Taylar Nuevelle wants to talk about her trauma and struggles with mental illness.
The 51-year-old Washington, D.C. resident, who spent more than four years incarcerated, also wants to talk about how important it is for women, especially LGBTQ women of color, to share their stories about the trauma that led them to prison and that they experienced while in prison. Nuevelle coined the term “trauma-to-prison pipeline” to describe what happens to so many women and girls who have untreated trauma and who end up entangled in the prison system.
In order to raise awareness of that cycle and its effects, Nuevelle launched a nonprofit organization after her release called Who Speaks For Me?. The group holds trainings and aims to host conferences to raise awareness about the intersection of trauma and women’s incarceration.
Arnold Ventures spoke with Nuevelle about her own life experiences and what led her to become an advocate for women in prison. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me about your background and what made you start thinking about how trauma affects women in prison?
I experienced every type of abuse you can think of as a child, and I went into foster care when I was in high school. In college, I ended up in abusive relationships, and I married a very abusive man. Because people saw me as so exceptional and high functioning, nobody thought, “We need to treat this trauma before we get her off to college.” It still wasn’t treated after I made several suicide attempts.
I was incarcerated in 2010 for four and a half years in a federal setting. When you get to prison and you have mental health problems, they’re exacerbated. Even if you have a smooth stay, prison is traumatic. They have removed you from any source of love. You’re not allowed to touch, you’re not allowed to wear your own clothes, you work making 12 cents an hour, and phone calls cost 23 cents a minute. If you don’t have outside support, you’re choosing between hygiene, stamps, or phone calls home. Prisons and jails are built by men, for men, and run by men, so they pit women against each other. And then you have officers playing out their own trauma on people who are incarcerated. They get to go home, but you’re left there stuck.
Even in the midst of that traumatic setting, you found ways to help other women. Can you tell me about that work?
While I was incarcerated, I started doing post-conviction relief for people. After you’ve been sentenced, you can go back to the court and ask a judge to reconsider the sentencing, and it’s usually done by a pro se motion, meaning you’re representing yourself. Most people don’t have the skills to put that together, and so people came to me because they knew I had some legal background.
There’s something that happens when you’re about to be sentenced called a pre-sentencing report — the court orders the probation department and their social workers to do an investigation into your history as a human. It’s supposed to be done to show mitigating factors of why you should get the least punitive sentence, but that’s not what they use it for. They actually use it to figure out how to turn your grief, your struggles, your trauma against you. One thing in there is usually family history. So before I would help women with their pro se motions for post-conviction relief, or sometimes it was just getting visits with their children, I would ask to see the pre-sentencing report. I did hundreds of these in the four and a half years I was incarcerated, and I noticed a common theme under the family history section — trauma. All kinds of trauma — child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, extreme poverty, homelessness, and mental illness.
I primarily worked with people who, like myself, were women of color, queer or trans, and I realized that there’s something here. At the heart of everything, we have something in common, and it’s surviving severe trauma. Not only trauma within the home but external traumas like racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. We are people who have multiple marginalized identities.
When did you start thinking about how you would transition that work to the outside and how you’d do something beneficial with your realizations about trauma?
One of the ways they punished me when I went to prison was that they put me in a segregated housing unit because I was documented as having a mental health disorder. They would stick me on suicide watch, which was way more degrading than normal incarceration. I had an altercation with an officer, and when I reported it, they administration told me, “You seem unstable so we’re going to put you on suicide watch.” They left me there for three weeks.
When you’re on suicide watch, you’re in a big quilted gown they call a turtle suit; you don’t have underwear or socks; there’s windows everywhere so you can be watched; you have to knock on the window to ask someone to come unlock the bathroom, and it’s freezing cold and lights on 24⁄7. You don’t get phone calls. You don’t get to write letters. You don’t see anyone. They effectively disappear you. Your family and friends who are used to hearing from you by phone calls don’t know where you are. I wasn’t suicidal when I went there, but I became very suicidal and kept thinking, “Who’s speaking for me?”
When I got off the suicide watch, I remembered my question of “Who speaks for me?” From there, I started thinking about what I wanted to come after incarceration. How do I keep living once I get out from this trauma, and how do I raise awareness so others know they need to join me, to make these changes, and create alternatives to incarceration for women and girls and LGBT people of color?
I hadn’t yet coined the phrase “trauma-to-prison pipeline,” but the day that I was leaving prison, I walked by a group of women who asked, “How are we going to get in touch with you when you get out, Taylar, because we know you’re going to do things?” What a huge pressure! I said, “I don’t know yet, but just search for ‘Who speaks for me?’”
When I started sharing stories of my struggle coming home, it suddenly hit me. I said: “Everyone talks about the school to prison pipeline. When it comes to women and girls and LGBT people of color, we need to start talking about the trauma-to-prison pipeline because it is real.”
How did you turn that idea of the “trauma-to-prison pipeline” into a nonprofit organization?
I founded my nonprofit to build a trauma-informed justice system and create alternatives to incarceration. One of the ways we interrupt the trauma-to-prison pipeline is by raising awareness of the trauma in our community and among people with multiple marginalized identities like me.
We have trainings, a speakers bureau, writing groups, and webinars to help people. Once they begin to share their story, they find a community and start to shed that shame and begin to heal. When people hear your story, there’s going to be not just compassion but inspiration for people to get up and act. When I say “Who speaks for me?,” it means when I’m incarcerated or too depressed or beaten down, I may need someone to share my story. But when I’m able to share my story myself, those allies and accomplices can come along and help me.
At the end of it, it really is about healing from the trauma that was untreated that led to the incarceration because we have a system that’s built upon preying upon those that are most marginalized, over-sentencing them, and then punishing them for identities that aren’t agreed with.
Why is it important to you to focus your work on LGBTQ women of color?
We have multiple marginalized identities, which means that whatever trauma we had growing up in our homes, it’s compounded. I’ve also found that judges are harsher in sentencing people of color and women and LGBTQ people. The judge who sentenced me told me, “I believe you made people abuse you.” Even if it’s not in your sentencing, it’s going to be very hard when you get to prison. People don’t want to think about Black queer people. We are not valued in our society. Also, this is me, and I want to shine a light on my truth and what happened to me.