Toby Dorr: Hello and welcome to Fierce Conversations with Toby, the show where we talk about the hard things. I’m Toby Dorr. We’ll offer listeners a special surprise at the end, so be sure to listen all the way through for the details. today’s episode, we’ll see just how much one woman can really make an impact in her community.
Toby Dorr: Our guest today is Carla Anderson. a reentry coordinator for a national nonprofit in DC. In this position, she helps individuals, specifically women, transition successfully to their families after incarceration and to their community, helping them overcome and rise above the stigma that is attached to a formerly incarcerated person.m As a former resident of Loudoun County Virginia, Carla now resides in Frederick County, Virginia, with her life partner Harold. And their rescue dog, Cardi. Hello Carla.
Carla Anderson: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Toby Dorr: I’m really excited about our conversation today, but first I have to say, there is nothing better than a rescue dog being there.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely not.
Toby Dorr: They just make your life so much better every minute. So, I like to ask all my guests that kind of gives us a peek into who you are. What’s your favorite color and what does that color say about you?
Carla Anderson: Okay, my favorite color is orange, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me. It’s vibrant. It can match and go with just about anything. I just have always loved that color.
Toby Dorr: I have too! Orange was my favorite color as a child, and you know, everybody picks blue or red, but I went with orange, and now I really like pink and orange and purple, and they kind of all go together. I like to use them together too,
Carla Anderson: Yes.
Toby Dorr: I, think orange is a vibrant color and I’m not surprised it’s your favorite color at all. So, can you tell us about a crossroads in your life that pushed you in a different direction?
Carla Anderson: Well, I’ve always been an advocate, a community person, and while I worked on different projects, you know, sometimes you just don’t feel that it is the right thing, but it’s not the right thing for you but is the right thing to do. And, so that’s where I was most of my life. And then, through what I thought at the time were some unfortunate decisions that I made, I ended up doing some time in a federal prison camp. And I say unfortunately at the time because it was one of the best directions I was put into. So all that experience in community, all that knowledge of how to advocate definitely came into play, which is why I do what I do right now.
Toby Dorr: That’s really important and that’s valuable. I also did some federal prison time and I always say I found my freedom inside prison because there was nowhere else to go except to deal with my internal emotional issues and think about how to plan a happy future.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely.
Toby Dorr: It is surprising how that works out sometimes. Tell us what a day as a reentry coordinator looks like. What is the most difficult thing for women reentering society to overcome?
Carla Anderson: Well, first let me say that there no day is this repeats itself.
Toby Dorr: I’m sure it doesn’t, I was thinking maybe I should say a week or a month…
Carla Anderson: But one of, there are so many obstacles that women returning home encounter, but one of the biggest problems is they don’t believe in themselves. Society has a way of just tearing you down. And if you aren’t strong in your belief that you can make it, then it’s going to just like snowball and I know that these women have it within themselves to make it through and transition successfully to their families, to their community. But, you know, coming home is, is a little scary, especially for those individuals and those women that have been gone for 5, 10, 15 years. It is a mindset change shift. And a lot of people in society don’t realize that. So, they think, oh, they’re free, and life is gonna be okay. And that’s not the way that it is. I think the most difficult thing is to change the women’s mindset and let them know that they can make it, they can overcome whatever is thrown at them.
Toby Dorr: Yeah. You know, I think as women we can be our own worst enemies. We hold ourselves accountable for things we should never even be accountable for, like the weather. You know, I found myself sometimes in the past, apologizing for the weather as if I had control over it. We just need to learn to let go of things that aren’t ours to own.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely.
Toby Dorr: Carla is also a co-vice president of Alfred Street Baptist Church Jail and Prison Ministry Program. So, tell us about that ministry program. What, what kinds of activities do you do in that organization?
Carla Anderson: So, like many ministries within various churches, you know, it is a subset of the larger church and we take the gospel and we go into the Alexandria Adult Detention Center as well as the Alexandria Juvenile Detention Center and help them realize the opportunity that the power of God can change their life. It has made a difference in my life, that’s for sure. And I’m sure in others. But that is our big mission at Alfred Street Jail and Prison Ministry.
Toby Dorr: That is beautiful. You know, when I was in federal prison, we had a group of women come in from a particular church, and I don’t even remember what church it was, but they would come in a couple of times a year and they would bring in hairdressers to give us real haircuts. And then while you were getting a haircut, one of the ladies from the church would rub lotion on your hands and do a hand massage while you were getting a haircut. I remember that made us feel human. You know, it made us feel so important and it was just so good for the soul. So, there are a lot of ways to minister that you know are outside of traditional means.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely.
Toby Dorr: I, think that’s beautiful. I’ve learned that Carla doesn’t do anything lightly. She is also a justice ambassador with the Prison Fellowship in Landou, Virginia. So that’s three organizations Carla works in trying to help people coming outta prison. So, tell us about that program and its role.
