In new position, Nimoh will focus on inequities in justice system

In new position, Nimoh will focus on inequities in justice system

PAWTUCKET – Mavis Nimoh, a Pawtucket resident and Shea High School graduate, has been named the new executive director for the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital.

The first African American woman named to lead the center, she’ll devote her time in the new role to issues surrounding mass incarceration, social justice and public health, fighting to address inequities in a system she says too often treats certain people, particularly minority populations, unfairly.

Nimoh, a University of Rhode Island graduate, told The Breeze she’s returned home to the city where she grew up to do what she sees as important work. “It’s home,” she says of the city where she is now raising her daughter. She previously worked out of state for many years in top-level positions for government agencies and nonprofits.

A culmination of professional and personal experiences led her back here, said Nimoh, who said she’s always been interested in civil justice, social justice, and fighting for equity and equality on all sides of the criminal justice system. Ultimately, she said, the system hasn’t focused enough on the root causes of criminal activity or how to treat them.

“I am thrilled to join the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights as its executive director and work alongside partners and experts sourcing and implementing systems-level change and solutions at the intersection of health equity and criminal justice and its correlating impacts on individuals, families, and communities throughout Rhode Island and the nation,” she said in a statement. “Equally as important for me was to return home and serve the communities that raised me and set me on the path for success. Representation matters, and I am proud to work for an organization that values and champions diversity, equity, and opportunity.”

Among her past experiences have been finding pathways for people with substance abuse disorders to be treated differently, and to advocate for the commutations of sentences and the clearing of criminal records. Her work will include partnering with various stakeholders on re-entry planning, transitions, and statewide criminal justice planning. It’s all meant to support the removal of barriers keeping incarcerated people from returning to Rhode Island’s communities as productive citizens.

The opioid crisis has been a tragedy, said Nimoh, but it’s also led to wider calls for equity in the justice system as it’s impacted a broader segment of society than the typical minority populations disproportionately impacted by drug charges. This is now impacting “multiple levels” and is not a partisan issue, she said.

“We’ve finally evolved into realizing that,” she said. Substance abuse as part of the opioid epidemic “really became the equalizer,” she told The Breeze, with “all mannerisms of folks suffering from addiction” that “knows no color.”

More people are starting to understand “that we can’t continue down this path” from either a moral or economic perspective, said Nimoh. There are pieces of the justice system that “are very much broken,” she said, including a bail system that decides who stays in prison and who goes free based on how much money they have.

“To me that’s a broken system at the front end,” she said.

Prisoners should have means of rehabilitation and the opportunity to correct course, she said. In keeping with the original intent of the country’s prison system, there should be investment in programs to help reintegrate people instead of making prison “punitive over the duration of someone’s sentence.”

She said she sees hope in more people seeing the high volume of repeat offenses as evidence that mass incarceration that most frequently targets minority groups should be changed.

“We’re really starting to think we have to do things differently,” she said.

The U.S. still has the highest prisoner rate in the world, and there are many ways for people to stay detached from the reality of those who are most impacted, she said. A shift in demographics, particularly among the nation’s leaders, is leading to more discussion and support for change.

Asked if she thinks the average person tends to automatically dismiss criminals as people to discard, Nimoh said she does often see that mentality of three strikes and putting someone away, regardless of what they’ve done.

One initiative Nimoh is all over is that of fair chance licensing, or changes in the law allowing those with criminal records to get fair consideration when trying to get an occupational license. There are laws currently that make getting such a license difficult. Once someone can get that trade license they can make “self-sustaining, family-sustaining” wages and be on the path to a better future, she said.

“That’s a gamechanger,” she said.

Nimoh served as state director of victim services for MADD Pennsylvania and executive director of a county agency focused on access to quality care for uninsured and under-insured individuals with substance use disorders. Her work also included spearheading the first diversionary program within the county’s booking center as well as overseeing treatment and recovery services for the county’s drug court and school-based treatment initiatives. She was also appointed secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons under the direction of the state’s lieutenant governor.

In Rhode Island, Nimoh led expanded learning initiatives as a member of the Special Legislative Commission on out of school time learning and managed the Rhode Island Afterschool Network. She is on the board of directors for the Providence Afterschool Alliance, Rhode Island School for Progressive Education, and mentors emerging leaders with the New Leaders Council of R.I.

“After a nationwide search process, Mavis was by far our top choice and we are delighted to have her join the center. Throughout her career, Mavis has been a change agent and led transformative initiatives that shifted culture and practice in behavioral health and criminal justice to better serve families and communities,” said Josiah Rich, co-founder and director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.

The center was established in 2005 to act as a hub for the innovative correctional health research and programming occurring at The Miriam Hospital and other research hospitals in Rhode Island and around the country.