Aug 31, 2010

"When a Woman Comes Home, She Comes Home in a Cloud of Shame": Women's Advocate and Newest Task Force Member, Rusti Miller-Hill Talks About Reentry from a Woman's Perspective

In 1993, Rusti-Miller Hill finished a three year drug sentence in Albion Correction Facility. During her term of incarceration, she battled the drug problem that lead to her imprisonment, discovered she was HIV positive, and learned that the parental rights to two of her sons had been terminated.  Emboldened instead of defeated,  Ms. Miller-Hill became an advocate for formerly incarcerated women , the founder of Brandon House, a non-profit organization that helps women reenter their communities post-incarceration, and had another child despite the urging of doctors to terminate her pregnancy due to her HIV status. She is also employed as a Trainer in the People with AIDS Leadership Training Institute at Cicatelli Associates,  the newest member of the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, and  is collaborating with the Women In Prison Project of the Correctional Association and H.I.R.E for  "HIRE's 5th Annual Reentry Policy Conference: Elevating Women: Strengthening Policies & Practices to Support the Needs of Justice-Involved Women" (To register, click here).  During our  interview, Ms. Miller-Hill and I spoke about her inspiration for launching her non-profit, her hope for reunification with her sons, and how and why she believes women are treated differently upon their release from prison.

Can you tell me about Brandon House

Brandon House is my brainchild. It was created to help formerly incarcerated women reintegrate into the community. After a program that was helpful to me upon release closed, I realized that there were no other programs in existence that didn’t offer services, but provided assistance with navigation. I adopted that philosophy and incorporated it into what is now Brandon House What we do is collaborate with other formerly incarcerated women around supporting one another. We take a holistic approach to creating a community where women are welcomed back into society by other formerly incarcerated women.

What services does Brandon House provide to someone leaving prison?  

Hopefully, I would have been in contact with the woman leaving prison prior to her release so that I know who she is and make that connection. Then, if she needed someone to pick her up, someone would be waiting for her to meet her when she came out and escort her home to the community. We make sure there is someone there to say “Welcome Home.” If she had appointments or needed to have someone with her during those first couple of days home, have someone help her navigate her through transportation, public assistance, medical issues, we would offer that to her.

The whole idea is that each woman is different. All I am doing is offering guidance to them and helping them make choices. I remember I slept at the YMCA for the first 6 months when I got out, because I couldn’t go back to my community. Not because it wasn’t available, but because I chose not to because I wanted something different for myself. The real test starts when you get out, the real test is on the street. Walking those same streets where you did whatever you did and being able to overcome those obstacles. Situations did present themselves-someone offers you drugs, rather than a plate of food or a place to stay. Because of that reality, the YMCA was the best choice for me. I know that going there allowed me to grow within myself. Having the opportunity to talk about my life, my fears, to talk about what it is like to be on the outside with other women who were experiencing the same things made it easier to stay on the street.

Can you talk about your inspiration for beginning Brandon

Brandon House was named after my son who is now fifteen years old. Almost two years after I came home, I met someone, fell in love, got married, and became pregnant. I was told by five different doctors that my son should not be born because I had HIV and I could transmit it to him. Finally, we found a team of providers including a midwife, a 24 hour nurse, and a doctor who provided us with medical services and support to have a healthy pregnancy. Today Brandon is fifteen and HIV negative. My husband and I have been married for 13 years and he, too, is still negative. During the process of incarceration I lost parental rights to my other children, something that may have been avoided if I had had Brandon House or another organization to teach me my parental rights.

The day that I was arrested my then-12 year old daughter saw me taken away by the police. I didn’t see her again until she was 16. I also had another son who was 2 1/2 and a set of twins. My mom was able to take them for a short period of time. Eventually, she could only keep my daughter in the household and my sons were sent into foster care. They were placed with a woman who kept them together and eventually adopted them. Because New York State does not require foster care agencies or Administration for Children's Services to bring children to see their mothers once they are sentenced to a state facility, I eventually lost contact with them, which led to the beginning of my termination of parental rights. Eventually my children were adopted by their foster mother.

How were you able to deal with the idea that you had not only lost custody, but parental rights to your children, while you were in prison?

You feel a sense of hopelessness. At the time I was not an advocate or aware of what my rights were or how I could interrupt that process. I eventually went to the parole board and was granted parole. A week before I was due for release, I had a court date. The counselor called me downstairs and said “You have just been notified that one of your sons is up for adoption and the court date is tomorrow.” We talked a bit about it and he spoke with me about it. His goal was to make me see that it was better for me to leave it alone than to try to fight it. I felt like I had nothing to offer my children-no place to stay no money, no job, no lawyer, no nothing. So, I felt that my only recourse was to eat everything he said and let it be. And that is what I did. Little did I know that I had the right to attend the hearing, even have it postponed. I could have done something about it. So, I guess that was the beginning of my advocacy, trying to find out what my rights were and making sure no one else had to experience that pain.

