Imagine you’re 18 years old and you commit a crime. A robbery. You go to prison at one of the only women’s facilities in the state. You get out a year later, on parole – and you’re back in the same neighborhood where you first got in trouble. You commit another crime. And the cycle starts all over again. That’s what happened to Courtney Samson.
“My first time in prison was a manslaughter, just like a domestic violence situation that went bad,” she says. “Probably because I was abusive. After I get released from that, I didn’t never look at drugs or anything like that being a part of what had happened. I just started back getting high after I got out that first time. Just never stopped, until I went back to prison five years later.”
For Samson, like thousands of women in California, this has been the cycle. But a new policy is making it easier for some of them to finally break it and stay out of custody.
Since last October, realignment, known legally as AB109, has shifted the responsibility for low-level offenders from state prison to county jails. It’s giving people who would have been on state parole second and even third chances to turn their lives around, by placing them on what’s called post-release community supervision. Right now, over 30,000 people are in the program. About 20 percent of that group are women. Christina Martinez is one of those women.
Martinez and her probation officer, Robbyn-Nicole Livingston, are looking down at a file four inches thick.
“That’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s a big ol’ folder right there,” says Martinez. “How embarrassing. It’s huge. It’s like I’m not adding to that folder right there.”
“All these green papers are cases,” Livingston says.
Martinez replies that her first case was at 18 years old. This is the first time Martinez has come face to face with her file, documenting 12 years in the criminal justice system.
Martinez was released from Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla in February. She’s supposed to check in with Livingston once a week, but she’s missed an appointment here and there. Today she’s due for a drug test. It’s positive, just like her last two.
“So now we need to do outpatient,” Livingston tells Martinez. “But I need you to go.”
If it were a year ago, an infraction like this would have sent Martinez right back to prison. But the state’s new policy of realignment means she can stay on probation instead. But if she racks up enough violations, there are consequences.
“If I make the referral to outpatient and you don’t go, well then your next referral is inpatient,” Livingston says to Martinez. “And let’s say you don’t go there. Now you’re next step is custody – and that’s what actually took me so long. I kept you guys waiting. I have to flash somebody because he didn’t show up. And I don’t want you to be that person.”
Martinez tells Livingston she won’t take it to that level.
To “flash” someone is to flash incarcerate them. It’s a punishment for routine infractions, like missing an appointment or testing positive for drugs. Flashes last just a few days. It takes a serious crime to send someone back to prison for good. Until then, they get chances.
“I don’t want you to give up on yourself,” Livingston tells Martinez, “because I’m not going to give up on you, you know?”
Livingston tells Martinez she’s going to keep calling her and reminding her of her appointments so Martinez doesn’t miss them.
“Because you got to know it’s better,” says Livingston. “It’s better than what you have right here. But all you’re ever going to be is that gangster girl. All you’re ever going to be is Chola who comes up and, you know, knocks you out.”
“Chola – the gangbanger.” That’s how Martinez is known on the street. She used to be the one her friends would come to when they needed something done – or someone hurt. One afternoon at a Denny’s in Antioch, she shows me her tattoo-covered arms and chest, each signifying a distinct point in her life. One says: “No hard feelings.” Another says: “Hated by all confronted by none.”
Martinez wears these tattoos like she does her past: with confidence, and certainty. She has a pretty face. Her lips are always glossed, her nails painted in some bright hue. She has a taste for designer clothes, something her past activities allowed her to indulge.
“This is all I know, I could do this and that, make an ID, check, credit cards and go shopping all day, or I could anything,” she says, “I could get the pound of drugs and go selling it. And I did it, I ain’t going to lie. It’s messed up, but I was never nobody struggling. I used to go through the stores and get anything I wanted.”
She can’t do that anymore. She was released from prison with just $200, and she’s trying to earn a legal living.
Martinez says she runs into people from her life before prison, “and they’re just like ‘you just aren’t the same since you got home,’ “ she says. “And I’m just like, ‘It ain’t the same.’”
Chola is not the same. But a lot of things still are. After leaving the Denny’s, Martinez heads for her old neighborhood.
“This is where they have all the shootings and stuff, they hang out right there on the railroad tracks,” she says while driving by.
This was her hangout over the last fifteen years: where she went when she got out of prison, and where she did the things that sent her back in.
“After I turned 18, everything went down,” she says, “I was in and out there, my teenage years, in that apartment. That’s when I thought I was a gangbanger, I thought I was selling drugs, I thought I was hustling.”
Martinez attitude is different today.
“It ain’t cool. And look what it got me. A prison sentence, another prison sentence, another prison sentence,” she says.
Martinez says she’s done with that life, but it’s not easy to stay away from. A week later, Martinez is back in Livingston’s office.
“Things are getting worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse the more I try to stay away from everybody,” she tells Livingston. “In a way, it’s worse.”
Martinez explains that she had to leave the place she’s staying at and is now back on the streets.
“It’s like part of me wants to just give up and just go back,” she says, “just take me to prison.”
Livingston says often that she thinks Martinez wants to change, for good this time.
“She struggles everyday,” Livingston says, “And she's struggling with maintaining her sobriety, you know, seven days at a time is a long time for her. But she wants help. She's let me know that she wants help. She’s shown up to get help.”
Right now, Martinez needs really basic things, like a stable place to live and a job. But the basic things are some of the hardest to find. Realignment is still relatively new, and many communities don’t yet have the resources to handle the influx.
Edwina Perez-Santiago runs the Reach Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit in North Richmond that helps low-income women with housing, counseling classes, GED preparation, and more. She’s been watching realignment unfold and is concerned that single women like Martinez aren’t getting enough support.
“A lot of places are family oriented,” she says, “so my single women coming out of prison don't have nowhere for me to put them. I can bring them here all day. They can eat but at nighttime where do I send them? That breaks my heart.”
The city of Richmond has created a reentry council dedicated to helping people like Martinez re-enter the community safely. Livingston says that’s a good start.
“Anything that would help women, you know, we have to kind of think of the women coming out of prison as women in a developing nation,” she says, “because we're developing as we go. I’ve had people tell me, just send me back to prison. It’s too hard.”
Every day, between finding someplace to sleep and reliable transportation to meetings, Martinez knows she’s walking a thin line between freedom and being back in custody.
“If I had any other P.O., I would have just gave up and not been back, but she’s, like persistent, like you’re going to be here. She works with me so much,” she says.
Martinez knows she now has to start outpatient treatment for her drug addiction. She’s warming to the idea – and to Livingston herself.
Livingston says working with Martinez takes patience.
“You know, someone else might have given up and said, you know, she doesn't really care. But if you talk to her, and you get to listen to what she's saying, you hear just the opposite,” Livingston says. “She does care.”
Martinez says the main goal is not going back to prison.
“It’s hard to get out and not know where you’re going to stay and sleep where you’re going to put your head,” she says. “Where you’re going to shower. What you are going to wear tomorrow. It’s a struggle, but keep moving forward. I feel it’s going to all fall in place.”