Pilot program supports formerly incarcerated women

Andrea Swan, standing, director, Office of Community Development, Temple University, with program participants. From left, Lisa Crass, Danielle Diagostino, Alyassa Cariin and Genaya Lee, on continuing education options available to them at Temple University. — Photo by ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

Experts in the field of corrections and sentencing reform say the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation.

Equally well-documented is the racial disparity that has become an inherent factor in the rise of America’s prison populations and that Black and Hispanic men represent the greatest number of inmates.

But hidden in the swelling numbers of the nation’s incarcerated class are the rising numbers of women being sentenced to prison; many of whom are mothers and heads of single-family households – approximately 85 percent.

Statistics show a significant number of these women were sentenced for drug-related offenses, retail theft or prostitution as a result of drug addictions or their intimate relationship with a drug dealer. They face tremendous risks of recidivism once released.

So this week the anti-violence organization Mothers in Charge launched a pilot program called Women Working for a Change. For 10 weeks, 14 women who have been recently released from prison will receive on-the-job training and support. The women are employed for 20 hours a week over the 10-week training period that is funded by the Philadelphia Prison System. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, said the women are very excited about having the opportunity.

“This is an important opportunity to affect the high rate of recidivism among formerly incarcerated women,” Johnson-Speight said. “Many of them end up being sent back to prison because they have little or no support. They’re unemployed, they have children, and often those children become caught up in the street life while their mothers are serving time. The women in the program receive $10 an hour and clothing that’s appropriate for job training.We’re hoping to expand the program once the 10 weeks are up; we want to double the number of trainees.”

Participants in the program will receive training on interviewing, resume-writing, career wardrobe, time management, job search, and applying for a job. In addition, they will receive life-skills training through workshops on parenting, anger management, substance abuse prevention and peer negotiation — skills that are necessary to reduce the risk of recidivism.

Research conducted by The Sentencing Project shows that between 1980 and 2011 the number of women being sentenced to prison rose a staggering 581 percent. And the numbers show that Black and Hispanic women are more likely to face a prison sentence than their white counterparts.

Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, said the nation’s 30-year-plus War on Drugs has contributed to the rise of women being incarcerated.

“There are a number of factors at work in this but even more so the nation’s War on Drugs is the single major force putting women behind bars,” Mauer said.

He offered, “Women are less likely to be violent offenders but as the prison system expanded and drug offenses become a focal point in sentencing laws women were more likely to be involved. There was a greater probability that women would be caught up. In many of these cases we have what has become known as ‘the girlfriend problem.’

“The woman has a boyfriend who is a drug dealer, and she’s really just along for the ride,” Mauer explained. “When he gets arrested investigators will push for him to cooperate and get a lesser sentence. So he cooperates, but she’s in a limited position to offer any information. Who does she know? Well she knows her boyfriend and probably that’s it, so she ends up doing more time than the boyfriend. Another aspect is there are limited programs for post-incarceration support, which contributes to high rates of recidivism.”

According to Sentencing Project figures the number of incarcerated women increased by 587 percent between 1980 and 2011; rising from 15,118 to 111,387. That included women in local jails.

More than 200,000 women are now incarcerated. The number of women in prison increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men – 637 percent as opposed to 419 percent for the same span of years. Right now the lifetime likelihood of a woman being incarcerated is 1 in 19 for Black women and 1 in 45 for Hispanic women.

White women by contrast stand a 1 in 118 chance of going to prison. From 2000 to 2010 the rate of incarceration dropped by 35 percent for Black women and increased 28 percent for Hispanic women and 38 percent for white women. Research also shows that women are more likely to be imprisoned for drug and property offenses.

“Right now Philadelphia leads the nation in poverty, which is about 30 percent, a large part of that population are ex-offenders. Philadelphia is one of the cities that also lead the nation in violence; so to the extent that we can remove barriers to employment for male and female ex-offenders we can impact public safety,” said William Hart, Executive Director for R.I.S.E. (Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services).


Contact Staff Writer Larry Miller at 215-893-5782 or lmiller@phillytrib.com

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