Freedom: Tales from Real Life

A Journal of People report

All love freedom. However, freedom faces hurdles within a reality. Freedom is not only an idea, a concept or a feeling. In real life, it has many dimensions, and the dimensions are real.

The following reports say something about freedom:

A Freed Person, But …

A Yahoo Lifestyle report – “Cyntoia Brown freed from prison after 15 years — here’s what obstacles she may face re-entering society” – by Paulina Cachero tells about Cyntoia Brown, a sex-trafficking survivor initially sentenced to life in prison for killing her abuser.

Cyntoia Brown took her first steps outside of the Tennessee Prison for Women, but her fight for freedom is far from over.

The August 7, 2019 dated report said:

“Fifteen years after a judge sentenced a 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown to life in prison for first-degree murder — an event which the sex-trafficking victim says was self-defense — the now 31-year-old took her first steps of freedom. Her release, which happened overnight Tuesday, is being hailed as a victory by activists nationwide.

“‘I’m blessed to have a very supportive family and friends to support me in the days to come,’ reads a statement from Brown obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle. ‘I thank Governor and First Lady Haslam for their vote of confidence in me and with the Lord’s help I will make them as well as the rest of my supporters proud.’”

Brown was tried as an adult in 2006. She was convicted of shooting a man who she said sexually abused her and forced her into prostitution.

Brown’s harrowing story of generational violence against women laid bare the shortcomings of U.S.’s criminal justice system, igniting a heated debate nationwide.

According to the report, the battle ended in a victory earlier this year when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency. Her hard-won freedom was the culmination of 10 years of advocacy, education and public outcry.

While Brown’s release is a triumphant moment for sex trafficking survivors, her fight is far from over.

“You just have to think about the fact that a 16-year-old who’s never had a driver’s license, never voted, never had a job would now at age 30 begin that walk outside the prison walls,” Charles Bone, Brown’s attorney, told Boston NPR station WBUR after the former governor’s announcement.

The report said:

“Like over 600,000 Americans released from prison every year, Brown’s conviction has the potential to limit her employment opportunities, housing assistance, access to public assistance and many more benefits that will help her successfully reintegrate into society.

“In reality, her transition back to free society is just beginning. Here are the main challenges she may face in the upcoming months.

“The foundation for beginning any successful life, no matter one’s circumstances, is a stable job and home. But for many formerly incarcerated people, these things are often out of reach, with both federal and state legislation allowing employers and landlords to discriminate those with past convictions.

“‘If you don’t have the safety of a home if you don’t have the security of a job, you become invisible,’ Hedy Weinberg, ACLU Tennessee’s executive director, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. ‘Or rather than becoming invisible, there’s a target where people are discriminating you because of your background.’

“Federal regulations have allowed public housing authorities and landlords to run background checks on future tenants, and widely discriminate against formerly incarcerated individuals from the stable housing they need to get a job, get access to necessary health care and more. For this reason, people with criminal records are 10 times more likely to be homeless; for incarcerated women, that rate jumps to 13 times, according to Wanda Bertram from Prison Policy Initiative.

“Meanwhile, unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated people are over 27 percent — a higher rate than the Great Depression. ‘For women, particularly black women those numbers are much more pronounced,’ Bertram tells Yahoo Lifestyle.”

The report said:

“Many in criminal justice reform advocates attribute these startling numbers to discriminatory practices in the hiring process, including a box that requires job applicants to indicate whether they have a criminal record. For this reason, advocates and legislators have pushed ‘ban the box’ legislation to delay background checks to give every American a fair chance at a job.”

Voting Rights

The report added:

“Correctional facilities dictate when inmates wake up, when they sleep, what they wear, when they shower and what they eat. After years of being deprived of the right to make these decisions, Weinberg says that having the basic right to vote is an integral part of re-entering civil society.

“‘Your vote is your voice,’ Weinberg tells Yahoo Lifestyle. ‘It’s your ability to express yourself. When they get out, part of the full integration back into their communities is about being able to restore their right to vote.’

“Prison Policy Initiative reports say that during the 2018 midterm elections, 4.7 million free Americans were ineligible to vote because of felony convictions because they lived in one of 34 states that prohibiting individuals on probation, parole, or who have completed their sentence from participating in the democratic process. Because of the startling racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this disenfranchisement largely impacts communities of color — a fact that was highlighted in Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial race against Brian Kemp in Georgia.

