Jennifer is an author, speaker, and prison consultant whose fervent desire is to bring an end to our country’s mass incarceration problem. Her own arrest and incarceration in a federal prison camp affected her deeply when she saw the hundreds of women and mothers locked up on lengthy, non-violent drug sentences. She knew when she was released from prison she had to do something to give back.
In 2009, Jennifer founded LA Myers Consulting, a prison consulting business where she works with people affected by the criminal justice system. Her passion to be an advocate for women in prison led Jennifer to co-found R.I.S.E. to Empower, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and women to make positive choices. Their work with At-risk, teen girls led to their program being accepted into San Diego U.S. Federal Probation’s reentry initiative, where they facilitate high-risk women recently released from Federal Prison.
Jennifer’s memoir, Trafficking the Good Life, was a finalist in the 2014 San Diego Book & Writing Awards. Her writing has received accolades in the PEN Prison Writing Contest and has been published in Salon Magazine, the anthology Razor Wire Women, and The Huffington Post. Jennifer has spoken extensively to teens about making good choices, was a 2017 TEDx speaker at TEDxWilmingtonWomen, and has appeared as a Prison Consultant on Inside Edition and Lifetime’s special, Abby Tells All.
The last two years Jennifer has journeyed back to prison to help produce San Diego’s first TEDx inside of a prison. As Co-organizer of TEDxDonnovanCorrection, Jennifer’s desire to change the paradigm of our criminal justice system has intensified. She is deeply affected by the men she meets locked up on life sentences. Their big hearts, and willingness to transform continue to inspire Jennifer, weekly, and confirm to her that some of the most courageous people live behind bars.
“I want to express to people that come out after being incarcerated to move forward and be honest anyway and just see the magic that can happen when you own it.”
– Jennifer Myers
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02:51 – Jennifer’s backstory from being a dancer, falling for a Marijuana Kingpin, being involved in marijuana trafficking, her arrest, and incarceration
03:03 – Serving 17-months because of a drug-related offense, spending three years on probation.
03:40– Her experience and disheartening stories of women inside the prison that inspired Jennifer to be a prison reform advocate
07:51 – How she rebuild and restart her reputation, overcoming the shame and the stigma of being a felon
08:42 – Her struggles transitioning back to the society
09:50 – The work that is involved in the journey that once you’ve been incarcerated, there’s no way to avoid taking that journey of dissolving the shame
13:30 – Having integrity and owning your story through honesty and perseverance
14:04 – Jennifer sharing their aftercare programs for prisoners
17:10 – Importance to keep the inspiration, hope, and support from the community to hold the candle of light for felons
18:04 – Impact of community and collaboration to people inside prison and how they find hope, support and family through them
20:10 – Transformation inside the prison that feeds Jenifer’s heart and life
Connect with Jennifer Myers
Connect with Gregory Paul
(Note, this was transcribed using a transcription software and may not reflect the exact words used in the podcast)
Gregory Paul: Welcome to the Pitching to Truth Podcast.I’m your host Gregory Paul Kotsaftis and today I have a wonderful guest Jennifer Myers.
Gregory Paul: Hi, Jennifer.
Jennifer Myers: Hi there. How are you doing?
Gregory Paul: I’m doing great. So you and I randomly connected. When I reached out to you in LinkedIn when I did a very simple LinkedIn search which I thought was kind of interesting. I searched for prison speakers. And you came up with a lot of work that you’re doing with TEDx, in the prison system. So can you give us kind of an oversight of what your history is? You know what happened and how you ended up there and kind of give us some background.
Jennifer Myers: Definitely. After I graduated from college and I was a dance major at Ohio State University. I ended up moving to Chicago and I was dancing and choreographing and creating my career which I loved for about three years or so. And at that time I ended up getting introduced to a man by one of my sorority sisters.
Jennifer Myers: And this is a man that she said traveled a lot. He did not live in Chicago but he would travel through Chicago. She said he was such a great guy and I ended up getting into a relationship with him and he was a wonderful man.
Jennifer Myers: He was from Beverly Hills but I ended up finding out from him that he was making a lot of his money by running a marijuana trafficking operation. And for me, I guess at a certain point you know when I was dancing it really didn’t make a lot of money. I mean I was struggling and I love my art but when I met this man he really introduced me to a different lifestyle. And when I found out that he was trafficking marijuana at a certain point I saw the amount of money that he was making and I decided that I wanted to get involved.
