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Jail Took My Mom: Filmmaker on How His Mother Broke the Cycle of Incarceration & Shaping DNC Policy

StoryAugust 14, 2020
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Image Credit: AJ+ / AJ Contrast

The coronavirus crisis and the movement for racial justice have magnified the challenges faced by people released from prison, whose criminal record makes it hard to find a job and even housing, especially women. We feature a new AJ+ series by Messiah Rhodes, whose mother was in and out of jail throughout his childhood and was able to break the cycle of incarceration. Rhodes says his work serves as a response to calls to defund police. “Instead of giving law enforcement agencies tanks and sci-fi-level weaponry, we should be funding … housing, education, family reunification, mental health support,” he says. We also speak with DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, which will host Rebuilding the Table, an event on the official schedule of the Democratic National Convention that centers formerly incarcerated voices.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the COVID pandemic rages in the United States, people in jails and prisons are 550% more likely to get infected, 300% more likely to die. Those granted compassionate release are joining others who are being released after serving their sentences and returning to their communities. For many, their criminal record makes it hard to find a job and even housing, especially true for women.

The coronavirus crisis and the movement for racial justice have magnified these challenges, which are the focus of a new AJ+ and AJ Contrast documentary series called Against All Odds by filmmaker Messiah Rhodes, whose own mother was in and out of jail throughout his childhood. She was able to break the cycle of incarceration after she was treated for mental illness and substance abuse. In his reporting, he meets other women who found their way out of prison and are now helping more to do the same. Messiah himself will join us in a few minutes. He’s a former fellow here at Democracy Now! But this is part of the first episode.

MESSIAH RHODES: I lost my mom to the criminal justice system for 15 years. And I can’t help but wonder: How would my life be different if she didn’t keep going back to jail?

JUANIQUE RHODES: I was crushed when they took you. It messed me up. I couldn’t handle it.

MESSIAH RHODES: She was one of the 77% of incarcerated women who are rearrested within nine years. My name is Messiah Rhodes. And as a filmmaker who grew up with a mother in and out of jail, I wanted to understand why breaking the cycle of incarceration is so difficult.

DOLFINETTE MARTIN: What makes us so different? We are human beings. We’re people.

INMATE: I’m 50 years old, and I’m turning my life over.

PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace!

MESSIAH RHODES: I started filming this before the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising over the killing of George Floyd. But the issues of systemic racism in the prison system have never been more important.

SYRITA STEIB: It doesn’t matter what the odds are. I will bet on formerly incarcerated women any day, any time.

MESSIAH RHODES: When I think about how my mom grew up, I think about how trauma is carried across generations.

What happened to your parents?

JUANIQUE RHODES: They both died very young, my parents, in their thirties. My mom gave me to my grandmother right when I was born, from the hospital. And my grandfather went to jail for four years, and we struggled. We hardly had food.

MESSIAH RHODES: At 17, my mom got pregnant with me. Substance use and mental health problems would hinder her life for years.

JUANIQUE RHODES: We was in family court, and they took you away from me. I was so devastated. It messed me up. I couldn’t handle it, so I started using drugs even more. I was supposed to try to get you back, but I just got deeper and deeper and deeper involved in the drugs. I couldn’t get out. I was medicating my pain.

MESSIAH RHODES: Stuck in a vicious cycle, she went in and out of jail four times.

JUANIQUE RHODES: I had no place to go when I came out. I was homeless. So I started using right away.

MESSIAH RHODES: This theme of fundamental lack of support is something I heard from women across the country.

DOLFINETTE MARTIN: I have 10 felony shoplifting convictions. At what point did a flag go up to say, “Hey, this lady, this woman, this girl needs some help”?

VANEE SYKES: If I’m a mother, and you want me to be able to thrive — right? — wouldn’t you want services in the community? You know, wouldn’t you want the government to have programs so that I don’t have to commit another crime?

MESSIAH RHODES: There’s no central system, locally or federally, to support incarcerated individuals. But organizations like Hope House are trying to fill in this gap. It’s a women-only reentry program in the Bronx.

VANEE SYKES: And this is our kitchen area, where the women have full access to the kitchen, cooking. And, you know, this is their home.

MESSIAH RHODES: Vanee Sykes, co-founder and program director, passed away from COVID-19 in May of 2020. I visited her just a few months earlier to learn more about Hope House.