“Weinberg says Tennessee is one of the worst states when it comes to reinstating voting rights to those who are formerly incarcerated. While it may not be the first thing that is top of mind for many who are starting over, criminal justice advocates say that it is a critical part of becoming a productive member of society.

“‘I think that in general, something that can be incredibly motivating and demoralizing is the fact that they are coming out of prison and they’re not full citizens,’ Bertram tells Yahoo Lifestyle. ‘The reason that formerly incarcerated people should be able to vote is the same reason that all of us should be able to vote. It’s to feel part of a community, and that we can all participate in the same things.’

Surviving Sexual Abuse

The report said:

“When 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen allegedly paid Brown for sex in 2004, she was living as a runaway with a 24-year-old pimp named ‘Kut Throat.’ The sex trafficking survivor says he raped her and forced her into prostitution.

“While Brown’s history of sexual abuse is harrowing, it is not uncommon. Bertram says that somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of those incarcerated in America have some history of sexual abuse and 50 to 60 percent have a history of child sexual abuse, depending on the studies.

“‘As any woman that has been sexually assaulted knows, that is an experience that follows you around for your whole life,’ says Bertram. ‘But if you are a woman that is struggling with the challenges of re-entry like finding a job or finding a home, and you’re fighting with this trauma, I can only imagine how hard that is.’

“Derri Smith, the founder of an advocacy group for survivors of sex trafficking like Brown says that this trauma will be no easy obstacle to overcome.

“‘You have to be able to get out of this feeling of shame that traffickers just ingrain in their victims to the place of recognizing that they are victims,’ Smith tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Smith was first introduced to Brown in 2017, who was curious about Smith’s work helping rehabilitate sex trafficking survivors. Smith has spoken to judges and legislators alike to advocate on behalf of Brown.

“Smith also says Brown could be vulnerable to any number of triggers as she navigates life outside of prison.

“‘It could be the smell of a certain kind of food cooking, it can be a kind of cologne, it could be a certain song. It can be almost anything that was present during some traumatic moment,’ Smith tells Yahoo. Beyond relearning how to retake control over their life, Smith says that Brown will simply learn how to trust again.

“‘Everyone that should have been there to protect you pretty much hasn’t been. You have to learn who to trust just to get out of survival mode — doing whatever it takes to get through the next hour and the next day to get to a place where you can actually set goals and plans and have hope for a future that is different,’ says Smith.”

Re-Entry to Free Society

The report added:

“Despite the long journey ahead of her, Smith, Weinberg and other advocates say they believe Brown will be able to successfully re-enter to succeed in society.

“During her time at the Tennessee Prison for Women, Brown earned her GED and even graduated with a Bachelor of Professional Studies with a major in Organizational Leadership from Lipscomb University. ‘The power of education to come in and completely overhaul your sense of self and view of the world is incredible,” reads a statement from Brown on the Lipscomb University website. Armed with an education and time to reflect, Cyntoia Brown began to help other women in the juvenile justice system like her and became a ‘model prisoner.’

“Brown reached out to Smith about starting her own nonprofit to help young women in situations like her. And upon her release, Brown expressed her desire to ‘[use] my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation.’

“Beyond the complete transformation that Brown has undergone, advocates say that she has the necessary financial resources and emotional support to heal and successfully re-enter society — resources that many released formerly incarcerated people don’t have.

“A Cyntoia Brown ‘Second Chance Fund’ was started to help Brown during this critical transitional period. The GoFundme has raised nearly 20,000 since Haslam announced that Brown would be granted clemency.

“Smith tells Yahoo Lifestyle that Brown plans to stay with her family as she works to build a life outside the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women. In addition to having a pro-bono attorney, a therapist has offered her services free of charge to help the sex-trafficking victim come to terms with her new life.

“‘The way she’s used her time, she’s light years different than she was as the 16-year-old traumatized girl young person,’ says Smith. ‘She’s focused, she’s smart, she’s met goals even under very challenging circumstances. So I have no reason to think that she won’t succeed on the outside.’”

So it appears freedom does not materialize all the moment, freedom does not readily give voting rights, freedom has to be interpreted and connected, and freedom is not only a concept. Freedom is access to many conditions essential for human life.

A Tennessean report headlined – “Cyntoia Brown’s release is only the start of her transition back into society. Just ask Ashlee Sellars” – said:

“One of the bigger challenges after a criminal conviction can be life beyond release from prison.

