It was 1999, and Wendy was in solitary confinement in an upstate New York prison, reeling from the effects of heroin withdrawal. In pain, she oscillated between two thoughts: “I wanted to believe that I was getting better, and I wanted to believe that I was going to go home and that I was going to be this perfect mom, and that I was not going to come back to prison and that this is not for me. And then there were times where I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s where I’m supposed to be, yeah, I belong in here.’” At the time a 29-year-old mother of five, Wendy Porrata, a self-described Nuyorican, was arrested for the sale of a controlled substance, to support her use of cocaine, heroine, methadone, and prescription drugs, leading her to spend two and a half years in prison. During these years, after one heartbreaking visit from her son, she had refused to have her kids visit her and anxiously looked to life after prison when she could return to parenting.
Wendy soon realized that her encounter with the justice system would make family life hard: Upon her release, she found that she could not return to her old apartment, regulated by NYCHA Section 8 housing, to live with her longtime partner or with her kids, who had been split among various family members during her incarceration; as a former criminal offender, she would not pass the necessary background check. As Wendy, now middle-aged with a warm, matter-of-fact demeanor, recalls, “Coming home to nothing and to people not believing in you or supporting you was a stress that became hard to cope with.” Seventeen years later, she still sounds fatigued when recalling her struggles to reconstitute her life beyond bars.
Wendy had been arrested several times before going to prison, all for petty violations—each time, she had gone through the motions of regular public defense: “I had been represented in the past by many other agencies and attorneys, and it was very systematic, very robotic, very like: ‘OK, you’re here, you’re off your case, do good, don’t get in no more trouble. Goodbye.’” This is far from an isolated case: Traditional public defenders are overworked and often underfunded, leaving them little time to deal with clients. A Mother Jones investigation found that “on average, a public defender would need about 3,035 work hours—a year and a half—to do a year’s worth of work.” The investigation noted that this results in a “meet ’em and plead ’em” routine wherein 90 to 95 percent of their clients plead guilty. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about three-quarters (73 percent) of county-based public-defender offices exceeded the maximum limit of cases per attorney in 2007, as recommended by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals and the American Bar Association.
Unsurprisingly, a series of quick encounters with public lawyers did not help Wendy cope with the criminal-justice system’s myriad effects on her life. Kicked out of public housing, she struggled to keep the right to see her kids as a judge attempted to terminate her parental rights because of her addiction, and she couldn’t find a job. She still suffered from the problem that landed her in the criminal-justice system in the first place: addiction. With inadequate drug treatment in prison, she remained an active user. As she reflects today, “My issues didn’t only start where my case started. My issues were part of me. The case was a symptom of my entire illness.”