VANEE SYKES: We deal with it from a holistic approach. A lot of reentry, they want you to get a job as soon as you come out, right? But if you haven’t dealt with those traumas that affected you at 12, and you’re 50 years old, then you’re still battling the shame and the guilt, right? So, you heal the mind, and then the body will follow.

MESSIAH RHODES: Like these women, my mom finally found a supportive housing program that kept her out of jail and helped her begin the process of healing.

REPORTER: It’s lunchtime at the Rhodes home.

EMMA: Macaroni!

REPORTER: Seems routine, but it’s actually quite remarkable, because a year ago Juanique Rhodes didn’t seem like she’d ever have a home.

MESSIAH RHODES: In 2008, a news crew in New York City did a profile on her recovery.

JUANIQUE RHODES: I lived in this abandoned shack for a while, you know, going in and out of there to get high.

REPORTER: Prostituting to support a drug habit, Juanique gave birth to one child addicted to heroin, and another she abandoned at the hospital.

MESSIAH RHODES: Those two children were my brother and sister. I never knew them growing up.

JUANIQUE RHODES: This is the first time all three of my children were together.

MESSIAH RHODES: Years earlier, my grandparents became my guardians, after the courts decided my mother could no longer look after me.

JUANIQUE RHODES: They wouldn’t let me see you.

MESSIAH RHODES: Yeah. How did that make you feel?

JUANIQUE RHODES: I understood what she meant, because she was saying we wasn’t consistent in your life. So she stopped us from seeing you. You know, I used to send you pictures and stuff when I was in jail. I used to draw stuff and send it to the house. I don’t know if you got any of that. You did?

MESSIAH RHODES: I did, and it stopped after a while.

JUANIQUE RHODES: So you did get that stuff?

MESSIAH RHODES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A little, like, Messiah bib, I think I got.


MESSIAH RHODES: I kept that until I was too old to have that around.



After we reconnected, my mom’s life was back on the right track, but another obstacle still remained: getting a job.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the first part of the new documentary series called Against All Odds by filmmaker Messiah Rhodes with AJ+ and AJ Contrast. We are going to go to part two, the second episode of the series, where he looks at the lack of healthcare and drug treatment for women in prison and also when they’re released.

MESSIAH RHODES: My mother’s past substance abuse had a profound impact on my childhood. Her health issues went untreated inside jail. And when she got out, she still didn’t have access to proper care. She kept going back to jail over the course of 15 years.

JUANIQUE RHODES: I was just tired of being in jail, tired of being treated like a number. People would come violate your cell, just flip your mattress over, tear your stuff up. I was tired. I didn’t want to be like that anymore.

MESSIAH RHODES: Seventy-seven percent of women are rearrested within nine years. The question that I had was: Why?

My name is Messiah Rhodes. I’m a filmmaker on a personal journey to understand why so many women keep cycling back into incarceration, and how my mom managed to find her way out.

This was filmed months before the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising over the killing of George Floyd, but the problems that plague the prison system, like systemic racism and the neglect of vulnerable populations, are even more visible now.

My mother has suffered her whole life from mental and physical illness.

JUANIQUE RHODES: This is my insulin. I take it three times a day, 25 units. You know, I found out like four years ago I was diabetic. All the times I was in the streets, I had no clue.

MESSIAH RHODES: Jails are mandated, by law, to provide medical assistance to their inmates. There is no formal oversight of the quality of services. Inmates often have to pay extra fees and copays. As for my mom, it wasn’t until her fourth and final time in jail that she received any kind of serious treatment.

JUANIQUE RHODES: No, I got sick when I got there.


JUANIQUE RHODES: But it didn’t get better, because they made me wait. I was on a mental rehab tier the last time.

MESSIAH RHODES: And how was that? What kind —

JUANIQUE RHODES: It was all right. Everybody was medicated on that tier, pysch meds and stuff.

MESSIAH RHODES: So, was it therapy and medication? Or was it —

JUANIQUE RHODES: No, no therapy.

MESSIAH RHODES: It was just medication?

JUANIQUE RHODES: Just medication, yeah.

MESSIAH RHODES: The lack of adequate healthcare has a profound impact on women, both while they’re locked up and when they’re released. A clinic in New Orleans called Formerly Incarcerated Transitions, or FIT Clinic, is trying to help by providing medical services to men and women coming out of the prison system.

DR. ANJALI NIYOGI: When you’re coming out of incarceration, the number of priorities that you have — you know, you’re trying to just have a place to stay. Do you need to pay for that? Do you need to pay for food? Do you need to pay for clothes? You know, healthcare becomes the least important priority.