“Even for those who spend far less time incarcerated than Brown or Sellars, the transition back can be overwhelming.

“‘A lot of times what people with long sentences do is they don’t keep track of time,’ Sellars said. ‘It’s too difficult. Every day is the same. I knew for years if I paid attention, I’d go crazy.’”

The August 6, 2019 dated report by Mariah Timms cited the incident of Ashlee Sellars:

“The silence of Ashlee Sellars’ new home kept her awake on the first night she spent alone after decades of hearing the constant noise of prison life.

“‘I’ve got several friends that still sleep with, like, our prison fans on, to have that hum. You become so accustomed to listening to keys and handcuffs and steps and metal and concrete,’ she said. ‘We take for granted that we have peace and serenity. You don’t often get that.’

“Sellars was released from the Tennessee Prison for Women at age 38 in 2017, after serving more than 21 years for her involvement in a fatal aggravated robbery when she was just 17 years old. In 1998, she pleaded guilty to facilitation of felony murder and especially aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.”

The report said:

“Since her release, Sellars, now 40, has turned her experience and passion to helping others. She works in restorative justice with the Raphah Institute, which hopes to help juveniles charged with crimes turn their lives around and help heal the harm done to the community.

“‘I deserved to go to jail. I wish we incarcerated differently, but I do believe I needed someone to step in,’ Sellars said. ‘I wish it hadn’t had to be the state. I wish it had been a parent or someone in the community.’

“When Sellars went into custody, she had no idea how much life and technology would change before she got out.

“‘There are computer classes inside, but they’re so outdated,’ she said.

“She had to learn how to get her electricity turned on, who to call in an accident, how to work a modern phone.

“‘And I needed to find people who didn’t think I was crazy for needing time to make a decision,’ she said.

“She had spent decades living in a world where no decision was her own to make.”

Nyasha Junior writes in America on August 5, 2019:

“As with other abused girls, Ms. Brown’s efforts to survive her conditions brought her into the ‘abuse to prison’ pipeline that disproportionately affects girls of color. The abuse suffered by these girls leads to encounters with the criminal justice system, and this system treats them as perpetrators rather than as victims and survivors of abuse. Thus, rather than being sheltered, protected and provided with resources, girls who have been sexually and physically abused are criminalized for surviving their abuse.” (“Cyntoia Brown and how the U.S. criminal justice system fails black women and girls”, July 26, 2019)

The incident, and similar incidents create many questions about condition of life in a system. The incident cited below gives another look into the issue of freedom.

Elderly Couple’s Death

A report by The Independent said:

“A man in Washington state has killed both himself and his wife after raising fears about struggling to pay medical expenses for her ongoing health conditions.

“The couple were identified by the Whatcom County Medical Examiner as Brian S Jones, 77, and Patricia Whitney-Jones, 76.

“Mr Jones, who lived near the city of Ferndale, called emergency services on Wednesday morning and said he was going to shoot himself, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

“He said he had prepared a note for the sheriff, which contained information and instructions. In spite of the operator’s efforts to keep him on the line, Mr Jones is then said to have told the operator, ‘we will be in the front bedroom’, before disconnecting the call.

“Police arrived around 15 minutes later and set up a perimeter around the house and attempted to intervene for about an hour with a crisis negotiator and loud hailer.

“But it was too late, as officials then used a robot-mounted camera to look inside the home and found the bodies of the married couple.

“Authorities said they believe Mr Jones shot his wife and then himself. They were found lying together.”

The “Elderly couple found dead from murder-suicide after they couldn’t afford wife’s healthcare: ‘We will be in the front bedroom’” headlined report aid:

“A statement from Whatcom Sheriff Bill Elfo said state officials are investigating the incident which is deemed to be a murder-suicide.

“According to the sheriff, Mr Jones told the operator: ‘I am going to shoot myself’.

“Several notes were left in the home ‘citing severe ongoing medical problems with the wife and expressing concerns that the couple did not have sufficient resources to pay for medical care’, according to the sheriff’s statement.

“‘It is very tragic that one of our senior citizens would find himself in such desperate circumstances where he felt murder and suicide were the only option. Help is always available with a call to 911,’ Mr Elfo said in the post.”

The report by Maya Oppenheim said:

“Numerous firearms were seized and two dogs found in the house were taken to an animal shelter.

“Sherrie Schulteis, a neighbor of the couple, said she often spoke to Mr Jones and watched out for each other’s homes but was totally unaware about the extent to which he was struggling mentally and financially.

