, but if you keep overlooking the problem, it's not going to be solved. And the system is overlooking it. There is funding, there is government money, but it's being wasted.
The whole issue is helping people. Let's put some funding towards ending homelessness, treatment centers and drug habilitation. Let's put more money in sending people to school. Put money into helping people, not just building more penitentiaries. If you don't start putting more funding towards people, addictions, homelessness, and crime will continue to get worse. Put more money into training POs. The ones I've talked to need a whole lot of training. They don't know what's going on in the streets. The only thing they see are a pen and a paper and why someone is getting out of prison.
Let's give the POs more avenues to go through to help a particular individual. Let's cut their loads a little. One PO came to my house for a home visit for my son, and he noticed through his file that my son had been in jail since he was 16 years old. He realized and sympathized with me. But he said that his caseload was so large that he could not look at each case individually. That's kind of defeating the purpose! But maybe that's asking too much.
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