As we have explored in numerous episodes, COVID-19 has been a pandemic of inequality. For as long as the pandemic has been a mainstay in our lives, the podcast has tried to bring the Hogg Foundation’s equity lens to bear on our discussions of the pandemic’s blighting effects on mental health and well-being. We continue this equity focus with Episode 126, which looks at vaccine access for the current and formerly incarcerated. Our guest is Carl Hunter, a former Hogg Policy Fellow and current executive director of Building Promise USA, an organization dedicated to empowering the formerly incarcerated.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Into the Fold: Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from and how did you end up becoming a Hogg policy fellow?
Carl Hunter: Well, it’s a really neat story. On October 7, 2017, I came to my 11th drug rehab program in Austin. My good friend, the person who got me into rehab every time, asked me where I wanted to go afterward. He reminded me that I love live music and Austin is the live music capital of the world. So, I stayed in Austin, and it was the thing that transformed my life.
When I first got here in October, I couldn’t add eight plus nine in my head anymore, but 300 days later I was standing before the Select Committee on Opioids and Substance Use to give my first-ever public testimony.
During those 300 days, I was involved with an organization called Community for Recovery, where I kind of found out who I was. They asked me to say a prayer at their charity dinner, and a woman walked up to me, after the prayer and said, “You know, my partner and I are never embraced by the prayer, but your prayer would have touched her.” She wanted to introduce me to people, so through her, I was connected to Recovery People. You can pretty much say that I was connected to the Hogg Foundation through a prayer, because Recovery People received a Peer Policy Fellow Grant award from the Hogg Foundation, and they chose me.
I had already spent 20 years in community organizing and we did a lot of protesting and a lot of marching. But what I learned from my experience at the Hogg Foundation and going to the [Legislature]was that protesting without policy change is just people walking around screaming. At the Hogg, I began to understand the power of shaping policy. If I walked away from the Hogg Foundation with any “grand understanding,” it was that I needed to be in a place where my voice is heard, and I can impact policy.
At the Hogg Foundation, I had an opportunity to practice making an impact on policy at the board where they were making decisions on what benefits Medicaid would cover. They were looking at covering medically assisted treatment and I was able to give testimony.
I realized that my voice would impact people I would never see. Mothers and fathers and kids who suffered from substance use disorder, like I did, would get the opportunity to receive life-saving drugs that would help them through the process of recovery. People I would never see. That was a transitional moment that helped me understand how powerful we can be when we’re able to help shape policy. It changed my life! I got the ‘bug!’
During the last legislative session, I worked for the Recovery Coalition of Texas, which represents [Recovery Community Organizations] across the state. They made me their Senior Policy Advisor. Wow! For that guy who came to Austin on October 7, 2017, for drug rehab, this work was the furthest thing from his mind!
I talk about recovery a lot in the work that I do, and how you can only recover something that you already had. Through my process of recovery, I just became the person I was always meant to be.
Vaccine Equity for the Incarcerated: Building Promise
ITF: Your organization Building Promise USA recently received a grant from the Hogg Foundation for the Reentry Vaccination Initiative. Tell me more about this project and what it aims to achieve.
CH: The Reentry Vaccination Initiative focuses on formerly incarcerated men and women, who because of collateral consequences and the stigma that comes along with being formerly incarcerated, don’t have great access to health care.
My son is serving 36 years in the Department of Corrections in Colorado and when I told him about the project, he referenced the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” The Reentry Vaccination Initiative was born out of that sentiment.
We want to make sure that people understand that even beyond vaccinations and beyond Covid-19, when these folks come out of prison, they don’t have access to health care.
Building Promise is working with a number of peer-based organizations, including the Re-Entry Advocacy Project of the Austin/Travis County Re-Entry Roundtable and the Austin Community Coalition for Health (C2H). All of these are peer-led and peer-run organizations. We came together, one, to make sure that this population is vaccinated and, two, to support the C2H’s work to get formerly incarcerated people and homeless people health insurance through Central Health of Travis County’s Medical Assistance Program.
So, we combined the two efforts, working with Austin Public Health which is providing COVID vaccinations and flu vaccinations. We also have the C2H educating people and signing them up for health care. Not only did people leave with vaccinations, but they also left with the possibility of having health insurance.
We also used the funding to incentivize getting shots. Each person who came left with a $25 gift card after their first shot and another gift card after their second shot. All in all, I think we served over 50 people with vaccinations and a number of them also walked away with health insurance. And we’re gearing up to do vaccination pop-ups again next year which may potentially be funded by the city.
