‘During my incarceration, I was screaming for help’: How I went from incarcerated woman to advocate

An undated photo of Crystal Ross
(Via Crystal Ross)

Crystal Ross spent six of the past 10 years in jail in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. In this, the second part of a “Conversation” with Lookout Community Voices editor Jody K. Biehl, Crystal talks about the addiction that led her to go to jail and lose her daughters and about “hitting bottom” and finding her way out by advocating for herself and other women in jail. She begs Santa Cruz County to do better, to offer more services and “more compassion” for those with addictions and mental health disorders in our jails. She says Gemma House, the transitional treatment program she is now in, offers a clear model.

This is the second part of a “Conversations with Jody” series. Find Part 1 here.

Crystal Ross lost her daughters, ages 16 and 2, 10 years ago when she went to jail for the first time.

Jody K. Biehl Conversations

She was 32 and the experience “knocked” her off her “shelf,” she tells me.

She spent six out of the following 10 years in jail, mostly in Santa Cruz County, where she grew up and where she fell into dangerous patterns of addiction.

Now, after “hitting bottom” inside the jail during the COVID-19 pandemic, she is fighting to get her life back, to reconnect with her family and rejoin our community.

In this interview, Crystal opens up about what led her to jail and about the agony and estrangement of not knowing her girls. She tears up talking about them and about the cycle of addiction that dominated her life for a decade.

In Part 1 of our “Conversation,” Crystal describes her time in Santa Cruz Main Jail as “horrible,” “unhygienic” and deeply scarring. She talks about the pain of mothers separated from their children, the large percentage of untreated mental illness she saw and the upsetting pattern that sees women move from jail to homelessness to jail.

Here, she describes her path to becoming an advocate. She also reminds us that jailing people with addiction and significant untreated mental illness does not seem to be working.

She says Gemma House, a women’s residential transitional treatment program that operates out of a single-story home in Live Oak, offers a possible answer. She spent the last four months of her sentence there and got her ankle monitor removed Sept. 17. She will stay another 14 months as she looks for a job, a house (Housing Matters is helping her) and to transition to life “outside.”

She sees Gemma House as a “blessing,” the kind of program we should support and replicate.

In this interview, she explains why.

A file image of the Santa Cruz County Jail
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jody: Thanks so much for talking to me, Crystal. In our first conversation, you told me a bit about how you grew up and we talked a lot about the conditions in the jail. Let’s go back now and talk about how you got to jail. Tell me how you got arrested — what did you do to go to jail?

Crystal: About 10 years ago is when all of this started happening. I spiraled because I got my kids taken away, my two girls. And I … I’m sorry, it’s still hard … like just knocked me off my shelf.

Jody: What do you mean?

Crystal: I went to jail for domestic violence. There were circumstances with my daughter’s father. But I ended up going to jail and by the time I got out, my kids were taken, and they were placed with my family, which was good .… But it knocked me off my shelf.

(Crystal teared up here and needed a moment.)

Jody: In what way?

Crystal: When I got back from jail, my kids were gone. So I came home to nothing.

I had been on drugs and alcohol since I was 15, but functionally I had made everything work till I was about 32 years old. And then that’s when it all just kind of blew up. And it’s a weird age to be going to jail and like, losing your kids (at ages 16 and 2).

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I didn’t have money and I didn’t know how to find a job. I was desperate. I needed money and didn’t know how else to get it. I’m you know, I’m kind of good at numbers and book smart. I went to high school here, in Watsonville. And being smart, you can go one way or another with that. So I started doing fraud, which is stealing people’s money — like credit card scams, check scams.

I know it’s wrong. I don’t really have a good excuse for what I was doing. Trying to get by. Judges asked me what I was thinking, and I had no good answer. I want people to know that I have done my time and I am changing. If I could go back and fix every person I frauded, I would. I am aware of what I have done.

I ended up getting myself in and out of jail for the last 10 years. Every time I would come out, I would just be like, What am I going to do? I need to get money and I need a vehicle and I need this, and I never really thought about getting sober, getting my life back. I was too alone. I didn’t have support. My care factor wasn’t intact. I didn’t really care anymore. I didn’t have my kids and so I was like, what does it matter?

The Santa Cruz County Jail in December 2020
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Stopping the cycle and living at Gemma House

Jody: This year, you stopped the cycle. You did rehab. You are sober. Why? What made the difference for you?

Crystal: So I don’t know what made the difference this last year, but I just did 10 months in the main jail. That’s a pretty hefty sentence. I was there the whole time and the conditions really made me angry. And the only way I could get my anger off was to write letters about what was happening. I wrote to the mayor and other people. I started advocating for the female inmates. I wrote to a lot of people and I am still doing it. I am telling people how it is not a place for anyone. It makes whatever is wrong worse.

Jody: Right now, you are at a different place, at Gemma House, which is a women’s residential transitional treatment program that offers therapy and also teaches life skills. You got here three months ago. How is jail different from where we are now, at Gemma House?

Quotes taken from interviews UC Santa Cruz researcher Susan Greene did with women in Main Jail in 2022.
(Via Susan Greene)

Crystal: It’s amazing. I’m doing so well here now. This is what we all need. We need more of these. It’s such a nice place. It’s a house. We have structure and a schedule and we are accountable for our actions. I have an ankle monitor on as you can see, but I get it off on Sept. 17 (the interviews happened in August and early September). That means I will have done my sentence. I will still have mandatory probation.

Jody: What will you do?