Jennifer Myers: So I ended up getting involved in this trafficking operation that went on for about eight years and it ended up getting really big. A few times I tried to get out of it but I actually. Didn’t get fully out of it like it always happens in 2002 somebody was arrested. And the whole thing tumbled. I was eventually then arrested by the federal government. I was facing ten years in prison and I guess at that point I was just really stunned to find out how much time I was facing. I had no idea about the federal mandatory sentencing guidelines. It took two and a half years for me to get sentenced and finally I ended up getting sentenced to federal prison up to three years in federal prison. I surrendered in 2006 to federal prison camp Alderson where I served 17 months until I was released and then spent three years on probation.
Jennifer Myers: So that’s my history. And what happened with how I ended up in prison. What really affected me.
Jennifer Myers: I was very lucky to go in for a very short time and see this very different world that I had never been a part of. I mean I had no criminal history I had a really great family, childhood, and background and nobody in our family had ever been involved in anything like this before. So I was just really stunned. And when I went in and saw the women that were locked up on these lengthy non-violent sentences mostly for drug crimes and that most of them were mothers I was pretty horrified to see. How prison can tear families apart and I was really concerned as I saw them, mothers, trying to mother from prison and I thought to myself oh my gosh this is just one prison with sixteen hundred women there is like what about all the other prisons and all the other people that are incarcerated. What’s going to happen and what’s going to happen to our children. So I really knew when I got out for some reason it really became my passion, my purpose, and my calling to do something. You know and so it took me years to do these some things that led to other things. You know I wrote a book. I had it published. I wrote my story. I founded a nonprofit. We wrote a curriculum working with at-risk teen girls and now we’re working with the federal government with women coming out of federal prison. And then I started getting connected to Mariette who was the organizer of TEDx Donovan which is Donovan Correctional is a men’s prison in San Diego. And we ended up doing the first TEDx in San Diego inside of a prison and this is my third year working with the men and we go in every Tuesday.
Jennifer Myers: So it’s powerful work. It’s awesome. It’s incredible. What made you decide to go the route of production.
Jennifer MyersWell so for me it was so interesting because at a certain point after I’d written my book and had it published I connected with a nonprofit called The Tahriq foundation.
Jennifer Myers: Another man really incredible, Azim Khamisa who is very much about restorative justice and forgiveness work. I came on his team and he did high impact violence, impact assemblies in high schools throughout San Diego County and middle schools. So I became a panelist. And so for a couple years I would go around with these assemblies with him and speak to groups of 200 to 300 kids, sharing my story about making good choices. And I really enjoyed speaking. I mean of course, I’ve grown up as a performer. So when it came naturally for me and so I did my and I sort of dropped that for a while as I focused on my nonprofit and I got connected in 2016 with a man named Mark Lovett. Mark Lovett was doing a speaking workshop with my good friend Lisa Jaffe and her husband. Here’s another adventure speaker. And it was called Speaker adventure. So I decided to finally jump in and do this speaking workshop. And Mark Lovett is the organizer of San Diego Tex. So I really love this workshop and I really realized I had a talent for speaking myself and I really love the process and I really enjoyed meeting Mark. Mark Lovett is the one that ended up getting me to introduce me to Marriett. He said You have to meet this woman. She’s doing this really cool stuff inside prisons and I just started going in that I just fell into it.
Gregory Paul: That’s just crazy. Well I just eerie to me how similar our paths are because you know I myself was only inside for about 14 months got the same kind of taste as you did of injustice or the people that were just coming and going, you know the revolving doors they say with people going back to prison for nonviolent crimes and just walking away and then they’re not doing anything. And watching their families deteriorate especially in the visiting area. And the stories that I heard from all various people who really think it’s wonderful that you’ve decided to do this and reach back. And that’s definitely something I’m trying to do now. Also getting involved in some different organizations, nonprofits and for-profits that are trying to help people transition back into society. So that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about today as you go through the prison experience. You come out, you figure well OK so what are you going. And you and I both know that we probably had a little more support than most people at least I did regarding love from family and friends that would help me get a job right away. You know as we both know trying to get a job if you have a criminal history is a little more difficult. So. How did you try to overcome that? In other words to rebuild your reputation and restart and overcome the shame and the stigma of being a felon.
