Health care and government entities increasingly recognize the importance of involving community members when making decisions that impact the community at large. The Los Angeles Department of Health Services (LA DHS), understands that the justice-involved population has some of the most complex health and social needs of any given demographic group, which is why it was included as one of the target demographics for LA County’s Whole Person Care program, which seeks to improve the coordination of services for vulnerable Medi-Cal beneficiaries. Over the past year, LA DHS has continued to increase its commitment to justice and health care transformation by investing more in improving the health care delivery system for people who have been formerly incarcerated.
The LA DHS Whole Person Care collaboration team realized that any efforts to make improvements would be incomplete without the perspectives from individuals with lived experience in the justice system. In response, they created the Reentry Health Advisory Collaborative (RHAC) — an 11-member advisory group of formerly incarcerated individuals — to identify strategies for improving the quality of community and correctional health care services. Participants in the RHAC have provided valuable feedback on larger system changes that will ultimately improve the health of people in and outside jail, and are also playing an integral role in the implementation of a countywide Alternatives to Incarceration Roadmap.
CHCS recently met with three RHAC members — Califia Abwoon, Jason Garcia, and Sandy Arevalo — to discuss the importance of health care organizations and county health agencies elevating the voices of formerly incarcerated individuals and their communities. All three use their experience within the criminal justice system to mentor others and advocate on their behalf. Califia is a peer-support specialist for the Wayfarer Foundation, where she develops relationships with and supports people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row and in Long Beach. As the training manager for Project Return Peer Support Network, Jason oversees the peer professional training program. Sandy, a program supervisor at Project 180, supports clients with mental health and reentry needs.
Q: Why is it important for local governments to partner with those with lived experience in the criminal justice system?
Those of us with lived experience understand what others are going through, and rather than the government telling us what we need, they are asking us. It gives us some power in deciding our future, and that’s honestly pretty motivating.
A: S. Arevalo: A lot of times, government agencies are disconnected from their communities despite their good intentions. We have our finger on the pulse of the needs of people who are just getting released from jail or prison and we know what they are asking for. Meeting people’s basic needs — like housing and food — is the number one priority, so it’s important that government agencies understand what people need to thrive and be successful. Policymakers should also fully understand the barriers that exist for people who are re-entering the community or are otherwise trying to get on their feet. These barriers can vary by community, so giving people who are from the community a seat at the table is of utmost importance.
J. Garcia: It builds trust when there are people with lived experience participating in decision-making. Those of us with lived experience understand what others are going through, and rather than the government telling us what we need, they are asking us. It gives us some power in deciding our future, and that’s honestly pretty motivating.
C. Abwoon: There are nuances in my community that outsiders just can’t know. This is the core of understanding what’s going on with people in our community. I’m working in my community, I have connections with people, and I’m always building these relationships. LA County will very much benefit from using people with lived experience and integrating our voices by hiring us to work for the government.
Q: What has been the most meaningful aspect of participating in the RHAC?
In order to gain that trust, you need community members, particularly those with first-hand experience with the social problem, involved because the community members are going to hold decision-makers accountable to the promises they are making.
A: J. Garcia: The RHAC has participated in several Alternatives to Incarceration workgroup sessions and has been able to submit recommendations to the LA County Board of Supervisors. It means a lot that these recommendations have been welcome, and feels like we are actually affecting change.
C. Abwoon: My generation set these systems in place that are affecting the reentry community in a very negative way. So participating in an opportunity like the RHAC, it’s our chance to have an impact on those who are in power. The RHAC is trying to make a change, and there should be more collaboratives like the RHAC that are communicating with county agencies. We are an asset, so I say use the people around you.
S. Arevalo: There is often a lack of transparency and accountability between government agencies and the community. In order to gain that trust, you need community members, particularly those with first-hand experience with the social problem, involved because the community members are going to hold decision-makers accountable to the promises they are making. I feel as though that’s what we are doing through the RHAC. With the RHAC, I believe we have a real chance at making meaningful change.
Q: How have staff from the Los Angeles Department of Health Services created a space for you to share your experiences and expertise?
A: J. Garcia: The LA County Sheriff’s office is overseeing the Men’s Central Jail closure, so we’ve been at meetings with staff from the sheriff’s office, the police and probation departments, and the district attorney’s office. For some of us, these meetings can be really heavy. But, Diamond Lee and Diana Zúñiga (the LA DHS staff supporting the RHAC) really speak up on our behalf, and they’ve lifted up things that were important to the reentry community and those being affected by the incarceration. I have immense respect for these two women — their advocacy for the RHAC has been incredible.
S. Arevalo: It’s intimidating talking about shutting down the jail with the sheriff’s office. Since the beginning, Diana and Diamond have validated and encouraged us. They reassured us that our opinions are just as good as some top-level county official and that the RHAC belongs at these discussions. There have also been training opportunities and resources offered through the RHAC that have helped us function in these circles. I don’t know a lot about policy or budgets, but I know it’s important so this support and training in these areas has been incredibly helpful.
Q: With the death of George Floyd and countless others, criminal justice reform, policing, and racial justice have once again been brought to a national forefront. What do you believe the next steps are to ensure the momentum continues?
Getting people to change a belief pattern is hard, and seeing people as human beings and not criminals is hard. But every conversation we have is a little bit of movement.
A: C. Abwoon: Getting judges and the district attorney and the sheriff to see things through my eyes is a part of the process. Getting people to change a belief pattern is hard, and seeing people as human beings and not criminals is hard. But every conversation we have is a little bit of movement. I believe some of the county staff get it, but their contracting practices are not supportive of community involvement. There needs to be a concerted effort to engage with community members on these issues and allow us to make a living doing what we know and love.
J. Garcia: Our system needs to change: mass incarceration and the way our neighborhoods are over-policed. It’s not just the morally right thing to do, but also, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do, because it’s really, really expensive to lock people up and to keep people living in poverty. We have the younger generation coming up and they have a different perspective. They’ve come up with social media, and it’s a lot different than when I was younger. We have to be a positive influence on them, and we have to listen to them and keep an open mind.