In author Jabari Asim's fictionalized St. Louis -- the 'Gateway City' first introduced in his short story collection 'A Taste of Honey' –- characters come to grips with the fallout of the civil rights era in surprising ways. We talk with Asim about the fictional world he created and examine the realities of how we deal with race in America today.
Women account for nearly one fifth of the people behind bars or on parole in the United States. And when they return home to their communities, they often face very different challenges than their male counterparts. In the second of our two-part series on life after prison, we look at female offenders and what’s being done locally to keep them on the right track.
- India Frazier Person under supervision, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
- Adrienne Poteat Interim Director, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
- Ashley McSwain Executive Director, Our Place D.C.
- Nancy La Vigne Director, Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Prison is a hard place to leave behind even after you've served your time. That's especially true for female prisoners, women who are more likely to have serious drug problems and less likely to have the skills needed to get a good job. Add in their responsibilities as parents and many women often find life after prison to be a huge struggle. In this hour, it's the second in our two-part series on returning from prison with a special focus on women. They're a small but growing percentage of the U.S. prison population, and they often face very different issues from their male counterparts.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk more about life for women after prison and what's being done on the local level to assist these women is Nancy La Vigne. Nancy is the director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. She joined us last week for the first part of our series. Nancy, thank you for joining us again.
MS. NANCY LA VIGNEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us this week is Ashley McSwain, executive director of Our Place D.C. That's a nonprofit that serves women returning to the community after incarceration. Ashley McSwain, thank you for joining us.
MS. ASHLEY MCSWAINOh, it's great to be here.
NNAMDIAdrienne Poteat is interim director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, CSOSA. Adrienne Poteat, thank you joining us.
MS. ADRIENNE POTEATThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is India Frazier. She's a person under supervision with CSOSA, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. India Frazier, good to meet you.
MS. INDIA FRAZIERThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAllow me to start with you, Adrienne. Last week, we mentioned that about 10 percent of the population of Washington D.C. is made up of ex-offenders. Generally speaking, what percentage of the ex-offenders that you work with tend to be women?
POTEATWell, our population -- and we have approximately 2,500 women offenders that we currently supervise. That's a small portion when you compare it to that of the men.
NNAMDINancy, give us a national perspective. How significant percentage of the people who spend time in prison and on parole are women?
VIGNEThe percentage is around 10 percent, but it's been increasing over the last few years.
NNAMDIAround 10 percent but increasing over the last few years.
VIGNEYes. That is...
NNAMDIWhile it is my understanding that the male prison population has been declining slightly over the past few years.
NNAMDIWhat accounts for the different trends?
VIGNEYeah. It's hard to say, and we know that there are distinct differences between how women end up behind bars and how their male counterparts do. Women tend to have much more extensive histories of substance addiction, often coupled with mental health issues, and whereas they might be less likely to have been behind bars before, they're much more likely to have an extensive history of convictions. So they've been exposed to the criminal justice system for many, many years for a long period of time. And I think, you know, over time, the judges may feel like the options are limited, and ultimately, they end up behind bars.
NNAMDIWe'd like to have you join this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you, your mom, sister, daughter or another woman in your life spent time in prison? What was that experience like? Did you face any challenges getting your life back on track once you were released? You can call us at 800-433-8850, or if you have questions for us, you can also call us or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation right there.
NNAMDIAshley McSwain, generally speaking, what are the crimes that tend to land a woman in prison compared with the crimes that land men in prison?
MCSWAINFor women, it's generally drug offenses and nonviolent offenses, so things like theft, stealing. Those are the crimes that we generally see.
NNAMDIDo you sometimes see them in -- though who have committed violent crimes, usually it's my understanding, more domestic violent crimes than anything else?
MCSWAINWe do. There are some women who have violent crimes, aggravated assaults, simple assaults.
NNAMDIAnd, Adrienne Poteat, I'd like to hear the same from you. You have long experience working within correction systems. Those generally the crimes women get admitted to prison for?
POTEATThat's correct. The top four crimes for women are your drug-related charges, simple assaults, driving under the influence and weapon-related charges. In comparison to the men, those top crimes are drug-related, weapons, simple assault and robbery.
NNAMDIIndia Frazier, I'd like to hear your personal story. It's my understanding you had problems with drugs. How did you eventually end up behind bars?
