Tense from the pains of withdrawal, Tracy Brumfield rushed back to her car after buying a bag of heroin. As she prepared a syringe, she was caught off guard by a knock on the window.
“I just knew my life was never going to be the same,” she says, “I was so focused on what I was doing that the next reality was a Cincinnati police officer outside my car.”
Like 80 percent of heroin users today, Brumfield’s struggle with drug addiction began with prescription opioids. Her journey of addiction and relapse went on for nearly 20 years before heroin and a felony conviction led her to homelessness and an inability to find a job.
“I’d love to tell you that getting out of prison was how I found recovery,” Brumfield says, “but the reality is, I didn’t. I was angry, homeless, and things just went down to the very bottom for me.”
After months of living in her car, she had had enough.
“I said no more. I found a medication-assisted treatment program and began doing a lot of service work, which I was passionate about.”
She started offering peer support at the Hamilton County Justice Center in Cincinnati a couple times a week. After a year of doing this, she felt the pull to do more.
“I was offering mentorship for 16 women once or twice a week, but there were 1,400 people in the jail that weren’t getting any enrichment program or re-entry assistance,” she says. “And so the little light bulb in my brain went off.”
In September 2017, she launched RISE, a resource guide catered toward helping current and former inmates navigate the barriers they face when they are released, such as housing and employment. Her idea to circulate RISE, which she calls a newspaper, won a $100,000 grant from the Haile Foundation, enabling her to assemble a team of writers and designers to bring her vision into fruition.
“We have tons of nonprofits that want to help, but they aren’t able to meet people where they’re at. They can’t go in and reach their helping hand inside the jail. They don’t have access,” Brumfield says.
An acronym for Re-enter into Society Empowered, RISE is distributed in and around the Hamilton County Justice Center in Ohio where an average of 84.8 people are booked per day—most commonly for drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, and theft. The newsletter provides a list of resources and recovery success stories, and RISE staff visit the incarcerated women to provide peer mentorship and guidance on how to navigate the system once they are out.
“One of the big things that we are focused on is breaking the stigma of addiction.”
“I came from a relatively affluent family, have a higher education, and still found it extremely difficult to navigate the system once I was in it,” Brumfield says, “so imagine how difficult it would be for a population who historically has not had the same kind of advantage that I’ve had.”
Sharee Allen, RISE’s Operations Director, experienced the immeasurable pain of addiction within her family as she watched her brother struggle to cope with the disease that ultimately led to his fatal overdose two years ago.
“Through him I learned that you could have the best of intentions, but if you don’t know where to look and you don’t know how serious it is at that moment, it’s almost like your hands are tied,” Allen says.
Allen has been with RISE since its conception. Her personal experience with addiction and her background in marriage, art therapy and photojournalism, made her just the right fit to lead the team alongside Brumfield.
“One of the big things that we are focused on is breaking the stigma of addiction,” Allen says. “If you see that addiction and mental illness are diseases of the brain, you’re not going to tell someone who is dying of a cancerous brain tumor that they should just fix themselves.”
“RISE shows that there are people who do recover.”
Twenty-five-year-old Roxanna knows firsthand the importance of a publication like RISE. She asked that only her first name be used because she spent a month in jail for a felony drugs conviction. She was released early because of overcrowding and transferred to a sober living home in early 2018.
“When you’re in jail, you have nothing to do but sit and think about your life,” Roxanna says. “You need a positive outlet that can provide a little bit of hope and strength.”
Roxanna says that having access to a publication like RISE would have made her journey to recovery much easier. She now contributes artwork to the newsletter to inspire others to recovery.
“At that point in my life I was definitely looking for some goodness and I knew that where I had been wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be,” Roxanna says.
Brumfield has published more than 30,000 copies of RISE and is now in production on its eighth issue. Each issue focusing on a theme like recovery, housing, employment, and health care. Issue six was the first to be written by current and former inmates who shared their stories of hope.
“My greatest will is to create awareness out in the community to have empathy and compassion for this population,” Brumfield says.
Brumfield has no plans of slowing down. She says she is looking for private funding opportunities to keep the newsletter running after the fellowship ends, and is also accepting donations through her website: riseupnews.org.
“There’s still a lot of stigma surrounding those of us who suffer from this brain disease,” Brumfield says. “RISE shows that there are people who do recover. I’m hopefully planting those seeds and giving them the tools to re-enter into society.”
Updated April 20, 2018. This story was updated to refer to the product as a newspaper.