An interview with Susan Mason, Founder and Executive Director of What’s Next Washington, on the intersections of mental health, poverty, and systemic discrimination based on incarceration history.
By Henos Adhana, Izak Casterline, Maria De Los Angeles Briceno Rodriguez, Yesica Rojas, and Amy Pillitu, University of Washington Bothell School of Business
Our classroom was warm and stuffy, the way schools are when it’s clear that whoever is controlling the thermostat isn’t sitting in one of the rooms themselves. The smell of rain wafted off of slick rain jackets as students began shucking off second and then third layers. Quiet *dinging* from the speaker system above the illuminated projector screen at the front of the room signaled various quarantining classmates and other guests joining the Zoom call; each new face occupying their own square cell. One final *ding* announced Susan Mason’s arrival. Looking like a Nordstrom Executive, Susan donned a black blazer framing a deep v-neck cut blue blouse, her bright blonde hair smoothed perfectly over her shoulders. As she adjusted her wide black rimmed glasses balancing on her pointed nose, she granted us a small smile.
Various lamps flooded her kitchen with warm light as she perched by the edge of a tall table, which she later explained to us “is actually a tall bar height because the injuries from the domestic violence make it difficult for me to sit for long at a regular table”. Bright posters of Broadway shows adorned her wall: “Fiddler on the Roof”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, and “Grease”. Bathing in light, and surrounded by greenery and plants with large foliage, Susan exuded radiance that reminded us of Athena, the Olympian goddess of wisdom and war.
After exchanging pleasantries and introductions, Susan soon captivated us with her story of chronic homelessness beginning when she was a teenager, cycles of domestic abuse, and the incarceration that threatened a lifetime of unemployment. The warm glow in her office contrasted sharply with the storm raging outside. The stormy night outside would have been unbearably harsh for how she described herself to us as a 14-year-old homeless girl with “nowhere to go, and nowhere to be”.
For Susan, entering the cycle of homelessness, abuse, then incarceration for twenty years (beginning in the 1980s, when domestic violence awareness was in its infancy) was very isolating. The American legal system lacked and lacks the support necessary for survivors of domestic violence, and many survivors like Susan were and are dismissed and forgotten by legal authorities, which further traumatizes them. Soon after she entered the cycle of abuse, Susan would end up incarcerated in the same legal system that had forgotten her, and discovered that post-incarceration, society expected her to get a job and move on with her life. However, systemic discrimination based on her former incarceration status did not easily allow this.
Can you describe how incarceration impacted your mental health?
SM: It’s an experience, I’ll tell you that. Disability Rights Washington did a report on jails and prisons in relation to mental illness, and it greatly exacerbates already existing mental health challenges. Incarceration is actually the worst thing you can do to someone when they’re diagnosed with mental illness. People go into prison destabilized, and the treatment is shackles, restraints, hog tying, or solitary confinement. Some people come out absolutely ruined. All our justice system has is a hammer, and everyone looks like a nail. Mental health problems need to be solved with healthcare instead of jails and prisons. In 2004, I was lucky to find a community and get the support I needed. I struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, but back then you could go to DSHS and could get help. Before the Great Recession, there was still some part of the social safety net left. It has since been wiped out. There is no treatment, no detox centers, no affordable housing. People are left to be homeless on the streets.
Can you elaborate on how you navigated the job market after being released from federal prison?
SM: I got out in 2003 and was able to find a job in my industry and was doing great. However, as the regulatory and licensing reforms began to increase, people were banned from working in many industries. I lost my career, even though I was working and doing well. The Great Recession was really hard for me and so many others. Every job offer I received was rescinded upon processing my background check. As a white woman, what is it like for those who are not? I have privilege, so what about those that do not? These problems are unique to America, it’s about the policies of our criminal legal system. We’re the only country that punishes as many citizens as we do. If we live by the rule of law where it says you did this thing, here is your guilty plea and here is what you can do to atone for this. But, you do this… and then you still cannot get hired, educated, nor live.
Can you tell us about how economic recessions disproportionately impact those with a history of incarceration?
SM: During the Great Recession of 2008, the unemployment rate was 60%. Pre-COVID, the unemployment rate for those with a conviction history was 27%. Now during COVID, we are terrified that we will be subjected to these astronomical rates of unemployment, simply because of a background check. There used to be 8,000 laws in place regulating post-incarceration workers. Now, there are 48,000+ laws in place. As a result, I could not work in most large industries. I could not pass a background check in finance, healthcare, energy, logistics, and many other industries. DHS would not allow me to pass the background check. Even 18 years later. And it’s not just me; there are 77 million of us and 70 million of us have no further involvement with the criminal legal system. The oppression is very prevalent and 18+ years post-incarceration these laws still affect me. We have moved on, but the system does not.
Can you tell us more about What’s Next Washington?
SM: I co-founded What’s Next Washington with the main goal of repealing policies and laws that prohibit previously incarcerated talent from accessing the economic pillars of society. Employers keep otherwise qualified people out by declining to hire them based on their history. So, we work with recruiting, hiring, and retaining formerly incarcerated talent. We work with bias training and also with sourcing talent. We work to get executives talking about the impacts of criminalization on the workforce. We’re heavily focused on employment and the background check industry as it is heavily unregulated and there is no recourse for incorrect data. It’s rife with abuse and very predatory. You cannot repeal any information included on a background check, and this background check prevents you from ever working again. If I can get big companies to go to regulators and appeal or amend these discriminatory laws then we will get somewhere.
How can we help [end the cycle of marginalization of formerly incarcerated individuals]?
SM: We leave people who are struggling through marginalization to themselves. We cannot repeal or amend employment restrictions until enough people get together to speak up. If there is any legislation coming through the state or city surrounding incarceration, healthcare, or homelessness, get involved. Start following some local social justice organizations. These things all impact you even if you think they will not. Homeless people are out there advocating for the homeless. No one else. Get involved, find out what is happening on the state and city level. Treat humans as humans. Don’t stigmatize people who have a history of incarceration or homelessness.
It’s often far easier to bury trauma than to retell it. Susan Mason is extraordinary in the sense that despite the hardships involved, she still chooses to wield her story as a sword as she advocates for formerly incarcerated talent. Susan was inspired to co-found What’s Next Washington in 2017 as a result of her being continuously denied employment in the years following her release from prison. She advocates for systemic policy change and the reinstatement of rights for those with a history of incarceration. “What’s Next Washington” believes that every person has a right to employment and a life of dignity.
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. Special thanks to Jasmine Bager and Tony Nabors for their work coaching students on effective storytelling.