Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Patrice Gaines advocates reform behind bars and beyond

<rty years ago no one would have suspected Patrice Gaines would become an accomplished journalist, dedicated psychotherapist, and talented motivational speaker. After police found her with a needle and syringe and charged her with the intent to distribute heroin, Gaines found herself in a Charlotte, NC jail. She resolved to change her life, but there were more struggles to come, from abusive relationships to various drugs.

Several years later Gaines earned a degree from a community college, studying psychotherapy, then went on to become a journalist. Though she wrote for several newspapers during her career, her final 16 years were spent reporting at the Washington Post. Besides winning awards in journalism, Gaines has published two autobiographical books.

Despite her success, Gaines’s career is far from over. Her talk on prison reform, the subject of Carleton’s final convocation of the winter term, emphasized a need for change through statistics and personal stories. When there are 2-3 million people behind bars in US prisons, and about 1 in 32 Americans is held by the justice system in some capacity, “We need to look at what we’re doing wrong,” Gaines said.

“The next Martin Luther King Jr., the next Hillary Clinton could be [incarcerated],” Gaines said. After her time in prison, Gaines said her realized how much human potential is locked up in the US. Just as Gaines found after her time in prison, there are many obstacles to leading a new life afterwards. The chance of getting grants to afford an education and landing a job are severely curtailed for a convicted felon.

These impediments to moving up in society are even more burdensome for those with drug addictions, which is why Gaines emphasized the need to offer rehabilitation services to those in prison. “Not every person can afford to go to a center to get treated,” Gaines said. “As a society, we need to begin to see a connection between us and the prisoners not related to us by blood.” She noted that treatment and rehabilitation to restore the incarcerated can not be “one size fits all” to truly change lives.

What’s more, “when we’re incarcerating a person, we’re affecting that next generation also,” Gaines said when relating the story of Cassandra and her son Darryl, who grew up without his mother. Gaines noticed that a vicious circle emerges when parents are missing in families, since “women in prison are struggling because they didn’t have a daddy.” In her own life, as a result of a lack of a close relationship with her father, Gaines said she searched for that love in different men and thus staying too long in abusive relationships.

Gaines said that US justice system has created a deep-seated fear of crime that exists solely for punishment rather than forgiveness and the restoration of lives. “You take a risk on people every day, on people who haven’t committed crimes. It doesn’t mean they aren’t going to,” Gaines said. Gaines sees hope for the future of our society, though, since “when we can change that thought pattern, we can change so much more.”

For Gaines, a societal transformation begins with restorative justice, which focuses on repairing the harm caused by crimes and cooperation between the offender and the victim. “I have found that forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do,” Gaines said, “and we struggle as a society to decide how much is enough, [and] when to let people go.”

Gaines said transforming our society is of the utmost importance when fighting for reform of the justice system. Gaines cited the example of the 1980s campaign to rid society of drugs, noting, “The War on Drugs ended up being a war on people addicted to drugs.” The statistics Gaines provided do not attest to this movement’s effectiveness either, since in the eighties 40,000 people were jailed for drug charges and today that number has grown to 500,000. Gaines noted her concern for the politicization of crime, with “getting tough on crime” as a hindrance to actual justice and drug rehabilitation for the incarcerated.

Today, besides working to spread restorative justice by speaking across the nation, Gaines helps incarcerated women by holding monthly workshops for 35 women at the Charlotte, NC prison through her organization, the Brown Angel Center. “I got so much more joy from that work than being a reporter,” Gaines said.

Along with her friend Gaile Dry-Burton, Gaines hopes to open the Brown Angel Retreat Center in Charlotte to offer a place of relaxation that will empower women–particularly those who have been incarcerated–to learn, heal, and pursue their goals. The Center’s slogan is “lifting lives to new heights.” For now they run the Brown Angel Center which offers workshops, writing training, and life coaching, at the Charlotte-Mecklenberg jail where Gaines herself was once incarcerated.   

Now viewing life behind bars from the outside, Gaines said she realizes the true meaning of freedom. “We’re not free if we have to walk around in fear, build more prisons, and dig [ourselves] into more debt because we don’t treat people in a just and humane way.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *