Advocate Fights for Reform, Dignity in Criminal Justice System

A group of panelists will discuss issues impacting incarcerated individuals Saturday.

female inmate in orange jumpsuit behind bars

Seven years, five months and six days. That’s how long Ruby Welch was incarcerated. 

Since being released in 2006, she’s been working to give voice to those still behind bars and assist others who have returned home. Welch will discuss the need for criminal justice reform during a panel discussion tomorrow in Little Rock. The free event is part of Arkansas Cinema Society’s annual film festival, Filmland. 

Welch was sentenced to 30 years on a drug charge and while she was imprisoned, she kept seeing women being released from jail only to come back.

“I just said I got to do something, I got to do something,” she says. “I got to make a change when I get home not for myself, but more so for the women that were stuck in this revolving door.”

Today, Welch is an organizer for Dream Corps JUSTICE, a nonprofit that advocates for justice and prison reform. She’s also the founder and executive director of Formerly Incarcerated Empowered Leaders Overcoming Negative Stigmas or F.E.L.O.N. 

Through her organization, Welch shares her story and has developed a 10-step program — one for men and one for women — to help former inmates heal and move forward with their lives. During the Christmas season, “one of the loneliest times of being incarcerated,” Welch delivers bags of goodies and toiletries to a correction center or prison to spread some cheer. 

Welch is a resource for formerly incarcerated individuals who can call her personal number day or night. She provides guidance on accessing insurance, phones and food stamps. Welch also works with a man who provides $325 grants to assist with things like housing and clothes. 

“I can tell you how to go back to prison, but I can actually show you how to stay out,” she says. “Just being the person that they can look at and have some hope that if Ruby did it, I can do it.”

As someone with first-hand knowledge of what incarcerated individuals experience behind bars, Welch advocates for better treatment of inmates. One of “the most beloved things” to her heart was the passage of a dignity bill for incarcerated women in Arkansas. Act 566, which was signed into law in 2019, limits when a pregnant inmate can be placed in restraints, and requires necessary prenatal vitamins and hygiene products be provided to detainees.

While in prison, Welch had fibroid tumors which caused excess bleeding. At the time, inmates were given a limited amount of hygiene products at the start of the month and if someone was caught giving another inmate extra products, they could be disciplined.

Another way the Arkansas Department of Corrections is meeting the needs of women is through a lactation room in a Wrightsville prison. Women now have a space where they can pump their milk (which will be frozen) and feed their children during weekend visits.

While progress has been made in treating inmates with dignity, there is still more work to be done to end the cycle of incarceration. For example, addiction can lead to more jail time, so it’s important to investigate how drugs are getting into correctional facilities, Welch says. 

“There are people working for the system who are actually keeping people chained to the system and a prisoner to the prison by bringing drugs inside and keeping them addicted,” she says. “And l think that’s something that needs to be changed.”

Welch is also working to bring attention to mental health care. One thing she had to cope with behind bars was grieving the loss of her husband who died six months prior to the start of her prison sentence. Because of a lack of access to mental health care, Welch says she had to learn to heal herself, which was painful. This need could be met by allowing mental health professionals to come into prisons to talk with inmates, she says. 

“They need to come in and be able to speak with the women and ask the questions — what brought you here and what can we do to ensure that once you go home you don’t return here because that’s correction, that’s correction unless you want the cycle to continue,” Welch says.

Once released, formerly incarcerated individuals often have to continue dealing with the trauma they experienced in prison. They also face new challenges like finding a place to live or work because of the stigmas that surround being incarcerated. However, committing a crime does not make you a criminal, Welch says.

“There needs to be a balance in everything that we do,” she says. “Of course make us responsible for the wrongs that we’ve done, but please, please please, don’t make us pay for it for the rest of our life because I’m quite sure that everyone has done something, some didn’t get caught.”

It’s been 15 years since Welch was released from prison, but she’s still on parole. She knows one mistake could send her back, which is stressful. The way the system is structured currently, people are being held hostage for something they did years or even decades ago, Welch says.

“That ought not to be. There has to come a day when I feel free, just free,” she says.

Welch is part of a four-person panel that will discuss criminal justice reform at 4 p.m. Oct. 2 at the MacArthur Park Parade Grounds in Little Rock. The panel is being presented in conjunction with the Arkansas Cinema Society’s screening of The First Step Oct. 10 at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. The documentary captures the journey of Black progressive activist and political commentator Van Jones during his effort to reform a broken criminal justice system. 

Saturday’s panel discussion is free, but reservations are required. More information is available on ACS’s website

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.