Category Archives: women ex-offenders

Reentry updates: prison reform, women ex-offenders and the perils of Facebook

There’s a lot going on in the justice/reentry arena these days.  Here’s a quick update of what I’ve been following:

 Justice reform: will we or won’t we?

Last month, I wrote about Senator Jim Webb’s newly updated prison reform bill.  Alas, soon after, Webb announced he wouldn’t be running for a second term.  Which leaves me wondering: will a combination of  the Senator’s lame duck status and Congress’ need to focus on more pressing issues (wars, spending cuts, etc.) , push national justice reform again to the back burner?

Or will the action, as some – like the folks at Right on Crime – suggest, come more at the state level?  That’s certainly been the trend lately.    Last week, Georgia approved a bill that would set up a similar commission that will recommend reforms to that state’s prison system.   Meanwhile, the House in Oklahoma passed what’s being called the “most significant prison reform package in decades.”  Among other measures, the bill would make terms run concurrently and enhance the ability for sentences to be served within the community.

In addition, Ray Hill’s  the Prison Show  in Houston will be putting some artistic emphasis behind the need for change in our justice system when he hosts the Prison Reform Film Festival next month.

Women’s issues

I’ve worked almost exclusively with female offenders over the past couple of years.  So  I know their experiences in the justice system are very different than those of men, who make up the majority of offenders.   So I was happy to see NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show devote a segment recently to the unique challenges women face in terms of serving sentences and reentrying society.  There was also an interesting piece on Russian prison reforms are helping women. 

Facebook Follies

In my employment skills classes I caution students to be careful about the personal information they share on sites  like Facebook or Myspace. It’s standard procedure for many employers to turn to social networking pages or places like  Twitter  to find out more about a job candidate or who they’re  hanging out with.   Everyone’s heard stories about how ill-advised boasts or drunken photos have cost people jobs .

Nor are  employers or job recruiters the only people who might be looking at what you post.   As a recent article suggests supervision officers may soon find it easy to track someone’s post-release behavior online, including whether he or she is still associating with criminals.   This particular article even goes so far as to suggest how probation and parole officers might document what they find  in order to have evidence in a revocation hearing.

Another reason it might be worth keeping an eye on your site, and what you and others post there.

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Filed under background checks, employment ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, prison reform, reentry, starting over, women ex-offenders

Helping women start over….

 I was happy to see  the National H.I.R.E. Network  devoted its 5th Annual Policy  Conference last week  to one of the most overlooked groups of ex-offenders.

You guessed it  – women.

The advocacy organization, which is dedicated to helping individuals with criminal records,  focused some much needed attention on the fact that , as I’ve noted, women face unique challenges in starting over after incarceration.  At the same time, most reentry programs and efforts are devoted to the needs of the men.   There’s a lack of understanding about the female experience behind bars, as well as what their needs are after release.   There’s also a stigma.  

I also think H.I.R.E. came up with some interesting  recommendations for change:

Within facilities

  • Improved discharge planning, including reinstating Medicaid and obtaining a state identification card and birth certificate prior to release.
  • More higher education opportunities for women.
  • Placement for mothers within reasonable distance from children to encourage visitation.
  • Improved medical and psychiatric care, and an increase in trauma-informed corrections and service provider staff.

Reentry

  • A shorter, less-invasive process for securing a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.
  • Improved communication between criminal and housing courts to reduce problems women have trying to reunite with their children upon reentry.
  • More transitional and affordable housing; too often women manage to reunite with their children only to wind up in a shelter.

Readers, how about you?    Are there any services you’ve seen that have helped women?  Anything you would add?

By the way, you can more about the conference here.

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Filed under criminal records, education ex-offenders, homelessness, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, starting over, women ex-offenders

Lindsay Lohan’s jail break

Jail is an awful, dehumanizing place, and I don’t envy Lindsay Lohan for having to spend time there.

In case you’ve fallen behind in your tabloid reading: Lohan, the talented, but increasingly troubled actress, began serving a 90-day sentence today at the women’s jail in Lynwood, California.  She got it for failing to show up to court and violating the terms of her probation on earlier misdemeanor drug and driving charges.  