Jennifer Myers: Well for me when I came out it was really challenging. I mean I hate to say that because I was also very lucky because of course I had my family who loves me and I had their emotional support and also for the first six months my brother helped me out financially. I had nothing. Of course, as we know there’s so you know hundreds and hundreds of people who come out have nothing. But even though I had that something that was still hard because it was a downturn in the economy I came out in 2007. Yeah, that was one of the worst times. Right. I had been involved in real estate and that was how I made my money in 2007 there was not one single job in real estate that you could get. It was really a hard time.
So you know I started looking for work and my plan was is that I would start looking for jobs that were let’s say I would go on to Craigslist. And look for part-time work or work full time work that was with a smaller company like a boutique company, somebody that was more family owned, would not be doing a background check, wouldn’t care to even ask you know where it was through referrals so that was sort of let’s say my technique to not have to deal with you know this idea that I had a felony and what to do about that when you put that on your application.
Jennifer Myers: It was really I had a lot of shame around what had happened and I think for me writing my book and turning my story around is the way that I began to dissolve the shame.
Jennifer Myers: That’s really one tactic to work on it because the shame runs deep and even now even after I have a book published I was speaking on stage. I’ve done a TED talk. You know I’m working with the federal government the same government that arrested me and incarcerated me. I still have moments when I do my meditations that I can see that there’s still some shame living inside of myself. And I think it’s a journey that once you’ve been incarcerated to come out. There’s no way to avoid taking that journey of dissolving the shame. And it does take a lot of work.
I think finding a job can be challenging but I think it doesn’t have to be that way. Very interesting at one point I was finding some part-time work and I got called in by a man who was an estate attorney. He needed some help. And of course, you know I could do that although I’d never done that work. Well you and a state attorney you deal with people’s security numbers or private information you got to the final round and he’s like I want to call you and I want to hire you. And I said Well I have something I need to share with you. And so I sat down and I was like Well what do I tell him or do I not tell them. And I just knew for me to have the integrity to dissolve the shame I needed, to be honest, no matter what right and take the consequences. And I sat down and I told her I’d been to prison for trafficking marijuana and this man said that conservative attorney who deals with people’s private information that I would be dealing with. Hired me.
Jennifer Myers: And so I think that is what I want to express to people that come out after being incarcerated to move forward and be honest anyway and just see the magic that can happen when you really own it.
Gregory Paul: Yeah I agree and that’s what I want to start a nonprofit to do here in Colorado because I know I the halfway house experience for me I don’t know if you had to experience that or not. Luckily not.
Gregory Paul: OK. That was worse than being inside because inside everything’s controlled right. You’re in a controlled environment. Well it does suck and it’s horrible being in a halfway house you’re out but you’re really not free and trying to negotiate to try to get a job or to try to go anywhere I thought to be very difficult but what I experienced was that most people. Want to bury it. They don’t want to admit it own it. One like you say. To be honest, in my job searches I had what I did just because they get another parallel the minute I got out I got a really good friend of mine I said I said, Listen I wanna go to real estate school.
And of course, I had no money either. My friends like no problem I’ll pay for it.
So I went to real estate school I went to a managing Keller Williams office here in Denver I met the managing broker. I told him my story from the get-go and she looked at me and she was like So what. She’s like I’ve I’ve heard many a person instead of criminal history. If anything you have something to prove you’re probably worked harder than anybody have in my office. Which is true. I went through the whole process. I got it from the Real Estate Board in Colorado after passing my exam and they would not let me have my license because they said you have too much restitution. She thought was so counterproductive. Obviously, I want to make more money to pay the restitution. It became that kind of a struggle like that. That was a three or four-month struggle but after that, it was every little part-time job I ended up trying to get home depot. Anything to keep the halfway house happy because you had to be employed. I. Would admit the admitted upfront about what happened and nine times out of ten I got nowhere. So it was really frustrating. But then she ended up working at a catering company and then I ended up working for my friend David who I still work with. And who’d known me for twenty-five years? That was the way I tried to try to get through it and I don’t know. It’s funny that you bump into the right people but I think that the people that I think a lot of felons are intimidated by they think would never hire them like this gentleman that you’re talking about right. This attorney. Are the people that are sometimes more forgiving and understanding. Because they respect honesty more than the average run of the mill job.