Crystal: I will stay at Gemma until I graduate [from the program]. That is the main goal and a job. I really chose to be here now. So I’m just, I mean, the world has changed now. I’ve got a lot of people supporting me. Just a huge amount of people supporting me now and this house is great.

Jody: Where did the people supporting you come from? They weren’t here 10 years ago?

Crystal: During my incarceration, I was screaming for help. It’s really from me reaching out and writing those letters. You know what I mean? I never reached out before. I kept to myself. I never spoke up for myself or anyone. And this time I was just so upset with the way the jail was running. And the females have nothing special, nothing to give them hope or a sense of being a person.

Quotes taken from interviews UC Santa Cruz researcher Susan Greene did with women in Main Jail in 2022.
(Via Susan Greene)

Jody: Could the jail have done something to help you earlier? Could something else have pulled you out or did you need this time?

Crystal: I’m really not sure. I tried to put myself in programs and whatever, but I failed twice before this. They can offer more programs to people. More chances to see which ones work for you. And support, support. And maybe the community could set up more female-only programs. When you have men around, you are not paying attention to yourself. In this program, you have to put yourself first, even before your kids. Kids don’t keep you sober. If they did, I would have been sober a long time ago.

It’s different having residential (drug and alcohol rehab) programs here in house like Janus and New Life. There’s no other nice houses like this — with couches and a kitchen and a garden — and there is a lot of need for this type of service, for this type of rehab.

Jody: Some people are going to say, “Well, you broke the law. You should not have a lovely place with couches. You should lose your rights and live in an uncomfortable place to make you not want to do it again.” How would you respond to those people?

Crystal: I mean, I hear that, but honestly, in this state, we’ve invested heavily in incarceration, we’re arresting more people and putting them in jail, but it just doesn’t really seem to be working. The homelessness problem is increasing, not decreasing. And the world is filled with drugs and the jail is all filled with drugs, too. Despite all the precautions, that is still happening.

I mean, obviously, I wish I had an answer, but what I know is that what we are doing is definitely not working.

I think we have seen you can put somebody in the dirtiest place and it won’t make a difference. You know what I mean? When you are in jail, it’s depressing, and you feel like that is your bottom. And I’ve hit that bottom many times. And the dirtiness makes it worse, not better. You really just can’t find your way out.

I just don’t think that for people with addiction and mental health issues it’s good to be in a dirty place locked in a cell. What does being dirty [and alone] do for mental health?

Crystal Ross had her ankle monitor removed Sept. 17.
(Jody K. Biehl / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jody: Do you think that being in a clean place helps you want to get out, do something better with your life?

Crystal: I think there’s more opportunities because when we’re in Blaine Street or Gemma House or something similar, that’s where we learn what’s out there. In the main jail, you don’t hear nothing. We don’t get to watch the news. We don’t know what is out there. There’s nobody coming in there recruiting for programs. Telling you you can be something else.

For a lot of people, there is just the judge saying, “Hey, you need a program.” But no way to find that program. Maybe (service providers) will come around weeks, months later, maybe, maybe. Not during COVID-19, though. And if you get out before (you get services) — which is what happens to a lot of people who do something dumb because they are an addict and they come into the jail for a short time — then you get out and you have nothing. Your family maybe doesn’t want you and then you become homeless. I mean, not everybody gets the lengthy time like I did.

A lot of the people get out so quickly, that they’re not even touched with the information or the resources. They don’t know there’s places out there that you can go to get help and not be on the streets.

Jody: What specifically about Blaine Street or Gemma House helps you or others you know the most?

Crystal: It’s the expectation. You’re expected to get along and it’s such a nice place that you don’t have a reason to fight and act out. You want to get better. I mean, I’m not saying fighting doesn’t happen, because it does. People get “rolled up” (packed up and sent back to Main Jail) all the time, but there are rules and you know what’s expected. I mean, for me, I’ve never been taken back to the main jail except when they closed Blaine Street for COVID-19. And when they did that, we were all crying.

Jody: Are you going to talk to your family, to your daughters about the choices you made and what you went through?

Crystal: When they are ready. I don’t want to push it on them. Push my life on them. They don’t need to know all the gory details and I don’t want to glorify it.

Jody: It’s brave of you to be willing to tell them. It’s hard for a mother to be so vulnerable.

Crystal: Yeah. It takes a lot of hitting bottom. For me, a lot of the bad stuff was always about escape. That was what it was. I wanted to numb out losing my kids. And getting rid of the guilt. The guilt will take you out. It fuels the addiction. And that’s why I do therapy now, But I still have a lot, I have a lot of work to do. Yeah, a lot.

Jody: What do you want people who have not been to jail to know about you?

Crystal: I think to listen and not judge. I’d like more people to have more compassion with us. It might help it to be easier to transition back into society. When people see your record, sometimes they want nothing to do with you.

Jody: What can Santa Cruz do right now to make transitions and time in jail more productive?

Crystal: We need more houses like Gemma. I mean, there’s so many people that get out of jail or prison and have nothing. They get out and they go right back in. Too often, the jail is sending people out unmedicated. What are you going to do?

You are going to go medicate yourself with meth or alcohol or heroin or whatever your choice of drug is. Just so you can feel better. Then you are going to end up homeless.

In the Benchlands, they act like it’s such a horrible place, but it is a place to go. Even if you are drug addicts and screwups, it’s a place you are wanted. People need human contact, no matter if they are on drugs, alcohol. They need it. If they can go to tent city and get it, they will. We need to stop that cycle. Give people more choices.

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