Carla Anderson: I am actually honored to be a part of Prison Fellowship. It is an organization that while I was away, I read about, and wanted to be a part of right from the beginning. And it’s in my back door. But basically, they do a number of things, but as a Justice Ambassador, one of our biggest goals is to build relationships with our state legislature, and help them understand and advance reform. And when you’re trying to tackle that elephant bite by bite, we know that you and I understand that policy and law are one form of that. And, it’s an important part of that especially so they can hear from someone with lived experiences.
Toby Dorr: I love that. And I love that title. Justice Ambassador. I think that is such a noble calling and I might like to get involved with that actually.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely.
Toby Dorr: I think that is so cool and there are so many laws that aren’t even realistic, and I think it’s good to have a voice and bring a voice to that from someone who’s experienced the other side, which has a lot more impact. There’s tremendous value around re-entry because it isn’t just the returning citizens who benefit from a successful transition, we all benefit from that. Nobody wins if someone re-offends and has to go back to prison. So, what are the biggest benefits of these reentry programs and the biggest needs that are the most difficult to fill, from a re-entry standpoint?
Carla Anderson: I believe, wow, there’s so much that you can talk about. One of the biggest needs I think globally is housing. We have a lot of people returning home that have been incarcerated for a number of years, and perhaps their family isn’t there in the same places when they were leaving. So housing is a really, really big issue. And employment. I would invite employers to change their mindset a bit and realize that every institution is really manned and run by the residents. For example, the warehouses, the plumbing, the landscaping, and those are skill sets that can be used out here. You know, with many employers, if they would just change their mindset a little bit, instead of thinking it’s this violent person coming to invade their space, that these are people that really just wanna get back with their families. They just wanna get on with their life and, and they really are probably a little more dedicated and loyal because they have often restitution, they have probation, and they’re not going to stray from that job. Those are the two biggest things that I really would like to advocate for.
Toby Dorr: I do agree with you because it is so easy on the surface for an employer to say, well, it just doesn’t make sense to hire someone who’s been to prison because we already know they’re trouble. They’ve proven that they’ve done something untrustworthy, but you’re right. People coming out of prison are more grateful for a job and they have something really hanging over their head if they don’t succeed. They could be a better a smarter resource if you just looked at it from a different perspective.
Carla Anderson: Exactly. And you know, the Board of Prisons, during Covid came out with a statistic that during the pandemic, when they were releasing people, they released 1,600 people. And at the time that they released their results, only 17 had re-offended.
Toby Dorr: You can’t even hardly get a percentage on that small of a number.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely.
Toby Dorr: People don’t wanna go back to prison.
Carla Anderson: No.
Toby Dorr: People learn something while they’re in prison and they get out and they change their ways, have a better life.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely.
Toby Dorr: I love that statistic. If someone listening wants to get involved with their local reentry efforts and they’re not in the DC area, which you’re familiar with, where would you suggest people start to look to find a way that they can make a difference in their community?
Carla Anderson: It varies from state to state and the one thing that I would suggest to someone is to google Reentry Services and find a place that they can volunteer. But without even doing that, I would think that if you don’t have those resources in your area and you’re an employer, certainly go to your local jail or prison and ask if there is a way that you can perhaps employ some of their people when they’re re when they come out?
Toby Dorr: A great idea!
Carla Anderson: Absolutely. Church projects and things like that. Perhaps you put a goodie bag together with full-size products because, and I say full-size cause so many times people will give you a sample size and that doesn’t last very long at all.
Toby Dorr: I don’t think people realize how important some products are in prison. I always pampered myself with really nice shampoo and conditioner and in prison I found if you could afford to buy the Suave off the commissary, you were really rocking it. That was high quality. It’s just amazing how grateful inmates can be when they’re able to get something they can’t get otherwise.
Carla Anderson: Exactly. And you know, one of the things that I, at some point, I have a goal to do is, for many women when they come home, it seems small, but offering them pajamas. For so many years, you haven’t had pajamas, and what a good way to let you know that you’re no longer incarcerated is to be able to lie down at night, and be peaceful in pajamas.
Toby Dorr: I love that idea, Carla. I love it. I am going to think about doing something around that. I just think that’s a beautiful idea.
Carla Anderson: Well, I would love to help you.
Toby Dorr: I think it could be a fun project. I think it could be a really fun project. So, are any of the organizations you’re involved with looking for volunteers right now?
Carla Anderson: We are and many of ’em in various ways, at various times need sometimes more volunteers than others. And so, I would just invite anyone to contact me. Depending on the need at the time, because the one thing that I never wanna do is have someone that wants to give their time, which is so very precious and then we not, we’ll be in a slow period and they’re not able to do anything. Many times, if you can mentor someone and mentoring comes in so many forms. We’re seeing a shift in people with the new laws and people are coming home and they’re at a different phase in their life. They might have gone to prison when they were 18, 19, or 20, and they’re coming home now 20 years later in their forties and fifties. Learning to use a cell phone, and learning technology like Zoom. Those are soft skills that anyone can, you know, sometimes we need volunteers to help do that – those small little things. I would just invite anyone to, you know, feel free to email me.