 In the run-up to her surrender, there was a predictable face-off between those who felt Lohan was getting what she deserved and those who thought she’d be better off in a rehab program.

While I agree that jail isn’t going to cure  a serious substance abuse problem, I have to say I’m glad she’s there.   And no, not just because this proves a famous actress isn’t above the law and has to pay for what she’s done like everyone else.   Initially, I thought that might be why as I’ve often expressed how I feel about rich or celebrated lawbreakers getting special treatment.

But ultimately, I realized it was more because of Lohan’s similarities to others who are doing time  behind bars.   If you take out the spoiled actress part and all the money, she’s actually a  pretty typical inmate.  Consider:

Lohan, who first charmed me playing twin sisters in “The Parent Trap,” has some incredible gifts.  My hope  is that she’s able to see this as a wake-up call and use her time away from society — which is expected in the end to be around 23 days — to face her problems.  Going to rehab is almost fashionable among the Hollywood set.  But sometimes people need a bigger dose of reality to get them to truly want to change.   Just as with Roberty Downey Jr.,  whose drug use ultimately earned him a prison term, this could be a turning point for Lohan. 

Readers, what do you think?  Have any of you ever been prompted to change your life or deal with major shortcomings because of  a jail or prison term?  How did you do it?

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Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, life in prison, personal responsibility, second chances, sentencing alternatives, starting over, taking responsibility, women ex-offenders

On jail friends

Early on when I began working with offenders, a student was talking about  her cellmate.  “She’s one of my ‘jail friends,’ she said.  “You know, we talk a lot here  and do stuff together like Bible Study, but I don’t know if I’ll see her after I get out.”

I thought of her comment this week as I was teaching a new class.  Every session it amazes me how the women in the group come together to support each other.  It’s not all wine and roses certainly.  I still remember a  lady in a previous class, who shrieked, “You’re an IDIOT!!!” when a  fellow student announced her life goal was to marry a rich man.   They didn’t speak much after that.

Room for humanity

At the same time, I’ve seen people from surprisingly different walks of life go out of their way to help each other.  Whether it’s encouraging someone to share a skill,  praising  a response to an interview question, or forcing a less motivated cellmate to take a class because you know it’s good for them  — it’s just not what I expected. I don’t know if that’s because of the way our culture portrays incarceration, particularly for women, where movies like “Born Innocent,” focus on what’s most salacious and brutal.  But the more I do this, the more I see these “inside friendships” as serving a critical role in many inmates lives.

“There are just so many good people in here,” one of my students explained to me.   “It’s like there’s no pretense.   Nothing to hide, so you can just be yourself.”

She and her classmates were quick to add that there were plenty of jerks and people you wanted to avoid.   But again, I found it heartening, that in such a degraded situation, people were finding ways to not feel so alone.

It reminded me of former offender Piper Kerman’s recent memoir, Orange is the New Black, which detailed her time in federal prison. Kerman, too, drew surprising solace and support from some of her fellow inmates.  Now that she’s no longer on probation, she’s  been in touch with some of her prison friends.  You can find her talking about the power of prison friendships here.

How about you?  If you’re an ex-offender, did you have people you relied on to help you survive the system?

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Filed under offender health, women ex-offenders

When Mom’s away

On Mother’s Day it’s worth remembering that for kids whose moms are incarcerated, there won’t be much to celebrate. 

Currently, there are  upwards of 207,000 women in U.S. prisons or jails —  an 800 percent increase since the late 1970s.   In fact, women today account for just under 10 percent of the total incarcerated population, according to the most recent statistics from the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project.   Of those, some 62 percent have children under 18.  Two-thirds of these children lived with their mother before she began serving her sentence. 

In addition, some 5 percent of women reported being pregnant at the time they went into custody.  This, combined with the desire to keep families intact has even led to a growing trend in prison nurseries.

Note: I’m not saying that women shouldn’t pay the price for their behavior just because they’re typically the primary caregivers for their children.  I do believe, however, that more needs to be done to  minimize the impact of prison terms on offenders’ innocent kids.  Many reentry organizations do this with counseling and support groups they offer to families of offenders.    The Family and Corrections Network, has a number of programs attempting to meet the needs of the families of the incarcerated.

