Denine Saunders was released from the Richmond City Justice Center at 7:46am on December 16th. Since then, we've kept up with her as she has navigated uncertain next steps.
In the photos that follow, we offer a glimpse into the first days of reentry after incarceration in Richmond. This story is at once unique—Denine's own journey—and a reflection of the challenges and opportunities before countless women and men charting similar paths among us as neighbors and friends.
I grew up in Highland Park. I was one of five children, and I had a great childhood. Everyone was close. I guess we were a little spoiled, sheltered. When you grow up sheltered, you get out in the world and sometimes you don’t think about consequences. I think that’s what happened with me.
My sisters were younger than me. They played together, but I looked for friends my own age. I started drinking because that’s what girls my age were doing. We grew up in a housing project, exposed to drugs and alcohol from an early age. We’d find cigarettes and smoke them, get a beer and drink it. We went to parties and bought joints for a dollar. It was fun. I didn’t know that drug use escalates, that things can get out of control. After a while, one drink won't be enough. One joint won't be enough.
People in my neighborhood didn’t have a lot of money or enough education for good jobs, so selling drugs was popular. I didn’t sell, but I had friends who did. I finished high school, but a lot of my friends didn’t. Where I grew up, it felt like school was optional: if you wanted to go to school—or, if your parents pressured you to go—then you went. If not, you didn’t go.
After high school, I went to beauty school. But I never graduated. They kicked me out because I was smoking weed and cutting classes. After that, I was so deep into doing drugs that I didn’t do anything else. I had a couple of dead-end jobs. But that was it.
I didn’t think I was addicted. After I’d had my kids, someone told me, “You really need to get some help.” I thought, “Why? Everybody does it.” But I went to Rubicon, a residential treatment program, with my kids. That was my first time in treatment, and I learned that I had a problem. They explained how people who are addicted feel: you can’t ever have enough, but you don’t think you have a problem. I realized that was me.
When I left Rubicon, I didn’t keep up with the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I didn’t stay in touch. I thought that once you get treatment, you’re cured. I didn’t realize that you have to do more work. Things got bad again, and it got to a point where I thought I was destined to use until I died.
I went to jail several times before this most recent time—all for violating my parole, not for drugs. In the old jail, there was no real treatment or recognition for substance abuse. They might have had someone from Narcotics Anonymous come in and speak to us. But when the talk was over, you'd go back to your pod and do whatever—including getting high on the pills they handed out to treat psychological problems.
The new jail is 100% better. They have the REAL program. The have a GED course. They have a mother-daughter tea. They do job training. They have a graduation ceremony. They get you ready for graduation with a makeover, and they give you nice clothes so that your family doesn’t have to see you in a yellow uniform. Who does that—in jails, who does that?!
They made me feel like I wasn’t locked up; they made me feel like I was learning. Now, I have nine certificates, including two VCU certificates in creative writing, each worth 2.5 credits. That makes me feel good about what I accomplished.
Since being released on December 16th, I’ve been trying to get my life back together. The first thing I did was visit my sister’s grave site. She was a phlebotomist in Silver Spring—very successful—and my release date was the anniversary of her passing. In jail, I realized that I had never grieved for her. I never let myself cry about her death. I was too caught up in my own problems.
I stayed with my daughter for a while, and now I’m living with my sister. I thought about going to a recovery house, but the one I had in mind is on the other side of town from my family. I don’t have a car, so it would take me over an hour on the bus to see my family. It’s far away from the places where I have appointments. I found another recovery house, but you have to pay to stay there and I don’t have the money.
I’m keeping busy because I’m scared not to be busy. I went to the doctor’s office for a checkup. I went to my first parole officer meeting, which meant taking a bus and then walking a mile and a half. I need to go to the Social Security office. I’m attending NA meetings.
I erased all of the phone numbers that were in my phone and blocked my old friends. That’s a start. You have to start new. Because it might get sticky if they call you and bring up old feelings. I learned that in the program.
My family is very supportive. I have three daughters. None of them drink or smoke cigarettes or do drugs. My mom had to raise them, so they know a lot of what I’ve been through. And they know I’m still struggling. I think that’s why they want to live clean. I’m glad about that.
I just want to be normal—if there is such a thing. I want to stay clean. I want to know how it feels to live among everybody else and still function. I’ll reach out when I need help. I’ll go to NA meetings and call people if things are getting too sticky.
I know where I went wrong. It’s been years and years of being beat up and realizing that you can’t win the thing; you have to work at it. There’s no shaking hands with addiction and coming out even. I know that I have to work on this every day, and I can’t handle it all on my own. Even a year from now, five years from now, I might need to call someone.
I get strength from other people, especially those who have been in recovery for longer than I have. I’ve met people who are 25 years clean, 30 years clean, but they still go to meetings. It can creep up on you at any time, so you have to fight against it for the rest of your life. It’s not as simple as saying, “No.”
I want to spend a lot of time with my grandkids and my children. I want to be a grandmother and a mother—that’s all. Nothing spectacular. I can't work. I have a pacemaker and I’m on disability. I don’t have hobbies, so my hobby now will be going to meetings and spending time with my kids and grandkids. That’s all I want to do.