Toby Dorr: That information is in our show notes so people know how to get hold of you.
Carla Anderson: Exactly. And then at the time, just let me know what you’re interested in. We try to match people with their interests with the right thing because reentry is, has, it’s a myriad of things.
Toby Dorr: And people, I think getting outta prison just kind of a connection with someone that they feel can help guide ’em through this because, I know, when I was in prison, I made really close connections, probably closer than I’ve ever made with anyone, with some of those women inside. And when you come out, it’s a whole different world and you just feel like you have to start over with your relationships, and having someone in your corner, I think would be such a value.
Carla Anderson: Absolutely, and I think you and I touched on it briefly, one of the policy changes that I think we should all work toward is the fact that this person or sometimes people that you perhaps went through your darkest moments with, that you trust when you come home, you can’t contact. So you are left to fend for yourself and regain trust and just kind of blindly go at it, and I think that’s very unfair. It’s just not feasible for your mental health.
Toby Dorr: I so agree, and I would like to see that changed as well so that you can still reach out and get that support that you developed while you were in prison because it really can be a game changer.
Carla Anderson: Right. And I think that’s a mindset change because everyone, again, thinks the worst. Instead of thinking that you’re moving forward to productivity, they think you’re moving and conspiring to re-offend, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Toby Dorr: That’s true. That’s really not what the majority of people getting outta prison have in their mind. They want to get out and stay out and make a change, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.,
Carla Anderson: Absolutely. Yes.
Toby Dorr: I love that idea.
Carla Anderson: And we have second chance month coming up in April so everyone can take their time and kind of dip their toe in the volunteering.
Toby Dorr: Excellent, excellent. I love hearing that. I’m sure that you see tremendous highs and some devastating lows in your work. How do you handle the lows without losing faith, and how do the highs fill your soul?
Carla Anderson: Well, one, I never lose faith. That is one thing that I learned while away. Faith is what got me to where I am. Faith helped me transition and knowing that even when I was told no, there was gonna be another opportunity so that I don’t lose. But there are sometimes when I feel like I wanna save the world. It breaks my heart when someone comes to me and I know they’ve been trying and they’re still told no, and so I just sit down and listen to them and then try to leave that exactly where it is and that’s work. I live, if anybody knows, about Winchester, you go over this big mountain to get to the town. So as I come from work, I leave everybody on one side of the mountain. Once I go over the mountain, I’m at home. But then when I go back to work, I pick ’em up at the other, at the mountain.
Toby Dorr: That’s a great way to do that. That really is a great way to use that mountain. I love it.
Carla Anderson: Right.
Carla Anderson: So I think about them all the way till I get to the foot of the mountain and I work things out, and then I’m like, okay, I’ll leave y’all here until tomorrow.
Toby Dorr: That’s beautiful. So, what’s one question you wish I had asked you that I didn’t ask? Is there something else you’d like to share with us?
Carla Anderson: No, I think you have done a great job, and it’s always great to be interviewed or talk to someone that has had that lived experience with you because I don’t think many times people get to the meat of what is needed. A lot of times people interview and they wanna know what you did and that sort of thing, and that’s not it, that’s not gonna help us try to get the BOP to talk to the DOC to talk to the DOJ. I just appreciate so much that we were able to get to the conversation and what’s really needed to help people return. Because after all, when you incarcerate a woman, you impact so much more than just that family. You affect a school system when the child is no longer participating. You could affect the community when perhaps the grandmother is keeping them and the grandmother passes away and now they’re in social services. So, there’s so much more when you incarcerate a woman, and I’m just grateful that you opened it up so we can talk about it.
Toby Dorr: Well, that’s great. I love it. And Carla, I’m so glad that our paths have crossed, and I know we’re gonna be doing a lot of stuff together. Because you’re my kind of person, and in fact, I really think we look alike, don’t you?
Carla Anderson: Yes, we do.
Toby Dorr: The short gray hair and big glasses. People might not be able to tell us apart once we get going.
Carla Anderson: Yes.
Toby Dorr: Well, thank you so much, Carla, for being on. I’m sure that our conversation is gonna make a difference.
Carla Anderson: All right. Thank you.
Toby Dorr: You’re welcome. Remember, none of us is our worst mistake. We all have so much more to offer the world, and those so-called mistakes are blessed opportunities to learn and grow. Next week, we’ll continue to bring you inspiring stories by people who’ve identified a need for change and are working to make a difference in the world.
Toby Dorr: Subscribe to our Patreon channel, Fierce Conversations for special access and behind-the-scenes info. Go to patreon.com/fierce conversations or click on the link in the show notes. Ten percent of the Patreon proceeds provide workbooks to women in prison. The show notes will also provide links for you to contact Carla directly and a link to purchase my memoir Living with Conviction.
Toby Dorr: I had a conversation while in prison where my friend Lisa told me ‘in here we can talk about the hard things. In fact, I think we must.’ and so we shall. This is Fierce Conversations with Toby, where we talk about the hard things. Until next time…