How were you able to turn that experience into a source of strength and advocacy?

I prayed on it. I surrendered and let it go to the hands of the higher power which keeps me grounded and allows me the belief that we will be able to reunite someday. To this day, I am still waiting for that opportunity. We have sent all the necessary paperwork to Albany so that my children can find me if they chose, if and when they begin to look for me and my family. We can’t actively pursue them, but they can pursue us. So, I hope and pray that before I close my eyes, I will have the opportunity to lay my eyes on my sons. Whether or not they forgive me, accept the situation that placed them here is another story. But, I want them just to know that I never stopped loving them and wondering about them. I think that is what comforts me, knowing that eventually I will have that opportunity to see them once again.

Do you think there is more knowledge now available to women who are incarcerated or returning home than when you came home?

Yes, The Correctional Association is a great resource. I have been very involved in their work. First, I was an intern. From there, I became the chair of the Conditions on the Inside and Reentry Committee. There is also the Incarcerated Mothers Committee and the Domestic Violence Committee. But education now is much more easily accessible and making it available is what the Women In Prison Project is about. It is about educating women, letting them know what their rights are, helping them to make the choice. Not everyone wants to be an advocate, but everyone should have the opportunity to address their issues.

How do you see women being treated differently than men when they are released from prison?

When women are released, there is no big party, no one waiting to have sex with you. There is nothing. When men come home, there is a party, there are girls, the family is open and receptive. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve gone. When a woman comes home she comes home in a cloud of shame. No one wants to acknowledge where she had been what she has been through so you have no opportunity to talk about the experience, all the things that you have seen. We don’t talk about those things. No one wants to know that story.

For men, it has become a rite of passage in the neighborhood. The reason that “he” went justifies his leaving his family. If he was on the corner selling drugs, or held up a store, he was doing it to take care of whatever. He was providing for his family. For women its different. Most are in prison for doing drugs, and a lot of it stems from their own usage, to cope with trauma. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, there was something that happened that caused this woman to turn to drugs and medicate herself, to escape the pain of what she was feeling. The addiction led to whatever offense it was that caused her to become arrested

Do you think in some communities, going to prison is viewed as an expression of masculinity?

Yes. I live in Harlem across the street from the Polo Grounds which is notorious for drugs and people going to jail. We call them the “corner boys”, not to be malicious, but because I am making a distinction for my son, Brandon, to understand. I tell him “School is the option for you. You want to get out, go to school.” It is more like, painting a picture. These guys are on the corner everyday all day. They have never seen beyond the four corners that exist on that block. My son is different. He plays hockey, he plays lacrosse. There are other options which include many more opportunities than what is being presented outside your door. I frequently hear someone in passing say, “I just got out”, and the whole crowd glorifies his being away and makes him feel good about being back. For me, I had to show my son something different, something more. I had to show him you don’t need to do that to get what you need-recognition, support, friends. There are other ways to feel good about yourself. What they are offering is not real, it is false. My son understands that, he knows that while it might look good, its not good for you. So all the glitter and glamour is stripped away for the reality of what really happens post incarceration.

So your son never experienced you prior to your incarceration. How do you talk about your time upstate with him?

I am honest. I tell him that these were mistakes that I made. For his whole life he has seen me depicted in interviews. HIV is what he has grown up knowing, so its never been a secret. He has appeared in many videos with me and been a part of many of my presentations. I always say if I tell my secrets there is nothing that anyone can use against me. If I expose myself, what type of ammunition do you have to come at me with other than the truth? Those are the principles on which Brandon House. It is a safe space to meet some people who have experienced what you have experienced, to be it is who it is you imagined yourself to be while you were away.

You are planning an event to talk about some of the issues we discussed here today?

Yes, Brandon House is working with H.I.R.E on their 5th Annual Reentry Policy Conference on September 15, 2010 to talk about how women reenter the community. Because women are important to the community, their absence is felt by the entire community, whether they acknowledge it openly or it happens as a ripple effect. I asked the Director of HIRE, Roberta Peeples, to create a place where we can have the conversation about what formerly incarcerated need to thrive. The panelists will consist of CBOs, government workers, and community advocates. We will be able to offer resolutions, and opportunities so that the group coming behind us doesn’t have to confront the same obstacles that many of us had to overcom