MESSIAH RHODES: Why is healthcare important to prevent recidivism?

DANIELLE METZ: When you’re sick and you have illnesses, sometimes people will try anything to help themselves. And sometimes that results to crime.

MESSIAH RHODES: Danielle Metz was granted clemency by President Barack Obama in 2016 after serving over 23 years for a nonviolent drug offense. Now she works as a community health worker for FIT Clinic.

DANIELLE METZ: So, whatever they need coming out, like counseling, substance abuse, we have contacts that we can call these people and help them and get them connected.

LAVAUGHN RILEY: When I was incarcerated, I did try to kill myself twice. The loss of my son, the loss of my way of life, the loss of my daughters.

MESSIAH RHODES: With the support of FIT Clinic, Lavaughn Riley was able to reunite with her two daughters.

LAVAUGHN RILEY: I can’t go back to those depression moments and those suicidal moments where I was so close to taking my life. I have to be better for my children. I’ve still got two daughters I’ve got to live for. And I want them to know that although life may throw curveballs and you may be down and out, you know, just, I used to say in jail, this is a minor setback for a major comeback. So, that’s what I’m doing.

MESSIAH RHODES: Women like my mom who suffer from both mental illness and substance use disorders have a higher chance of returning back to jail. Treatment centers like FIT Clinic could be one of the missing links for these women. For my mom, it wasn’t until she got into a treatment program that she turned her life around.

JUANIQUE RHODES: They wanted to send me upstate this time, and I told my lawyer to get a program. And it was Phoenix House. The guilt was eating me alive, guilt and shame, the things that I was doing.

MESSIAH RHODES: After over 15 years in and out of jail, she has a stable home. She curbed her addiction and got custody of my little sister, Emma. Then, she reconnected with me. But many women find reconnecting with family difficult.

JUANIQUE RHODES: First, I was afraid to be a mom, because I hadn’t been a mom so long to my other two children. I realized God gave me another chance to be a mother.

MESSIAH RHODES: My mother and I are in a much better place now. But I feel like my childhood and teenage years were stolen from me, and I’m still recovering from that. My mother, my siblings and I are processing the trauma of separation. We are in uncharted territory, trying to figure out what normal families do. We never had a chance to experience something like a family photo. This is our first one. And we are learning to take care of each other in the world post-incarceration. Love, The Rhodes Family.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the new documentary series called Against All Odds by filmmaker and host Messiah Rhodes with AJ+ and AJ Contrast, joining us now for more.

Oh, Messiah, congratulations on this incredible series, that grew out of looking at how your own mother broke the cycle of incarceration. Can you talk about what it meant to you to make this series, and what you’ve learned at this point, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, as we move into the Democratic National Convention, and policies being drawn up, that your documentation of this story is what those policies should be all about?

MESSIAH RHODES: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Amy. It’s really good seeing you through all this pandemic times.

So, like, pretty much, the doc series is almost like an answer to the call of “defund the police,” in some ways. Instead of giving law enforcement agencies tanks and like sci-fi-level weaponry, we should be funding these kind of programs that I feature in the documentary: housing, education, family reunification, mental health support and healthcare. These are the services that we should be providing for formerly incarcerated people to prevent recidivism, to prevent their interactions with law enforcement. So, the documentary, as I explored through the filming, that’s pretty much what I found, even before the George Floyd situation. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, and I wanted to bring in DeAnna Hoskins, as well, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, which works to ensure people most affected by incarceration drive policy reform. JustLeadership will be hosting a program within the Democratic National Convention next week called Rebuilding the Table, their #JustUS campaign calling on federal and state lawmakers to save the lives of incarcerated people by releasing them during the COVID pandemic.

DeAnna Hoskins, as you watch Messiah’s amazing documentary series, can you talk about how this can translate into policy and will very much determine whether the Democratic Party’s platform looks different from the Republican Party’s platform?

DEANNA HOSKINS: Yes. Thank you, Amy.

Watching Messiah’s documentary was basically my life story, of my son, having my son at 17, dealing with substance abuse. And exactly the themes and the barriers that were actually demonstrated or talked about in his documentary are the realities — his mother recently getting clean and getting able to get her life together, and this was the situation 20 years ago when I returned. So nothing has changed around the barriers for women to reunite with their family.