“‘[Mr Jones and I] were always waving and talking about our yards or our flowers,’ she told The Lynden Tribune. ‘It’s a little tiny community where we all know each other, but we don’t really know each other.’”

They were free, but they were not free from poverty – incapacity for arranging medical treatments although as old persons they deserved that – ensured medical treatment without any hardship. Many facilities were there around, but no facility was for them, because they had no money to access the facilities. Have they chosen to access death freely? A freedom!

Costs, prices, affordability, access are issues related to freedom. These turn difficult issues when these are connected to housing, health care, etc. issues. The following reports gives a picture of the reality.

House Rent

A report finds high rent is keeping people from health care in the U.S.

According to “Renters Report Housing Costs Significantly Impact Their Health Care”, the report from Enterprise Community Partners, more than half (54%) of the 1,000 renters surveyed indicated that they have delayed their medical care in order to pay their rent.

The online survey also heard from 500 medical professionals.

According to the report, everyone “reported that at least some of their patients have expressed concerns about affordable housing, with 31% of those professionals reporting that at least one quarter of their patients have expressed concerns about having an affordable place to live.”

The most common types of medical treatment that respondents delayed were preventive routine check-ups (42%), seeking treatment while sick (38%), and getting over-the-counter medicine (35%).

The report found:

  • Every one of the 500 medical professionals surveyed reported that at least some of their patients have expressed concerns about affordable housing, with 31 percent of those professionals reporting that at least one quarter of their patients have expressed concerns about having an affordable place to live. This number increases to 42 percent among medical professionals with a larger low-income patient population.
  • Nearly all (95 percent) lower income renters say that rent is their most important bill, but 78 percent of medical professionals think their lower income patients would prioritize their medical bills over rent.
  • More than half (54 percent) of renters surveyed have delayed medical care specifically because they couldn’t afford it.
  • Among those who delayed care because of affordability, the most frequently delayed types of treatment included preventive routine check-ups (42 percent), seeking treatment while sick (38 percent) and buying over-the-counter medications (35 percent).
  • 44 percent of medical professionals believe a lack of accessible health care hinders the health of lower income communities, and less than half (48 percent) of lower income respondents are satisfied with health care accessibility where they live.

The data of the report show that “painful tradeoffs between housing and health care are even more common among severely rent-burdened respondents, who are people paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income for housing.”

Severely rent-burdened respondents reported the following:

  • 83 percent said they prioritize paying rent before anything else, compared with 1 percent prioritizing health care costs.
  • Nearly half (45 percent) have not followed a treatment plan provided by a health care professional because they couldn’t afford it, compared with 34 percent of all renter respondents.
  • Nearly one-third (31 percent) of severely rent-burdened respondents delayed a routine check-up because they couldn’t afford it, compared with 23 percent of all renter respondents.
  • Severely rent-burdened respondents report low satisfaction rates with housing-related factors that impact their health, including adequate access to outdoor spaces (47 percent), lack of exposure to indoor toxins (48 percent) and air quality (38 percent).
  • 89 percent report that financial stress is the issue in their lives that is worst for their mental health. At the same time, 92 percent of medical professionals report that when they advise their patients to reduce their stress, patients say finances are the biggest source of stress.

Rents fall for the rich, but rise for the poor

A Washington Post report said:

“U.S. cities struggling with soaring housing costs have found some success in lowering rents this year, but that relief has not reached the renters most at risk of losing their housing.

“Nationally, the pace of rent increases is beginning to slow down, with the average rent in at least six cities falling since last summer, according to Zillow data.

“But the decline is being driven primarily by decreasing prices for high-end rentals. People in low-end housing, the apartments and other units that house working-class residents, are still paying more than ever.”

The “In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich — but rise for the poor” headlined report by Jeff Stein (August 6, 2018) said:

“Since last summer, rents have fallen for the highest earners while increasing for the poorest in San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Pittsburgh, Washington and Portland, Ore., among other cities. In several other metro areas — including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston and Miami — rents have risen for the poor and the rich alike.

“The ongoing increase in prices for low-end renters poses a challenge for city officials who have vowed to lower housing costs for working-class residents already struggling with tepid wage growth in the U.S. economy.

“City officials have said a boom in luxury housing construction would cause rents to fall for everyone else, arguing that creating new units for those at the top would ease competition for cheaper properties.