FRAZIERWell, I was in the streets drugging and, you know, participating in street activities for like 20 years of my life. And during the whole 20 years, jail was not a fear for me. So I did what my addiction dictated to me to do. My last charge, which was armed robbery, you know, it's hard when you are out there. And you're looking for a way, and you can't find a way. So you resort to doing things that you most naturally wouldn't do. I was raised on morals and principles, but I forgot about those when I started drugging.
FRAZIERI've numbed myself to that. When I started drugging, I forgot the principles that my grandmother taught me. You don't take from them. You know, you can always have what they have. You just got to work for it, you know? So I was in and out of prison for 20 years. And the last time that I went in, I actually set myself down, and I said, you know, I wasn't raised like this. I know I can do better. I got skills. I have employable skills, which is my CDL Class A. So, you know, I have to give...
NNAMDIWhat's a CDL Class A?
FRAZIERThat's a commercial driver's license.
NNAMDIOh, that's right.
POTEATYeah. Class A status.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that more later in the broadcast.
FRAZIEROkay. And, you know, and then I wasn't spending time with my family. I just burnt every bridge there was with my family. I had to rebuild that. And then, I was away from my daughter, 20 years off and on, inside the institution, either -- if I wasn't in the institution, I was in the streets. So, you know, I had to focus on my drug addiction. I had to focus on trying to build a relationship with my family. I had to focus on finding a job, and I just had to focus on loving me.
NNAMDIIf it was, in fact, your drug addiction that probably drove you to commit some of the crimes you committed, like armed robbery, what was your experience in prison like in terms, first and foremost, of dealing with your drug addiction because it's my understanding that when you go to prison you are forced to detox, so to speak, on your own; is that correct?
FRAZIERThat is correct. That is correct. And in some prison institutions, you can go in, they will help you deal with your drug addiction, but in some prison settings, you will just go in cold turkey, you know?
NNAMDIYou go in cold turkey. Couple of questions about that. What kind of training is available for you or was available for you in prison to enable you to be able to get a job when you returned home from prison?
FRAZIERThere are programs in the institution such as plumbing, HVAC, 411 services, things like that. They even have you -- some programs deal with dentistry, things like that. You know, they give you ways to find a skill. You know what I'm saying? But if you don't apply yourself or you don't bring it home and use it, then you lose it.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding, though, that some of the training you get does not really have any application for your life. It's my understanding that you got training in understanding the stock market?
NNAMDIWhat was your response to that?
FRAZIERWhat I am gonna do with the stock market? First of all, I don't even have the money to put into the stocks to make money.
NNAMDIWe're talking about female prisoners returning from prison with India Frazier. She's a person under supervision with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Adrienne Poteat is interim director of that agency. Ashley McSwain is executive director of Our Place D.C., which serves women returning to the community after incarceration, and Nancy La Vigne is the director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Nancy, you've done studies looking at female prison populations in Maryland and in Texas. There's several really striking ways in which female offenders tend to differ from their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to drug use. Tell us a little bit about that.
VIGNEYes, that's right. As I was saying earlier, women tend to have much more extensive histories of drug use, and among the women we interviewed in Maryland, those returning to the Baltimore area, about half of them reported daily heroin use in the six months leading up to their incarceration, which we found most stunning. About a third of the men we interviewed reported daily heroin use in those six months. In addition, half of the women also reported daily cocaine use during that period compared to just 22 percent of the men.
VIGNEClearly, substance addiction is a tremendous issue for both men and women who find themselves behind bars, and that's, I think, one of the greatest challenges in their quest to successfully reintegrate after release.
NNAMDIWhich brings us to the question we have from Chris in Pentagon City. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi. Thanks for taking my call.
CHRISI guess, from personal experience, I had adopted a dog that was available through a prison rehabilitation program in Virginia in which they bring in, you know, stray animals. They train them, and they help them out. I know this is available to male and female prison populations in certain areas. Do you think that in terms of rehabilitation efforts if we were to expand programs such as these, where we see benefits not only to the inmates but to other beneficiaries as well, such as the dogs or the future adoptive homes? There are law enforcement agencies that may take your dog.
CHRISDo you think that's maybe a step in the right direction instead of, let's say, the stock market where, you know, like she was just describing, she didn't really necessarily know what to do or have the money after taking on these skills.
