“Some of the Most Brilliant Minds are in Our Prisons”: An Interview with Representative Tarra Simmons

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“Some of the Most Brilliant Minds are in Our Prisons”: An Interview with Representative Tarra Simmons

Photo of Representative Tarra Simmons courtesy of Washington State House Democrats

By: Kennis Chong, Julian Latta, Kari Tran, Brendan Turner, and Anita Yang, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

The sun began to set as we all eagerly waited over Zoom for our interview. Suddenly the monotonous silence was interrupted by a final ding as Tarra Simmons entered the zoom. Her background was both dimmed and blurred, casting a sharp outline of her silhouette through the camera. The light from her computer screen projected a bright, luminous glow over her face on which was an even brighter, welcoming smile. With her head held high and her shoulders squared, Tarra’s demeanor represents a picture of undeniable confidence. After a short but pleasant exchange of greetings from the class, Tarra’s warm and comfortable voice then quickly began to envelop the room.

Growing up in an environment rife with hardship, Tarra was forced to overcome tremendous struggle in order to get to where she is today. Despite dropping out of middle school at the age of 13 and giving birth to a son just 2 years later, Tarra still managed to return to the school system and became the first high school graduate within her family. While raising her son, she went on to attend Pacific Lutheran University. There, she graduated early at 21 years old and officially began her professional career as a nurse. 

Unfortunately, she was impacted by psychological and behavioral health issues as a result of her tumultuous upbringing and developed a substance use disorder. Struggling with her disorder, she ended up in the criminal justice system. In 2011 she was given a 30-month prison sentence. Following her sentence, Tarra was faced with the challenges of re-entering society as someone with a criminal record. She struggled to find employment despite having a nursing degree. Due to the instability this created in her life, her personal relationships, economic security and job security were adversely affected. Once again however, Tarra continued to overcome her hardships, eventually finding her way into law school, graduating with honors from Seattle University School of Law, and winning a challenge against the Washington State Bar Association in the Washington State Supreme Court to sit for the bar exam. She has a passion for creating systemic change for those with similar stories to her own. 

How was growing up in Bremerton? 

TS: Well, I moved here when I was nine years old, and my mom was an alcoholic. My mom married about four, five different times to abusive men, and my father lived in Stockton California. So, I kind of went between the two of them, my father was addicted to drugs and incarcerated and I grew up in poverty. 

It was challenging to tell you the truth. I was in the juvenile justice system, I was in foster care, I was homeless, and I got pregnant at 14 years old, I never lived with an adult again after the time I was 13. I was involved in gangs and criminal activity from a very young age, because I was homeless and in poverty, and so I had an adverse childhood experience score of nine.

But I mean Bremerton’s good, it’s a good community. I did find a lot of support from teachers and social service folks. There’s not a good transportation system here to tell you the truth, like the buses only run every hour…it was a mixed bag.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about the relationships between mental health, addiction and incarceration that you see here?

TS: I see sometimes that there’s a lot of fear for both people that are having a behavioral health issue, which is either substance use disorder or mental illness. And our solution in Washington state and in America is to incarcerate people because it’s easier than actually living in the gray and understanding the root of trauma, how it impacts people and why hurt people, hurt people. 

But once you actually hurt somebody right, you are no longer seen. I mean there are people who see people with mental health conditions as having legitimate mental medical problems. We are just now getting society to see people with substance use disorder as a medical issue as well. It’s really only been the last 5-10 years that we’re even seeing that it’s part of the DSM manual.

Our jails and prisons are filled with people that have untreated mental health and substance use disorders. I mean, almost everybody I know that’s incarcerated, has a mental health condition. But we often don’t have a heart for them, because now they’ve done something we don’t like. So, when you cross over into being a defendant it seems like no matter all of the mitigating circumstances of why you did something, that was against our societal norms, it goes out the window. It’s too hard for people to hold both truths, that people can cause harm and need to be held accountable, but they can also still be somebody worthy of our care and support. And if we understand why they committed the harm, we can actually treat it

We can reduce crime, violence, and harm in our community, and people can recover. And they can be contributing members of our communities. Some of the most brilliant minds are in our prisons, and it’s a loss to all of us when that happens. Incarcerated people are victims too and people don’t see that anymore.

What are some of the most damaging ways the current justice and legal system hold those with mental health related struggles down in terms of punishments and restitution? 

TS: You know it’s funny because today, I was talking to a constituent on Bainbridge Island, and he was telling me why he supports me and my position so much. He’s never been in jail, but he is a veteran, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and he was very grateful for me because I share openly about being someone that has PTSD. And for most of the conversation he wanted to talk about solitary confinement in jails and prisons, and how it is so much different than when people are in a hospital. Once you become a defendant, if you have a serious mental illness and they put you in solitary confinement, you are treated very inhumanely… you know, they say lock you into a cell for 20 at least 23 hours a day, sometimes you’re only allowed 15 minutes out of yourself every three days. They leave the lights on 24 hours a day, so you never know what time it is. You never can get into a schedule of sleep and wake because you never know what time it is. And sometimes they even take away your clothing and it’s very inhumane. Solitary confinement conditions in the prisons are so much different than in the hospital, and that’s what they do with people with mental illness in our Washington state prisons.

 I mean the other ways is just everything from, if you have money you can bail out, if you don’t you can’t, to being released homeless, to the streets and you know garnishing your social security, disability. There’s just so many ways that we are excessively punitive in Washington, across the nation, and other countries. It’s not how they treat people in Portugal and Norway, they care for their vulnerability. But when you behave in a way that’s against societal norms, even if it’s because you have a serious mental illness, our system has no compassion.

How has the pandemic affected the mental health of your constituents and more specifically those constituents who are incarcerated? 

TS: Well yeah, I think collectively we all have experienced some trauma from the pandemic. The isolation, looking through the zoom screen constantly. I don’t think we’re made for this. 

We’re made to be in person, to hug, to touch. We need that as humans and that’s been really hard for everybody. 

Incarcerated people had more challenges, and a lot of it had to do with the lack of medical care in the prisons before the pandemic, it was just atrocious. The amount of lawsuits the Department of Corrections has to defend every year… literally the quality of care there has been a problem for a long time, but in the pandemic it was even worse. People were having to move out of their housing units and go into isolation. People were in segregation, which is even worse. And some people were being moved out of the prison into warehouses like centers, they were in quarantine centers. They haven’t been able to see their families, their families haven’t been able to visit for like a year and a half, two years. When you think about it, sometimes people would say, “Oh this pandemic it’s just like prison.” But it’s not.

We can order Doordash, we get to see our families, we get a comfortable pillow, we get TV, it is nowhere near what being in prison is like. Being in prison during a pandemic is much worse because they used to get visitors every weekend, if their families could come visit them. But for two years they didn’t get to visit them. So, it was just much more profound mental health impacts to people and you know it’s going to take more time to try to overcome that.

The first step to creating change for those living with the collateral consequences of mental illness is to view these people with compassion and a willingness to listen to their experiences and share their stories. If you feel as though you may be somebody in need of support, understand that you are not alone and getting the help necessary to change your situation is possible. If you are interested in contacting a NAMI support group or a mental health services support line, please follow this link.

This article is a collaborative piece created by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course and NAMI Seattle. Special thanks to Ashley Fontaine for their work coaching students on effective storytelling.

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