“In part based on that theory, cities have approved thousands of new luxury units over the past several years, hoping to check high rents that have led more than 20 million American renters to be classified as ‘cost burdened,’ defined as spending more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing.

“But although some advocates say the dividends could still pay off for low-income renters, others say more direct government action is needed to prevent poor residents from being forced out of their cities or into homelessness. They have called for the federal government to help construct more affordable units, or offer greater rental assistance for poor families.”

An estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness in 2018, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data.

Over the last five years, the U.S. median rent has risen 11%. As a result, renters earning the national median income have spent 28.2% of their earnings on a rental.

According to Zillow – “Homelessness Rises Faster Where Rent Exceeds a Third of Income” (by Chris Glynn and Alexander Casey, December 11, 2018), that is significantly “above the 17.7% that median-income households buying a typical home today spend on their monthly mortgage payment.”

“Communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness.

“Income growth has not kept pace with rents, leading to an affordability crunch with cascading effects that, for people on the bottom economic rung, increases the risk of homelessness.

“The areas that are most vulnerable to rising rents, unaffordability and poverty hold 15 percent of the U.S. population – and 47 percent of people experiencing homelessness.” (ibid.)

“Out of Reach, the high cost of housing”, a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) indicated there is a similar issue with rent.

The report said:

“The struggle to afford modest rental homes is not limited to minimum-wage workers. NLIHC estimates that the average renter’s hourly wage in the United States is $16.88, which is $5.22 below the two-bedroom Housing Wage and $1.02 below the one-bedroom Housing Wage. A significant gap exists between the average renter wage and the two-bedroom Housing Wage in many states. The 11.2 million extremely low income renters in the United States, those earning less than the greater of the poverty level or 30% of the area median income (AMI), fall particularly short of being able to afford modest rental homes. On average, extremely low income households of four people earn no more than $26,420 annually and can afford at most $660 per month for housing. The national average fair market rent for a one-bedroom home is $931 per month and $1,149 for a two-bedroom home, far from affordable for an extremely low income family.”

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The report found, “in only 10% of U.S. counties can a full-time worker earning the average renter’s wage afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent, working a standard 40-hour work week. The same worker could afford a modest one-bedroom apartment in 41% of U.S. counties.”

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)’s Out of Reach 2018 report, a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 “needs to work approximately 122 hours per week for all 52 weeks of the year, or approximately three full-time jobs, to afford a two-bedroom rental home at the national average fair market rent.”

Additionally, in no state “can a worker earning the federal minimum wage or prevailing state minimum wage afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour week.”

Rising Health Care

Rising health care costs have become a major issue in the country as well. In 2017, U.S. health care spending grew 3.9%, reaching $3.5 trillion or $10,739 per person, according to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. Those numbers account for about 17.9% of the nation’s GDP. Federal spending on health care (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) has risen from 14.4% of all federal outlays in 1990 to about 31% in 2018 — one of the main reasons the national debt is $21.5 trillion and growing. The amount of money U.S. citizens spend on health care is likely to rise by about 5.5% per year for the next several years, according to government projections on health spending through 2026. (Gigi A. Cuckler, Andrea M. Sisko, John A. Poisal, Sean P. Keehan, Sheila D. Smith, Andrew J. Madison, Christian J. Wolfe, and James C. Hardesty, “National Health Expenditure Projections, 2017–26: Despite Uncertainty, Fundamentals Primarily Drive Spending Growth”, Health Affairs, Volume 37, Number 3, and CMS.gov)

A Gallup poll finds:

“Fifty-five percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about the availability and affordability of healthcare, topping Gallup’s list of potentially worrisome issues for the fifth straight year. A majority of Americans have said they worry a great deal about healthcare in each of the 18 years the question has been asked since 2001, more than twice as often as any of the other 12 issues most often measured.” (Jim Norman, “Healthcare Once Again Tops List of Americans’ Worries”, April 1, 2019)

The poll also finds:

“Several issues measured in the March 1-10 poll set new landmarks in the 19-year history of the question for highs or lows in the level of worry, though most were not significant changes from the previous records:

  • Forty-nine percent now worry a great deal about hunger and homelessness, two points above the previous high measured in 2016 and 2017, and five points higher than last year’s 44%. The level of worry has been on a gradual upward climb since 2008, when 38% said they worried about it a great deal.” (ibid.)

The issue freedom is not an issue to utter only. It needs material basis.

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