POTEATWell, I can speak to what used to happen years ago in the Lorton facilities. They had a pet program, and at that time, I was just dealing with the male offenders. And so therefore they got an opportunity to learn how to treat human beings, learn how to train them, learn how to work with animals, learn compassion, learn caring. We didn't have the program where you were able to actually go out and train animals to probably use maybe in metropolitan police departments or somewhere else. But it was the beginning of the program, and we found the attachment grew with the offenders and the pets. And we had to limit it to the type of pets that we allow inside.
POTEATNow, I've seen television ads that talked about those programs in some of the facilities, but I don't know exactly where they are around the country.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the best strategy for stopping the revolving door between prison and the street? 800-433-8850. Ashley, Our Place D.C. starts working with women while they're still behind bars, and it's my understanding that the number of calls you're getting from women while they're in prison is going up. Tell us about that and about some of the services you provide for local women.
MCSWAINYes. We've seen an increase in our services by 30 percent over the last year. So, basically, Our Place works with the women while they're still incarcerated. We go into the facilities, the Bureau of Prison facilities, the halfway house, the jail, the -- and we offer employment, discussions, helping women talk about their criminal background and explain the gaps. We offer HIV and AIDS prevention. We offer a peer-facilitated workshop called Sister. We offer legal clinics. We do case managements four months before women are released and then provide support after their release.
MCSWAINOnce they're released from custody, they can then come to Our Place. We have a drop-in center, a clothing boutique. We offer the women birth certificates, identification, police clearances, Metro tokens, help with resume writing, counseling tests and then referral for HIV and AIDS. We have a transitional housing program for women living with HIV.
MCSWAINWe have a visitation program, where we take family members to visit women who are at the Danbury facility and at the Hazelton facility. We do that every month. We offer, you know, just various support groups, writing groups and things.
NNAMDIWe're in a tight economy right now. How do you fund the work that you do and what's the funding situation like right now, given the tight economy?
MCSWAINOh, my God. Yeah. That's such a good question. And it's very tight funding. You know, 57 percent of our money comes from the D.C. government. Twenty-seven percent comes from foundations and the balance comes from individual donors, but it's very, very tight. You know, we served 1,500 women last year, and our budget's about a little over $1 million. So, you know, people are, sort of, very low paid at our place. And last year, we served -- we received 5,500 collect calls from women who are in custody, you know? So we're offering very, very comprehensive supports.
NNAMDIAdrienne, your agency, CSOSA, has something of an unusual mandate and role for a federal agency. Give our audience just a brief introduction to the work that you do.
POTEATAll right. We are an independent federal agency that was created due to the Revitalization Act. And, at that time, the Lorton facilities were opened, and you had the D.C. Board of Parole. They transferred the functions of the parole board to the U.S. Parole Commission, those from probation from the courts to our agency. And so, therefore, we're federal, but we perform a state function. And so all of the men and women that are currently on supervision, whether it's probation, parole or supervised release, are under our jurisdiction.
NNAMDIBut it's my understanding -- you mentioned men -- that CSOSA is increasing its focus on women. How so?
POTEATYes. Well, we felt that, you know, women have special needs that need to be addressed so that they can be successful in the community. That's not to say that we're not also focusing on the men, but we saw an increase in the population of the women coming home. We had done a lot for the men that we were servicing, and we thought it was best -- now, let's do something different for the women. And in that, we decided to do a gender-specific program and unit that housed all of the women that were in your general supervision units. There were certain classes we did not move to this unit, and that was special domestic violence, sex offender and interstate because they were already undergoing specialized services.
POTEATIn doing that, we can have a one-stop shop for the women. Everything that they need can be tailored for their needs and housed or developed right there on site at 25 K Street in Northwest Washington. And in order to do that, we needed to get the buy in, not only from the women but from the staff as well. And we met with a lot of the women offenders, doing a mass orientation to tell them what we were doing and why. And, believe it or not, they were happy, that they said, now someone is paying attention to us.
POTEATSo you don't have to go to various sites to come and get mental health treatment, to come and get a vocational, come and get educational services, job development. It will all be right there for you because we realize women s serve various roles in terms of caretakers for their family members and for their children and others. So this would make it more conducive for them.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of paying attention, we'd like to make sure that you, in the listening audience, are paying attention. You can demonstrate that by calling us now, 800-433-8850, especially if you happen to be an employer. Would you consider hiring a woman who is an ex-offender? 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question, make a comment or make your job offer there. You can also send e-mail to email@example.com. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on women returning from prison. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about returning from prison, female perspectives, part of a series of conversation we're having about this. Today we're talking with India Frazier. She is a person under supervision with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, CSOSA. Adrienne Poteat is the interim director of that agency. Ashley McSwain is executive director of Our Place, which serves women returning to the community after incarceration. And Nancy La Vigne is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. We were talking about the kinds of services provided by agencies like CSOSA and Our Place. India Frazier, what kind of services do you think would be most helpful to women behind bars that would help them after they get out?