Yeah, I love your stories and what you’re sharing because I think it really comes down to having integrity and owning your story. And I do think that in the end honesty does win out and I think it does take a lot of perseverance like you persevered and to not give up and that it’s really more of an inside thing that happens and then success shows up on the outside. And I believe that and I believe more and more. I mean I personally worked with women on federal probation that you know came out of it just had a halfway house finding housing reconnecting with their kids finding employment. Our program is three months long. We’ve done a year of aftercare with some of our graduates. I have one woman who ended up getting a paid internship with the city of San Diego working with the homeless. I mean that was I mean she applied and she got accepted. I have another woman who is in college she just made the dean’s list and then another woman is working at home depot and just got a raise. So I mean it just got a promotion. I mean it’s it’s possible and more and more I mean of course you know I’m getting more and more connected to people in the world of criminal justice reform and I’m as I’m sure you are just through LinkedIn and Facebook and you know there are people coming out and you know like Shon Hopwood who I’m on his present professors as a prison consultant. He’s an attorney. You know he was sitting at the table with Trump. He was in federal prison for you know a very long time there.
And another woman Sarah was in state prison and now she is has become an attorney. I mean times are changing.
I agree. I think there’s a big push right now to. Revamp the criminal justice system. But like I said most of my experience has been getting out of prison and dealing with probation officers which I’m still doing with trying to get my restitution handled and get that behind me. But the amount of restraints and restrictions specified in Colorado that they put on you makes it just defeating like you know you feel like you’re never gonna get anywhere and I’ve been as you said overcoming adversity and hustling and working very very hard. Not only to rebuild my reputation but also to make amends and pay everybody back because you know my crime was a crime of theft related to my car business. So. I think I feel for people that have restitution that was something I didn’t have to deal with. I know that brings a whole nother bucket load of restrictions when you’re dealing with probation. I know for me my probation was pretty easy.
I was given a lot of liberties. I was I mean at one point my second year on probation I went to my probation officer to say hey listen I want to start a business working with women going into federal prison for the first time I want to be a coach I want to support them.
So I wrote up a letter and he got it approved. So for me, my mind was pretty smooth.
That’s interesting because I have been tentative myself to ask my probation officer to kind of do the same thing because again anything related to money with me can be construed as a problem. So it’s a hard journey but you know I really think that what we’re circling back towards is that the most important thing to rebuild reputation you know and what you’ve kind of done is you’ve just got to keep moving you’ve got to keep trying to do the positive things that you know we’ll have a great impact. And if you ask me five years ago is this what you’re going to want to do. Words reaching back and trying to help other inmates succeed which is what I’m getting involved in. I never would have thought of that. I never would’ve thought I would have been important because I was all my own self-absorbed little train. But now looking at the way people are just generally treated and people were just they really need help right. I think what you’ve experienced is. How you’re helping people or just giving them some encouragement or giving them just a little bit of direction or a little bit of guidance has really had an impact.
I think is important for us to find inside of ourselves whatever we can that can keep us inspired and staying hopeful. And sometimes it does take somebody like yourself or I’d like to say like myself or friends or family to hold that sort of candle of light for you because we all need to be pulled up. And I think it’s so very much important when you come out of being incarcerated to have that support system and if you don’t have that within a family unit you can create a family unit anywhere by surrounding yourself with people who are sort of looking towards to like I want to get involved in this organization. I know there’s so much opportunity whether it’s meetups nonprofits giving work to find the people that you want to connect with because you see in their lives a future vision of what you want your life to be.
So I think you’re really talking about this community, right?
Jennifer Myers: I am talking about community. I fully believe that it’s about community and collaboration that we’re finding our strength and making differences and that we can find a foundation and create one for our lives. Of course, it’s inside of us too but I think that’s where the world is going is towards collaboration and that’s where the magic happens.