ITF: What does the research tell us about the degree of vaccine uptake on the part of the formerly incarcerated? And what crucial factors can influence the numbers in either a positive or a negative direction?
CH: Most of the research shows that those who are most marginalized feel threatened because of historical mistreatment from the medical community. They tend to shy away from getting vaccinated. But we are seeing an uptick in numbers coming to be vaccinated as the number of COVID cases go up. At our first vaccination initiative we had low numbers, and at the second one we had more people. More people are also getting vaccinated around the Christmas holidays when people are spending time together again.
Vaccine Equity for the Incarcerated: Getting a Seat at the Table, and More
ITF: Let’s imagine a PR firm that has been given $10 million to design a vaccine outreach campaign. What would be lost by not having at least one formerly incarcerated person at the table?
CH: What I’ve learned is that having that voice of lived experience makes a difference at the table because other people begin to understand the plight of those who are “the least of these.” Going back to the Benjamin Franklin quote, how do we get the people who are the least impacted (which would probably be those people initially at the table) to be just as morally outraged as those who are the most impacted? Without the voice of lived experience, the voices at the table speak for the status quo.
Those people already have health care and health insurance, and so they don’t have the same health concerns as a lot of formerly incarcerated people do, who often come back into the community dealing with chronic illnesses. But because of the stigma surrounding their criminal charge and incarceration, their needs aren’t going to be addressed. Then we have a generation of young men and young women coming out of prison and dying before their time. However, if the voices of lived experience are at the table, those needs can be articulated.
It makes a difference when someone can be touched in such a way that it takes them beyond their own experiences long enough to empathize with the plight of someone else. Without having the voice of lived experience, taking someone to that point would be impossible. That’s the importance of having the voices of lived experience at the table.
ITF: The idea of formerly incarcerated persons becoming “productive members of society” is so commonplace, but how often does it really occur to people that the formerly incarcerated actually have a deep knowledge of how the system works that could be harnessed to make improvements?
CH: Well, the Hogg Foundation certainly did. The move to create Peer Policy Fellows was important. It was like a “eureka moment” because they had found that there was value in lived experience. Hearing that voice is like hearing the scriptural “voice crying out in the wilderness.” Others are able to hear the voices of those in the margins who usually aren’t allowed at the table. The Hogg Foundation found it necessary to put those voices at the table.
My cohort of Peer Policy Fellows impacted a lot of policy and the cohort before us passed House Bill 1486, which created certified peer support specialists for both mental health and substance use, increasing the behavioral health workforce and expanding access to services. You have a lot of peer work going on in the state of Texas as a result of those voices that came from the margins.
ITF: And it’s also important to understand that even if Carl Hunter had never become a public activist but had just managed to hold down a “nine-to-five” job, then that would have been a path as much worth celebrating as the path that he did take. But we are very grateful that we have somebody like you on the frontlines of trying to improve policy here in Texas.
Finding One’s Voice
ITF: Do you have any personal moments or stories that testify to the impact that you have had or would like to have?
CH: Sure. The moment that I was able to give a public testimony before the Medicaid board was a telling moment because it told me that my voice could make a difference. Addiction took my voice away but being in the process of recovery gave me my voice back and being a Hogg Fellow gave a platform to my voice.
This whole journey, from October 7, 2017, to me sitting here with you is living my best life. Who would have thought that you all at the Hogg Foundation would help save my life? And I’ve had the honor to be here on your podcast.
ITF: And we’ve had many of our Fellows on the podcast. I’m so grateful that we’ve built up this remarkable community of people with this particular kind of training and expertise to go with their lived experience.
How can people find out more or support Building Promise or the Reentry Vaccination Initiative?
CH: Our website is www.buildingpromiseusa.com. We have a Donate button, but what I want people to do more than anything is to find out about our organization and about the work we’re doing. We recently received a Re-Entry Services Grant from the City of Austin to support people who have been incarcerated.
We’re also working through the planning phase of the “One Stop Shop Pilot Initiative”, and we’ll be going into the implementation phase in March. We need all the support we can get. We need volunteers. At this point I’m the only paid employee. I’m about to hire some formerly incarcerated people to work with me through this pilot process, but we need as many volunteers as we can get and people with skill sets. The more the merrier! There’s a lot of work to be done.
More than anything else, I want the people who are the least impacted to become just as morally outraged at the barriers and the social stigma that formerly incarcerated people have to face when they get back out into the community, as though their debt was never paid. The fight is to take some of those barriers away so they can live their best lives and be productive members of society.