FRAZIERI think that if you -- if they were to stipulate that, first and foremost, a lot of women in the institution, they don't wanna go and get their GED or their high school diploma. That is a must. You have to come home with some type of certification that can help you at least go into a job skill or a training facility to obtain what you need to go on to the next level. So GED is -- in the prison setting is a must because you have a lot of women locked up that don't have their GED or high school diploma.
NNAMDIAre there all the services available to them while they're incarcerated that can help them to get their GEDs?
FRAZIERI mean, there are services that have been in place over the years within the prison system, but -- I mean, if you don't make it a number one priority, you got people that might come in, like, jail. They'll go into jail, and they'll be in there 15 days, you know what I'm saying? If you don't catch them from the beginning, day one, and say, okay you don't have your GED. You have to go to GED class, you know I'm saying? And then they're released 15 days later. If you put this in their head for 15 days, there's a possibility they're gonna come home and continue that through CSOSA or Our Place or something -- another program that can help them, you know, gain that.
NNAMDIAdrienne Poteat, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this as well. As the former warden of a correctional facility for women, what's the best way to work with women inside prison so you don't see them again a year or two down the road?
POTEATWell, it's a lot of things that has to happen. First of all, every woman, we have to do some type of assessment on because we need to know what their needs are and what their risk level is so that we can appropriately house them and recommend them for the programs that will best serve them while they're serving their time in prison, even if they remain there or go somewhere else. And we -- by doing that, that looks at vocational skills, education, social skills and networks, the family history, substance abuse, all of that is considered. Now, once you do that, every offender is assigned to a case manager.
POTEATIt is up to that case manager to give you some type of accountability contract, your case management plan that you know this is going to best help you when you get out. Everything that's recommended is usually in a presentence report. The report is prepared by our agency. It is sanctioned by the court. Because if you get time, those recommendations are instilled in that report, and it says education, increase your GED or obtain your GED, vocational skills and so forth. Now, when you follow that, if they go to prison, you enroll the offenders in the appropriate program. You recommend. You cannot direct them to do anything that they don't want to.
POTEATIt's highly recommended that they participate in those programs. You will find, as India said, women go in. They may choose just to do time rather than excel in some type of opportunity that is available at this institution.
POTEATSo it's up to the case manager and the offender to get that rapport, so that case manager helps guide these women through this transition. They are like their mentors while they're there.
POTEATWhen you fail at something, we have to, not only reward you for good behavior, but sanction you for bad behavior.
POTEATSo when you're doing well, reward you for that. And...
NNAMDIWell, one of the things I'd like to talk about is when you say that some women tend to choose to do time rather than taking advantage of the program, we're gonna talk about some of the other factors that are going on in their life, sometimes outside of prison, that caused them to seem as if they simply want to do time rather than take advantage of opportunities that are offered to them. But I wanted to get back to the telephone, because here is Barbara in Washington, D.C. Barbara, your turn.
BARBARAYeah. I'm a social worker. I specialize working with people coming out of the D.C. jail who are also mentally ill. And one of the biggest problems that I run into is, like, you know, the combination of the mental illness and the substance abuse. But that -- so many of the women have such a hard time coming out of jail. They're looking just to find clothing or tokens just to even get to where they need to go or -- you know, we direct a lot of people to Our Place. But if you don't have basic money to live on, it's very hard to try and do right and, you know, stop the cycle.
NNAMDIWhen you say if you don't have basic money to live on, the point at which somebody is coming home from incarceration, obviously they don't have any basic money to live on. But you're talking about in the event that that person has received training, the kind of money that you need to get clothing and transportation to even go looking for a job?
BARBARAYeah. I mean, we have people who come and they're released from the D.C. jail with just the jumpsuit they have on and the...
NNAMDIHow do you handle that at Our Place, Ashley McSwain?