Gregory Paul: No I agree. The first thing one of the first things I did when I got out as I started volunteering at Project Angel or not because I had to I wasn’t required under my supervision but I’m like I gotta do something man I’ve got to do something different. That’s what’s helping other people. So I started going there and I never realized it was going to happen but now I have this community this great group of people that I chop vegetables with every Monday nights there’s about ten or twelve of us. And they’re doctors they’re physicians, doctors, lawyers, someone nonprofits. You know it’s just the various group of people. One’s a librarian and we all just talk about all these great subjects and topics while we’re sitting there and cutting vegetables and making produce and preparing meals for people that have terminally ill with cancer or AIDS. So it’s it’s a wonderful thing. It’s a wonderful community but it’s not something what I expected it to be because our first I am like this is just this is something you have to do for you but in reality. It came back that now I just I’ve been doing it for six years. I never miss a night because I get very, very upset if I do because I love the fact that just being around other people and they all know my story. And just sharing different insights about whatever they’re going through because everybody has struggles and issues. It’s just really fulfilling.
Jennifer Myers: Yeah I think it’s really an important thing that you’ve had a pilot because what I’m thinking about right now is to speak in front back to how I’ve even created community and now back inside the prison. Like when I go inside and I knew I had to go back into prison and do some work. I never thought I’d be working with men but our Ted X group and the men that keep coming in and out we do have a core team. It feels like family and you know what I receive from the men that are in there many who are lifers, many who’ve been locked up since they were 16, and now they’re forty-five. You know these stories after stories and the men that are transforming inside prison and staying hopeful and staying open and staying inspired really really feeds my heart and feeds my life. So the community can show up I think like you’re saying in a very surprising way and unusual places.
Gregory Paul: Well that’s just amazing. That’s the story I don’t know if people really got the gravity of what you just said. Because men that know they’re never going to get out or the chances are very very slim and they’ve been in there for a long long time. People don’t realize the isolation and how much you crave just the community or just having anybody. Anybody from the outside world reaches into you and talk to you. I mean I was fortunate that my children would come to visit. I had one from the came to visit me almost every single weekend. So. It was an unusual right. I had a lot of people coming in to see me and check on me and make sure everything was OK. But some of these guys have no support whatsoever and then get through. TEDx and through public speaking they get a chance to grow. In their environment inside there and hopefully have an influence on other people that will eventually get out. And that’s the purpose of it.
Jennifer Myers: Totally. And one more thing I want to share it is. So I mean the stories are endless. What I experience inside. And of course, it’s in our confidence circle. But there is one man inside it’s just a beauty of a man who you know barely even talked. The first two years and now has just done a major 180 and speaking up and sharing and coming forward. And this is a man who you know shared his testimonial to us the other day if he did even realize this but he’d been in the hole for 14 years. He’d been incarcerated since he was 16. All he knew was gang life. He finally made the decision to change inside the prison. And you know he’s been completely cleared of any infractions for 15 years. He’s been locked up for thirty-nine years. He’s been denied, board. He’s gone to eleven Board hearings but denied each time. You know Scott life. I forget how many years to life but he has his next court hearing in July and he is determined to get out. And I am just cheerleading for him because my goodness I can’t believe the journey he’s taken is such a beauty of a light. And you know he just sat there and he ended up like crying in front of us and just saying you’re my family you’re my family. This is my family and you know besides his mother and so it was so touching and powerful to hear.
Gregory Paul: That’s just that’s wonderful work and very commend you. That just makes me beaming with pride because it’s just it’s great to hear the incredible things you’re doing.
Jennifer Myers: Well thank you, Greg, and also for what you’re doing. I mean we’re all on the same train and I really appreciate you having me on your podcast and having this dialogue and I know we’re in it together.
Gregory Paul: Thanks. No, I. Like I said I’m trying to reach out as many people. This is the path is really kind of narrowing down as to where I want to go and what I want to do so I greatly appreciate it. So you mentioned you have a book in your book still available.
Jennifer Myers: It is. It’s on Amazon. It’s published by Betty Young’s books and it’s called Trafficking the Good life. And it’s an audio or book or you can get a Kindle too. Well for yourself over are police I hope you will check out Jennifer’s Scorpions or any other place that they can get a hold of you if anybody wants to reach out Jennifer they can they can go to my Web site which is JenniferMyers.co.c Oh they can also check out my nonprofit at risetoempower.org. Those are the best ways to reach me right now.
Gregory Paul: Oh awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here. Yes, I’d really appreciate it. And for you folks OK we’re listening. Please leave a rating for this podcast. I really appreciate that as well. And we’ll talk to you soon.