When we talk about policies, having worked on a policy level, funding always come into a state from HUD around emergency shelter, but places like Hope House, A New Way of Life don’t receive that funding, because they’re considered what we call transitional houses. And federal and local funds don’t pay for transitional housing, which are the most needed housing for women, especially Black women, returning from incarceration, where substance abuse and mental health has actually been one of our issues. So if we’re going to start talking about policy, we’re seeing where policymakers see the big picture, but they don’t understand the intricate details, such as what Messiah and his mom talked about. The charge kept being incarcerated or prosecuted; no one ever focused on the issue of what was driving to the crime that led to incarceration.

And then, for women, his mother said something so important that I think everyone forgets. Society expects a woman to take care of her children. So, not only do we go incarcerated with substance abuse and mental health, we then have the shame and guilt that we have to overcome, which a lot of times continues to drive to our substance abuse. So, even addressing the trauma that may have taken place during her act of addiction, none of those things are actually woven into policy. It’s always a Band-Aid issue.

And that’s why we’re hosting this Rebuilding the Table. We’re tired of Band-Aid solutions. We need real solutions that have real impact in our community, that impact and change the trajectory of our lives and our children, because what we know, if we’re going to break the cycle of addiction from generation, we have to give people a flat start to bounce from to be successful.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does it mean to be included in the Democratic convention next week? What are you going to say to the leaders there? By the way, Democracy Now! will be covering the whole week and the highlights of the speeches at night, as well as bringing analysis. But DeAnna Hoskins?

DEANNA HOSKINS: So, Amy, one of the biggest things is we know Biden-Sanders unity table came up with criminal justice recommendations, and we applaud them for that. But the one thing that we actually want to bring to their attention is just what we’re talking about. While their policies talk about the lack of housing, employment, healthcare for people returning to the community, they miss the boat of the intricate details of what led to that. They miss the intricate details of how do we start evaluating individuals based on possible trauma, substance abuse, mental health, when we are always incarcerating people. Does it have to be?

When Messiah talked about the defund police concept, defunding police — we’re saying the largest budget item in any state, any city is always corrections and law enforcement. We’re saying, with defund the police, divest from law enforcement and corrections, and invest in our communities. Our communities are lacking substance abuse treatment. Our communities are lacking mental health substances issues. So we have to talk about that. Messiah talked about the clinic. And those clinics are underfunded because they’re not a budget line item in the city’s budget. But we have to take from the overenforcement to cure social ills where this community has lacked the resources, especially in Black and Brown marginalized communities.

So, our reason for being at the table, you’re missing the boat, and if you want to do something different, you have to have our voices at the table when you draft policy, not after you draft it for us to carry it. We have to be in the design of the policy. And we know you understand people being directly impacted being at the table, because your immigration table had individuals from that community. When you talk about veterans, you have veterans at the table. When you talk about the Disabilities Act, you have people with disabilities at the table. I need Democrats to understand and actually look within themselves: What is their implicit bias that we don’t have the expertise to sit at the table?

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to give Messiah Rhodes the last word here. Messiah, again, your series, everyone should watch. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. But you have the Democratic leadership now, Kamala Harris, former attorney general and DA, before being a senator. You have Joe Biden, who was, of course, very involved with the crime bill. What demands are you making? What do you see has to happen, based on your life experience with your family and your mom going in and out of prison?

MESSIAH RHODES: Well, I mean, Harris being the VP candidate is pretty much a historical, remarkable thing happening. But at the same time, materially, like you see my situation with my family and many other families, like Ms. Hoskins, Black women have been affected by incarceration, law enforcement policies in a negative way. And as you saw in my documentary, almost three generations of my family was affected by law enforcement and mass incarceration.

So, it’s really important that we listen to these voices right now when it comes to, like, Black Lives Matter, defund the police. We really need healthcare. We need housing. We need education. We need to keep families together, when it comes to the units — unifying communities and individuals. When you affect a Black woman, you affect the family. And when you affect a family, you affect the community.

And I really feel that Harris and Biden, hopefully, can listen to these communities and realize this is important right now, especially during a crisis like this, with COVID, economic, that they listen to just basic policies, instead of sci-fi weapons, all kinds of stuff — just housing, education, family unification and healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Messiah, we have to leave it there. What an honor to have worked with you here in your fellowship at Democracy Now! Filmmaker, host of the short documentary series, Against All Odds. And thank you so much to DeAnna Hoskins.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Save lives. Wear a mask.

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