MCSWAINWell, a lot of the women come directly from the jail and they have nothing. So we start them out by offering them clothing. We give them Metro tokens to get to their appointments. We pay for birth certificates, police clearances, identification. Those are very foundational things that they need in order to get started. We then have attorneys on staff, so they speak to our attorneys. And so we really determine what their needs are and, you know, send them to each of our departments to provide them with some support and a plan. So then they begin to work that plan.
NNAMDIBut I guess that's one of the points Barbara was making, there are only so many places like Our Place.
MCSWAINYeah. That's right.
NNAMDIAnd so a lot of the women don't have places to go to. Barbara, thank you very much for your call. Nancy La Vigne, let's talk about the role that family connections play for female offenders. To what extent do family and children, in particular, put different pressures on women and also help to keep them out of trouble?
VIGNEI'm glad you asked that. It's one of my favorite topics, because in all the research we've done on prisoner reentry, we found a lot of the obvious things that people would expect that, you know, having substance abuse treatment behind bars and continuing that in the community can help people stay off drugs and get jobs and stay out of prison.
VIGNEBut what we found, which is pretty unique in the literature, is the important role that family plays in successful reentry. Now, one thing that often surprises people is that most everyone who leaves prison has someone they would define as a supportive family member in their life. We talked a lot about how all the bridges have been burned. But I think, and even India would agree, there's probably someone there for you when you really needed them. Is that right?
VIGNEThat's what we learned from the people we interviewed both behind bars, and we followed them over the course of a year in the community. And we asked them, you know, what level of family support do you have? What kind of support are they providing? And those with -- all of them supported -- reported some level of support. And those who reported higher level of support were less likely to engage in substance use and were less likely to end up back behind bars. Another issue, especially with women, is that of their ties to children.
VIGNEAnd this is perhaps the single greatest factor for women, the biggest incentive, I think, to try to stay off drugs, to try to make good this time. And what's interesting, because we interviewed people, we asked them what are you most looking for after your release? And we asked this of men and women. The men said calling their own shots and -- I'm not joking -- pizza. The women said...
NNAMDIWhy am I not surprised?
VIGNEThe food in prison is not so great.
NNAMDIWhy am I not surprised? Knowing men, that's why I'm not surprised.
VIGNEThat's right. Right. Right. The women, the biggest incentive they were looking forward most was reuniting with their children. We also found that for women, the kind of family support they have is very different from that of men. Men have the mothers, the aunts, the significant others. There's always a woman in their lives who will take care of them. For women, it's typically their adult children who are source of support to them.
NNAMDIAdrienne Poteat, the reality for many female offenders from the District is that they served their time hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of miles away from their family. Where are these women traditionally sent? And to what extent do they get to interact with family members?
POTEATMany of the women...
NNAMDIIndia is already going hmm. (laugh)
POTEATMm-hmm. Many of the...
NNAMDIWould you -- we'll talk about -- with India about that in a second. Go ahead.
POTEATOkay. Many of the women are housed or prisoned in Hazelton, in Philadelphia, Alderson, W. Va. And so if it wasn't for...
NNAMDIAnd, India, we're gonna get to Tallahassee in a second.
VIGNETexas and Florida.
POTEATIf it wasn't for...
POTEAT...people like Ashley that took the families to visit the offenders, it would be very difficult for them to really maintain some type of interaction or relationship, where -- you're correct, most of the men are little closer to home. I believe the closest one probably is Danbury.
NNAMDIAnd I guess, Ashley, that's also one of the problems you have to deal with when women are incarcerated and when they get out, the fact that they have been so far away from family members, in general, and their children, in particular, for so long?
MCSWAINYeah, that's correct. I mean, one of the things that we try to do at Our Place is just build relationships and make sure the women know that they have ties to the community that they left so long ago. And it's really difficult for the women who family members can't visit them while they're in custody. And the visitation program is a pretty important program, especially around Mother's Day, in the holidays and Christmas. So, you know, our goal is to ensure that the women recognized that there are some supports available to them when they're released.
MCSWAINSo we travel to each of the facilities. We travel to Hazelton every other month. We travel to Philadelphia every single month to provide support and programming. And we go to Alderson quarterly. We go to the jail every single week. We go to Fairview twice a month. So we are really trying to stay connected to ensure that the women know that they have some options when they're released.
NNAMDIBut do you get to Tallahassee?
MCSWAINWe don't get to Tallahassee. We don't get the car as well.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding, India Frazier, that you were once incarcerated in a facility all the way in Tallahassee, Fla.
