This story is part of the Marshall Project’s “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” series. In 15 direct-to-camera testimonies, this collection of videos gives voice to Chicagoans affected by the justice system. Watch the videos at themarshallproject.org/chicago.
When Celia Colón was 16, she saw a friend get shot in the head right in front of her. She says she felt sad in her heart, but in that moment, she didn’t cry. “I thought, what is wrong with me?” she says. “I thought I had a heart that didn’t bleed.”
It wasn’t until she volunteered with a hospice program while in prison in 1998 that Colón learned she had post-traumatic stress disorder. She says the program taught her to exercise empathy and emotional detachment toward the terminal patients she served, and also introduced her to a team of psychologists and social workers who helped her address her own trauma for the first time in her life.
Colón, 43, is a survivor of physical and sexual abuse, which began at the hands of her mother’s boyfriends when she was a child. Her mother suffers from mental health issues, and as a result, Colón grew up feeling unloved and uncared for. “And it’s not because my mother didn’t want to,” she says. “She just didn’t know how to.”
At age 12, Colón witnessed her mother’s boyfriend beat her so badly that she was left unconscious. The incident led Colón and her family to flee from Florida to Chicago, where her grandparents lived. But the six-unit apartment in South Chicago they moved into turned out to be a gang headquarters. She told some of the local girls what she had been through.
“I gained their trust, and they took me under their wing,” Colón says. “I had this huge community. . . . But the downfall is that I also witnessed a lot of violence I shouldn’t have seen.”
Growing up around gang violence exposed Colón to another wave of trauma. She says during that period of her life, she went to more funerals than parties. The violence came to a head when she was involved in a fight at age 18 that landed her 15 years in prison for attempted murder.
Colón’s story is not unique. A 2010 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority found that 98 percent of female inmates surveyed had been physically abused, and 75 percent had experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime. The same report found that 60 percent of those women could be potentially diagnosed with PTSD.
In the three Illinois correctional facilities where Colón served her sentence, there were no rehabilitation programs in place to address the trauma that had led her there. Rather, the trauma continued—Colón is one of the many faces of prison rape. As previously reported by the Marshall Project, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that more than 200,000 inmates are sexually abused in American detention facilities every year.
Colón says she was lucky to participate in the Women Helping Others hospice care training at Dixon Correctional Facility, which “changed her life” and helped her return home with a new mind-set. But when she was later out on parole with a new job that allowed her to travel the world, she felt unsettled.
“I started thinking about all the women that I had left behind, who had stories just like mine or even worse,” she says. “I decided that I would use my voice for more than just me.”
When she was released early after serving more than six years of her sentence, Colón became a motivational speaker and advocate for women’s safety in prison. She founded an initiative called Giving Others Dreams, through which she facilitates mental health workshops for inmates in the Cook County Jail.
Colón says the workshop she designed consists of three sessions. In the first session, she teaches inmates how to create a support system for when they are released and distributes information about mental health services and hotlines. The second session centers on self-discovery and goal setting. After choosing a goal to accomplish, in the final session, the inmates create vision boards for their two-year plans. “That’s where the magic happens for me,” Colón says.
As the workshop ends, some inmates speak about “who they are, who they were, and who they plan to be.” Sometimes Colón shares her own experiences; other times it is too painful. She says the officers have told her that the workshop completely transforms the inmates’ perspectives and how they treat each other.
Transformation is the goal of Colón’s outreach, and she says it’s the only thing separating her from the women and men who remain behind bars. “Because of all the trauma, a lot of our dreams are buried inside of us under our pain, under our mistakes,” she says. “We forget how powerful we are.” v