By Kayla Henderson-Wood | OBSERVER Correspondent
Henry Ortiz, Mei Lia Storlee and Nate Williams all have been directly affected by the legal system. Today, each is working to give back to Sacramento and the greater Bay Area by providing culturally responsive services and holistic support to formerly incarcerated people. California is among the states with some of the highest recidivism rates. In the last report done by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 45% of formerly incarcerated people were convicted again in three years. To create the change they want to see — both within themselves and in their community — Storlee, Ortiz and Williams all had to have important conversations about mental health.
Ortiz is the founder of Community Healers, a nonprofit that works closely with the Sacramento community. It provides healing sessions and support to those affected by the legal system and violence. He is also an organizer for All of Us or None, a group of people working for human rights for folks who are formerly incarcerated and their families. Collectively, Ortiz fights for the rights of people inside. He works on legislation, safety, fair treatment, phone calls, resentencing and more.
Storlee is Ortiz’s colleague at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the parent organization of All of Us or None that’s based in Oakland. Storlee helps with finance at Prisoners with Children and has worked there in a paid position for 21/2 years after starting as a volunteer.
Before her job at Prisoners with Children, Storlee had been in and out of jail and other institutions several times.
As a teenager, Storlee was sent to a school for behavioral modification, where she withstood abuse on multiple levels. Her experience created distrust between Storlee and authority figures.
“It taught me how to make myself into another person so I could get by and survive and manipulate and get what I needed,” Storlee said.
When she got out, she was not welcomed back by her parents. She stayed with family and friends but was mostly on her own. She began to use substances and got involved in sex work to provide for herself. She realizes more than a decade later that there were mental health issues that were not being addressed and that the trauma she withstood in behavioral modification is still with her. Storlee was caught in a cycle of trauma and used the coping mechanism she established being institutionalized from a young age to navigate the outside world.
Similarly, Ortiz reflected on his childhood when he spoke about his path through the legal system. He grew up with an abusive stepfather and alcoholism in the household. He saw his mom struggle to provide and deal with her own pain. The abuse Ortiz withstood in his home led him to be depressed. “I started displaying a dysfunctional behavior pattern from a wounded child who just wanted to love and be loved, by his father and his mother,” Ortiz said.
Williams echoed a similar statement about growing up in a fatherless household.
“I started hurting people because I was hurting,” Williams said. “I was hurting. I was hurting the day our father left.”
It’s not uncommon for youth to develop survival tactics to protect themselves from violence in the home, said Dr. Kristee Haggins, psychologist and founder of Safe Black Space in Sacramento. “We’ve learned to have to cover up how we feel inside because it’s a threat to us to show how we feel in the real world,” she said. “But on the inside there may be a whole lot of pain and suffering that’s happening.”
Over time, the weight of these emotions becomes unbearable.
“You become unmanageable and angry and you don’t know how to articulate that,” Ortiz said. “You start breaking windows, you start tagging walls, you start fighting at school, you start – you know, being on survival mode now because you’re hurt and you’re being abused at home.”
Ortiz, Williams and Storlee all recognized that services for formerly incarcerated people needed to be made by people who had been through the same thing.
Ortiz established Community Healers as a way to provide a space for people to process their trauma both in and out of prison.
Similarly, Storlee established a transitional housing program for those leaving prison. Storlee and her partner bought a house for men who were incarcerated and who are dealing with mental health and/or addiction issues. She created a program based on those she had been through. Storlee helps with life skills, sobriety, resources and more.
Williams offers youth one-on-one phone calls to do mental health check-ins. He also connects youth with resources and to communities who have shared experiences. Williams works with youth in juvenile detention who he said have been considered unreachable and gives them advice he didn’t get growing up.
While doing what they’ve dedicated their lives to, Williams, Storlee and Ortiz are working through their own triggers. Regardless, they all continue to strive for better conditions and more adequate resources for those who are formerly incarcerated.
If you, or someone you know are looking for services for people affected by legal system check out these organizations:
- All of Us or None
- Prisoners with Children
- Choices for Freedom