NNAMDIHow did that distance affect you and your family?
FRAZIERIt brought a lot of stress. I mean, my parents, my grandparents, they didn't have the finances to come see me, so I used the majority of my money every week on telephone calls, you know? And then when I ran out, I will run back in the back to my case manager and say, please let me make a phone call, please. You know, me and my daughter, we disconnected. You know what I'm saying? Off and on over the years, we had somewhat of a connection, but it wasn't that strong, like I said, due to my drug -- substance abuse and running the street. So when I went to Tallahassee, Fla., it was a total disconnection. When I came home, it was -- when I tell you, Kojo, that I went through H-E-L-L.
NNAMDIAnd then your father was ill on one occasion.
FRAZIERMy father was very ill. When I first got to -- when they told me I was going to Tallahassee, Fla., I was like, what? You know? What? I live in Washington, D.C. My father was very ill. And I have -- and then from the day that I got there up until they told me, we're just not gonna change your destination point. This is where you'll be. This is where you'll do your time. And it happened, like, maybe five months later. I have put in request on a daily -- please transfer me to Danbury. Please transfer me to Hazelton. Please transfer me to Philadelphia, somewhere closer to home. And they didn't do it. They said, no, we can't do it. This is where you'll do your time.
NNAMDIThat obviously can bring on feelings of depression. How did that cause you to act while you were in Tallahassee?
FRAZIERI'm not even gonna say any joke with you. I'm gonna let you know I reacted very, very destructively, you know? I went off. You know I'm saying? I didn't throw things and stuff like that. I just was like, I was walking around cursing. I was mad. What are you saying? I'm like 2,000 miles away from home. How can you do this to someone? My father is ill. My daughter is there. My grandparents are old. How can you do this to me? I have not done anything for you to keep me here, you know? I haven't done anything against this facility for them to say, okay, well, we can't transfer you based on your behavior. No, I haven't done anything. Why can't I be transferred?
NNAMDIAnd so that caused you to act out a lot?
FRAZIERIt caused me to act out a little bit. And I went on a lot for about 20-some days.
NNAMDIHere is Ralph in Washington, D.C. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Ralph. Are you there? I don't think Ralph is any longer with us. But we're interested in hearing what you have to say, so call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the best strategy for stopping the revolving door between prison and the street? Or if you're an employer, would you consider hiring an ex-offender? 800-433-8850. Nancy La Vigne, one of the things we talked about last week was not using the term ex-offender anymore in talking about returning citizen. Is there any distinction when that term is used for a male as opposed to when it is used for a female?
NNAMDIAnd I guess I should ask India about this. When there is that stigma, if you will, attached to you that you are an ex-offender, do you find it more difficult, do you think, for a woman to get a job than it is for a man with that title, ex-offender?
FRAZIERWell, for women, it is very, very hard on them with that title over their head, ex-offender. I mean, when you're filling out an application, they say, have you been convicted of a crime in the last 10 years? You know, some women have done 20 years and came home and said, okay, no. Okay?
FRAZIERBut, I mean, those who have a done a short term, such as myself, in and out of the facilities and I put down yes and I go to explain it. You know, once they get to that question, they look at you and they, you know, look at your charge and -- okay. I'm sorry, miss. We don't have any more openings right now. Can you please get back with us in a week? So it's very hard for us to apply ourselves to -- obtaining employment if the stigma in society is that, no, we're just not gonna give you a second chance.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will discuss that issue with all of our panelists, the issue of finding employment after you have been incarcerated especially if you are a woman. If you have thoughts on that, call us at 800-433-8850. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If the lines are busy, shoot us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing returning from prison, the female perspective, women who have been incarcerated. We're talking with Ashley McSwain, executive director of Our Place, a nonprofit that serves women returning to the community after incarceration. Adrienne Poteat is interim director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, CSOSA. India Frazier is a person under supervision by CSOSA. And Nancy La Vigne is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
NNAMDIWe all know it's a tough job market out there. We talked last week about this topic and about the debate over how and whether to try to even the playing field for ex-offenders. From your perspective, what it is like for women who have served time and are now trying to get back into the job market? First you, Ashley McSwain.
