Life and Health after Prison: The power of shared experience

As a Re-Entry Health Conductor, I partner with recently-released men and women to get the essential resources they need to thrive — from housing to food assistance to job training. And as someone who’s been incarcerated myself, that shared, lived experience means people feel comfortable. We have something in common. They rest, they relax and they tell you everything you need to know — sometimes even a little bit too much. But while that shared experience gives us a solid place to start, it doesn’t mean building a relationship is easy — especially when our work together often lasts long after an individual need is met. It takes effort, patience and most importantly, care.

Whether your job is in social work or clinical care or community advocacy, our work comes from the heart. We’re in it because we care. And in my years as a community health worker, I’ve learned how we can best show it:


1. Give platinum service.

When you’re in jail, you get a docket telling you you have a doctor’s appointment, and you get used to the police bringing you that docket. But when you get home after 4, 10, 20 years, you don’t have that reminder. A lot of people have fallen by the wayside because they don’t know who to talk to or which questions to ask. That’s why you have to build a relationship in a way that your name is a household one. I spend most of my time on the phone, talking to clients or their family members. People will even tell my sisters, “My brother’s getting out. Can Arlinda help?” even though they’re in a different county. I can’t turn them away. I wouldn’t dare do that. You build your reputation as an expert in lived experience by other people’s word, which is why the knowledge and resources you can provide are just as important as how available you are.

2. Remember different people have different needs.

One of my clients once said, “I’ve got the gift of gab. I want to be a car salesman, but nobody’s going to hire me.” We didn’t have the car dealer licensing program as a ‘need’ in our resource referral system. But when that young man didn’t want to do anything else but be a car salesman, we added it to our resource directory and found an agency to cover the cost. I know how rewarding it is to work in a job you love, which is why we helped him with a resource that wasn’t in our system. People know what they need to succeed. It’s our job to learn what those needs are.

3. Treat people how you want to be treated — and some days, treat them better.

All my clients receive me as family because I don’t treat them just like a client. Most even call me “Auntie.” The fact is, I have to make people feel so comfortable that if they do wake up one morning and think I’m gonna do something that could land me in jail, they call me instead. If they want to stay on the phone for two hours, that’s what I’m going to do. We work together–and they know I’m always going to treat them as a person. If I didn’t have that kind of relationship and trust, why would they listen to me?

4. Know each other’s stories.

Before working as a health conductor, I was a Peace-Keeper working to stem violence in our neighborhood. My mother gave me a lot of the history of different families in Richmond, and I used that to actually try to bring the guys together from each side of town. I remember several times telling a young man, “You just killed your cousin,” and then giving them their history, telling them about their grandfather’s brothers or sisters. That was one of the tools I used to help bring some of the gun violence down. Our stories have power. At first I was ashamed to talk about my record. You don’t want anybody to know you’ve been to prison. But what my experience can offer young men and women returning from prison or jail is hope — that’s the only reason I tell my story today.


I’m proud of the relationships I’ve built with my “nieces” and “nephews”. But if I’m being honest, there’s only so much I can do. There are more people with important lived experiences to be hired. More people with even better connections in the city than me. Men, who can go into the trenches where women can’t go. Women who have immigrated to this country.

Hospitals and service organizations can pass on knowledge about their resources and programs, but what good is knowledge without understanding? When you hire someone with expert lived experience, they’re not just passing down knowledge, they’re building understanding. That’s how you build the kind of strong relationships needed to help people thrive.

Arlinda Timmons-Love is a Re-Entry Health Conductor at Contra Costa Health Services, where she works with recently-released men and women to get the essential resources they need to thrive. Learn more about the Health Conductor program and how Arlinda joined CCHS in Champions of Change.