Cecelia Whitfield, is a mother, a respected community leader, and the founder of “Use What You've Got Prison Ministry, Keeping Families Connected, Inc”. When her son was arrested and convicted of a robbery, she turned her personal heartbreak into a community solution. She founded a weekly shuttle bus service to transport families to visit their loved ones in eight Indiana prisons.
We were honored to have Cecilia Whitfield agree to be one of our storytellers at a Mass Story Lab event in Indianapolis this past spring. For a packed house, she described how when her son, James, returned home from prison, she was unaware of how best to support him. Impressed with her passionate commitment to supporting families impacted by incarceration, after the lab, we interviewed Cecelia by phone. She spoke of driving her son James to meetings with his probation officer and attempting to find work for him, but she was unaware of his hidden struggle with drugs. After her experience with her son, Whitfield began to do her research and discovered that her family was not alone.
“80% of people in prisons have a drug or alcohol problem” and, due to insufficient resources in prison systems, many of these individuals do not receive adequate treatment. Consequently, there is a “75% recidivism rate when no treatment is received while incarcerated.”
When Whitfield’s son came home, it became apparent he struggled to feel like he belonged anywhere. She noted,
“Over time, I came to learn that my son was afraid of the outside world, the shame of the crime he had committed, and the stigma of knowing those friends he once had in high school no longer wanted to be around him.”
In response to her son’s incarceration, Whitfield founded the “Use What You've Got Prison Ministry” to eliminate one important barrier to successful reentry, a strong and sustained connection to family while serving time. Whitfield’s organization, which has existed for 28 years, offers a plethora of services including a shuttle bus service to Indiana State prisons, women’s retreats, Christmas programs for the children, and information about available services.
Whitfield expressed her belief that by educating others about drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and HIV testing, one can significantly help those who may not have been able to receive information and guidance through difficult times.
Finally, Whitfield conveyed that her personal goal is to provide “a more cohesive program that educates, supports and prepares everyone for the homecoming that will be difficult at best.” By doing so, she hopes that, in response, rates of recidivism will decrease.She proposed, “Something as simple as directories to services or an app to help find assistance would be a good start and I cannot help but believe that all the providers in the process would be encouraged with a reduction in recidivism which would come from better preparing all those who touch this returning individual.”
Whitfield has dedicated her life to helping families impacted by incarceration. In Indiana, her work is bridging the divide between incarcerated people and their families. To learn more about her organization, visit their website and help support their mission.
Mass Story Lab is a storytelling platform amplifying the voices of people directly impacted by incarceration. Through our story lab events in communities around the country, we are leveraging the power of storytelling to inspire healing, dialogue, and more a restorative justice system.
Written by Lara Fayyaz, MSL Summer 2017 Intern