MCSWAINIt's extremely difficult. One of the things we've gotten clearer about, it's a sales job, you know, working in our employment department. We actually have to call an employer and sell the skill and the competence of the woman who's working with our case manager. We also hold individual career fairs just for the women that come to Our Place. So, you know, they've been vetted. They've been prepped. They've been ready. And so, we invite employers to meet with those women, you know, so that they can interview and potentially get hired. We really start doing that just last year. And it's serving to be a really important venue to help women get employed.
NNAMDIAnd, Adrienne Poteat, from your perspective, what it is like for -- the same question -- women who served time trying to get back into the job market?
POTEATIt's very difficult for them. India made reference to the educational level. That's one of the barriers that women face. Because if they do not have a high school diploma, it's very difficult for some of them to read and write to be employed. If they do, we sometimes will teach the women how to go before interview, how to dress for an interview, how to write a resume. You'd be surprised with the women that don't know how to do this. And so, we do that preparation and job coaching to get them ready. Our agency partners with various vendors throughout the city where we have slots that we're able to place our offenders.
POTEATAnd so from that, we make sure that we screen them correctly and put them in perspective employers where they know they're going to work. It may not be the ideal job for them, but at least it's something to get them started. Even as a vocational training program, we do the same.
NNAMDIHere is Anne in Alexandria, Va. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEHi, Kojo. I just want to say this is a great show. Thank you for doing this important topic. I'm on the board of Guest House, which is a similar organization in Alexandria. It's been around 35 years. It houses women, non-violent offenders upon their release. And it can serve as transitional housing for them for three to four months while they go through all of these exercises and sort of life-building skills that you're talking about. One of the great challenges, especially in this economy, has been trying to find the housing for them after those three to four months of transitional housing because many folks in housing, sort of the same as the employment discrimination they might face, don't wanna take somebody in who's got any kind of record.
ANNEAnd so, there's another challenge waiting for the women even if they've managed some success in the employment sector of figuring out where they're gonna live after they leave, you know, Guest House or Our House or places like that. By the way, thank you for drawing attention to this.
NNAMDINancy La Vigne. Nancy, care to comment on that at all?
VIGNEYes. We found in our studies that women have a much higher rate of residential mobility than men who are leaving prison. And I think that's often a result, again, of their extensive histories with drug addiction. But it's also the case that even though they do have family support, they're more likely to outstay their welcome with family members, particularly if they start engaging in drug use again.
NNAMDIAs India said, burning bridges. (laugh)
NNAMDIOnto Angela in Greenbelt, Md. Angela, your turn.
ANGELAHi. I was just wondering if in all of these wonderful programs to help women who are reentering, if there's a place for volunteers maybe for mentoring or assisting with reintegration with their children, that sort of thing.
NNAMDILet's find out. Ashley McSwain.
MCSWAINOh, yes. We definitely have quite a few volunteer opportunities.
NNAMDIYes. Nonprofits tend to like volunteers.
MCSWAIN(laugh) Yes, we do. I mean, we have a clothing boutique, so we often have volunteers who participate in that. We just started a new initiative around literacy and reading. We have a writing group. And so, we're looking to volunteers to help us do an assessment of the women's writing skills and to offer some tutoring for that. We have a transitional housing program, so volunteers can come there and offer programming and support. So yes, we have a pretty extensive volunteer opportunities.
NNAMDIAs a federal agency, CSOSA, volunteers?
POTEATYes, we have volunteers. And we also have the faith-based initiative, where we have three clusters throughout the city, and 76 institutions are currently involved. And we do mentoring and we match the women up with mentors.
NNAMDIAngela, does that answer your question?
ANGELAWell, how would I go about contacting someone about the volunteer opportunities? I'm particularly interested in the writing.
MCSWAINYeah. You can contact Our Place D.C., 202-548-2400, and our receptionist will surely respond to your request for support. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd you can find links to Our Place D.C. and to the CSOSA organization -- Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency -- at our website, kojoshow.org. Any more information for Angela, Adrienne?
POTEATOh, you can contact CSOSA at 202-220-5300, and we welcome more volunteers to help with this.
NNAMDIAngela, thank you so very much for your call.
NNAMDIYou mentioned faith-based agencies. Speaking of faith, here is Anthony in Stafford, Va. Anthony, your turn.
ANTHONYHi. Good morning. Well, good afternoon now. I know in my life nothing changed for me until I just worked on myself, worked on my soul and find --really tried to find out the difference between right and wrong. The Community Church of God in Arlington is where I go. We have a food bank, and it's a miracle that we're able to do what we do. We move people. We help people. And I've done so much work with the church and with our pastor there, helping people in various circumstances.
