Travis Mines grew up in the Jackson Ward neighborhood. While incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail, he was inspired to co-found ROOTS (Reinventing Ourselves Outside the System). He now serves as its Executive Director. ROOTS, a volunteer-run organization, offers job training, a food and clothing pantry, and peer support groups to formerly incarcerated people.
We have an old saying: “Fish swim, birds fly, addicts get high.” That’s what they do; that’s not a question. The question is, should the justice system and should our society, continue to incarcerate and shun addiction? Or should we find better ways to treat it?
ROOTS began on the inside. For different reasons, Lionel Glover, Richard Cheetham, Richard Sparrow, and myself were incarcerated during the same time. We talked to people who had been released, and returned to jail; and we talked to those preparing to get out. It appeared to us that most reentry services in Richmond at that time were doing little more than offering ex-offenders a few bus tickets and a pat on the back. So, the four of us made a pact. We would help each other figure out how to get back on track.
I was the first to be released, and while I was trying to get a job and secure stable housing, I was also gathering leads—leads on jobs for the others, leads on housing for the others, leads on how to get affordable health insurance. Once the others were released, we had a support structure in each other. And we started identifying the things that the justice system overlooks.
We knew that getting a job was critical. We knew that housing was critical. We knew that most ex-offenders leave jail with nothing—no money, no resources, no connections. They feel inadequate and that they are a burden to any relatives who might be willing and able to help. One thing that did help on the inside was a cognitive behavioral therapy program. It made us more astute, more thoughtful, rather than acting only in response to our emotions. But this only made clearer the limits of our preparation for reentry. Without proven paths to employment, housing, and health care, the justice system wasn’t only locking us up; it was also locking us out.
In time, the four of us started advocating for anything that would improve prospects for re-entering citizens. We added our voice to those calling for the restoration of civil and voting rights. This work evolved and we became more organized.
Most of us, while incarcerated, get in touch with hidden talents. Away from the distractions of the world, these things resurface. I’ve seen people on the inside get into religion, art, study of all types. But too often after these individuals were released, all of that stuff was left behind. A lot of us have great plans and we become somebody else inside the system. But too few people reinvent themselves on the outside.
I think Lionel Glover said it best when we talked on the inside, in preparation for release. He said, “I’m not waiting to leave: I’m getting ready to go.” We see offenders on the inside marking their calendars: “I’ve got 30 days till I’m out.” That’s waiting to leave. Preparing to go is lining your ducks in a row before you re-enter society. Those of us who founded ROOTS, we weren’t into counting the days as much as we were into making the days count.
These days, the residents at the Richmond City Justice Center get frustrated because they say I can’t come by enough! The ROOTS organization works there three times a week. We work with men and women on cognitive behavior change, and we’ve been doing that for five years now. We’re also working in Henrico County, New Kent, and elsewhere. We’ve saved hundreds of offenders from going to jail by welcoming them into our treatment program. We have assisted re-entering citizens in starting their own businesses through our entrepreneurship groups. From hot dog vending to barbering to opening up group homes to real estate—clients of ours have done all of these things. We’ve had some that weren’t quite ready and fell through the cracks. But we’ve been more successful than not.
We still face skepticism at times, because we have criminal records. But our records—together with the fact that none of us returned to jail—have helped us. We’ve been pointed to as examples that cognitive behavioral therapy and robust support during reentry are keys to success, and thus that others can make it with us. We know what ex-offenders need because we were those individuals; we are those individuals. The accolades for our work can be intoxicating, overwhelming—even a distraction. But we stay humble, focused on our mission, understanding that we’re very fortunate to be able to do what we do.
— interviewed April 28, 2016
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