It’s support the kids need.  One Mom I recently worked with said her 10 year old daughter kept trying to get in trouble at school after her mother was sentenced to 18 months in jail.  “She even told me that if I she got sent to prison, then we could be together.  It was horrible.”  For another Mom, it was easier not to tell her 4 year old.   As a result, he currently thinks she was away at school all that time. 

In many  cases, mothers lose custody of their children, who are farmed out to foster homes or distant relatives.  That makes re-entry parenting all that much harder.

So today, think of the Moms and kids.   And Moms and kids,  if you’ve faced this challenge, we’d love to know how you handled it.

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Filed under adult education, employers hiring ex-offenders, women ex-offenders

What women want

                

Do women have a harder time rebuilding their lives after incarceration?  I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately.  Although I’ve taught both men and women, for the past several months I’ve been working primarily  with females — and the myriad  issues these women face upon release is daunting.  Now before all you guys get on me for being sexist, I’m not saying male ex-offenders don’t have it tough too.  Everybody who takes the course I teach  wants and needs to find a job, which isn’t easy. But in my women’s classes I’ve also had three students give birth while serving out their terms. Female offenders are more apt  to be single parents or sole-caregivers for children under 18.  They’re also more likely than their male counterparts to have been abused, have problems with drug or  alchohol and suffer from mental illness, according to a National Justice Institute study.  On top of that women felons typically have fewer job skills and less work experience. 

Over at Prisontalk.com,  one of the best online communities out there for ex-offenders in terms of real life feedback,  there’s a even a running discussion that addresses this topic.  As one poster put it: “Since men can do labor intensive jobs and most of these jobs are a little more forgiving when it comes to having a criminal history, they get more jobs. Most women work in a more structured environment, this tends to mean more corporate jobs, and they are much less forgiving of a criminal history. Unfortunately women are judged much harsher then men. It’s almost like a macho thing, real men are supposed to be bad get into trouble but not women. There are double standards.”

So what does all this mean if you’re a women trying to turn your life around?  Basically, that you’re going to need to be even better prepared than a man  might be.  A 2002 report by the Safer Foundation came up with recommendations to improve the reentry process for women, but in the meantime there is still plenty you can do on your own, including:

  1. Get  help early.   Ideally start when you’re inside.  Take advantage of whatever educational opportunities you’re offered.  Complete your GED.  Take classes. As strange as it sounds, a prison or jail-term often represents the first time some women have been  forced to focus just on themselves.  Use your lack of other responsibilities to work on improving  you.
  2. Start building or rebuilding your support network now.  Keep in touch with people who offer positive reinforcement.  For one woman I worked with this was an old  friend who sent her inspirational sayings and a cellmate equally determined to change her life.  Get a mentor to help you get on track to realize future goals, or seek out someone from the prison ministry.  After your release be similarly selective in the company you keep.
  3. Get your documents in order.  If you have family/attorney might be able to help you get started.  If not,  reentry and other community organizations are there to help you complete the process of gettting back licenses or helping start the paperwork to regain custody of your children once you’ve been released.
  4. Get the treatment you need.  If you have substance abuse or mental health issues now is the time to deal with them.  As one former offender who got a job and went on to start her own business put it: ” This should be your first priority. Period! If you have an addiction, get help. Nothing will screw up your future success faster than dope. If you go to work stoned, drunk or flying someone will notice. Bank on it!”
  5. Take advantage of re-entry resources right away.  Many of these organizations require you to report within 24 hours of getting out in order to qualify for benefits such as job assistance and housing assistance, and other types of transitional help.
  6. Be patient with yourself.  Women ex-offenders often must contend with everything from reestablishing a home and family life and ending destructive relationships to finding affordable housing, a job and a way to live.  And they must often do this while resisting falling back into addiction or bad habits and making sure they meet the obligations of their parole.  It’s a tall order and there will be good and bad days.  Give yourself time as well a  permission not to be perfect.

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