ACLU Smart Justice Arizona

Stories
The Human Toll of Incarceration

Arizona's mass incarceration crisis has devastating effects on individuals and their families. Many formerly incarcerated people continue to be punished for their crimes long after they have left prison, as they struggle to integrate back into society. These are a few of their stories. We want to hear yours.

Shawna Roman was a mother of two when she entered the criminal justice system for the first time. Shawna said she hit a roadblock in her life after her husband abandoned her. “I became a very broken person,” Shawna said. While in prison, Shawna was denied transport to attend a custody hearing. Because she did not show up to the hearing, she lost her rights to contact her children by default. “He doesn’t even remember me,” Shawna said of her youngest son. “My oldest one tells him about me. He plans on looking for me when he’s old enough to do so.” The first time Shawna was released from jail, she became homeless. A lack of adequate services to help get her back on her feet led to two more arrests. Shawna is now focused on improving her life in hope of one day seeing her children again. She wants to reform Arizona’s criminal justice system so more rehabilitative services are available for people who need help during difficult times in their lives.

Eugene Glover spent 14 years in an Arizona prison where he believes he did not receive proper medical care. As a diabetic, Eugene felt as though the Arizona Department of Corrections did not take his medical needs seriously. Eugene believes the lack of effective reentry programs in Arizona prisons leads to a high rate of people being sent back to prison. Upon release, his lack of knowledge of basic technology put him at a disadvantage as he searched for work. “I go to apply for a job, the job tells me I have to go online. Online? What are you talking about online? I have no idea of this new technology,” Eugene said. Eugene is now employed and is learning how to use a smartphone. He is also back in touch with his family after losing contact with them for years. “As far as my freedom goes, not being locked up, and having my family back in my life, that’s the most wonderful gift I could ever ask for,” he said.

Khalil Rushdan grew up in a family of eight kids. He started selling drugs at 13 out of desperation to help his family make ends meet. At 22, he was convicted of a murder he did not commit. The charges stemmed from a drug deal in Pima County. He was the middleman and had no idea the deal, which he did not directly participate in, would end in a murder. When the Pima County Attorney was unable to convict the real killer, prosecutors went after Khalil. Khalil spent 15 years in prison before a judge overturned his conviction on evidence of vindictive prosecution. Although he is now free, Khalil never got the chance to watch his daughter grow up and missed precious moments with his mother, who died shortly after his release. “Those are things I can’t get back,” Khalil said. He now works for the ACLU of Arizona’s Campaign for Smart Justice and is a mentor to other formerly incarcerated individuals. “Upon my release and me being grateful to have another opportunity, I was like, ‘I have to give back,'” he said.

Vonda Bennett was trapped in jail for eleven months although she was legally presumed to be innocent. Vonda could not afford the bond placed on her for a drug crime. “I have 7 children. I had a business and a home. I wasn’t a flight risk,” Vonda said. Vonda believes if she would have been able to bail out pre-trial, her situation would have turned out differently.

“I would have been able to explain to my kids what was happening. I would have been able to make sure my family had proper care while I was gone. I would have been able to start working on my sobriety so I could cope better in prison,” Vonda said.

Vonda said she was unable to see her kids from the moment she was arrested to the moment she ended her five-year mandatory minimum sentence. She believes if she could have afforded her bail, she would have a better relationship with her kids today.

“I didn’t even get a chance to explain to my children about my illness of addiction to where they would understand it,” Vonda said. “These bails are too high. Families are getting ripped apart, and the devastation falls on the children.”