ANTHONYAnd I just wanted to say until you accept some type of God, until you accept some type of training to your life, you're just gonna be lurching from problem to problem until you fix what's wrong with you.
NNAMDIAnthony, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of work, India Frazier, it's my understanding that you just lost your job last week.
FRAZIERYes, I did.
NNAMDITell us what kind of job you had and what it had to do with the commercial driver's license that you carry.
FRAZIERI worked with the Department of Public Works. I worked with them seasonal, six months out of the year. I didn't get six months this year, but I did last year. And what we do, we clean up the city. We remove garbage and debris from the streets and the alleys. And we also keep the city clear of snow. When we have snowstorms, we keep the city clear of snow. And I drive the...
NNAMDISo you were out during that snowstorm in January?
FRAZIERYes, I was.
NNAMDIBut it is...
FRAZIERIn the midst of.
NNAMDIIt is seasonal work.
FRAZIERIt's seasonal work.
NNAMDIAnd that can become a problem. We got an e-mail from Mary, who says she's an employer, owns a small business in Virginia, who said, "One of the biggest factors in my hiring process is the ability to speak proper English. In service industries, the ability to communicate with customers is key. I've turned away many applicants because they are unable to speak proper English. If women were taught how to speak properly in prison, it would give them a huge advantage." English classes while incarcerated at all, Adrienne Poteat?
POTEATYes, they are. English, math. You know, basic educational programs are available in the -- your prisons.
NNAMDIAnd I can certainly tell you, with India's winning personality and the way she speaks, she would be a good bet for you. Here...
NNAMDI...here is John in Washington, D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. Thank you. I understand that CSOSA is far along in establishing a innovative transitional housing program in Southeast D.C., along with The Temple of Praise. And I understand that the local folk there in the immediate neighborhood there are kind of up in arms about that. And I'm wondering -- in order to provide transitional housing, you have to have a place to do that. How are we going to deal with or overcome the not-in-my-backyard problem? D.C. has often, for many years, exported its offenders all around the country, to a large degree. And when it's time for them to come back home, how can we do that, in definition, to deal with those kinds of things?
NNAMDIFirst I'm gonna say that that's clearly a national problem that, Nancy La Vigne, you might wanna talk to in most specific terms. You, Ashley McSwain and Adrienne Poteat might want to talk about it here. First you, Nancy.
VIGNEYes. This is an issue that's pervasive across the country. And one of the things we did in one jurisdiction was to map out the residences where people end up living after release from prison, and looked at that in relation to where the jurisdiction was looking to put a halfway house that included substance abuse treatment. Lo and behold, it was in the same place. So what we said was, look, neighbors, would you rather have people returning to your community without the support that could help them -- prevent them from returning to a life of crime or not?
VIGNEAnd it's -- these maps are just so persuasive because it really shows that they're already -- they're neighbors. They're already in their neighborhoods and part of their community. So why not...
NNAMDIWithout the services.
VIGNEWithout the services, yeah.
NNAMDIYour experience with this, Ashley McSwain?
MCSWAINYou know, these programs are designed to provide support and guidance and direction. And so it's -- you know, I wonder, you know, what exactly do you think, you know, these women will do without this level of support, without these programs in the communities in which they live? You know, without it, the women don't have an opportunity to make really good choices. And so, you know, it's unfortunate we see it quite frequently. When we were searching for a new location for our place, we ran into, you know...
MCSWAINYes. They didn't want us there because of the population that we were serving. We find the women to be very competent, intelligent, motivated, inspirational women. And they are looking for an opportunity to make different choices.
NNAMDIThe choice, of course, between warning people in your neighborhood who are interested in committing crimes or warning people in your neighborhood who are trying to prevent themselves from committing crimes...
NNAMDI…and looking for services to help them doing that.
NNAMDIWhy would you make the first choice? Here's Brendan in Washington, D.C. Brendan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRENDANHello. How are you today?
BRENDANOh, great. I have a comment that may seem off-base initially. But I think it has some relevance here. I have -- through just coincidence or blind dumb luck, I have known three black women, one of whom was incarcerated previously, and the other two had difficulties in their life that didn't involve incarceration. And all three of them had birth names on their birth certificate, names like Shiquanda (sp?) or Jamezeta (sp?), names that basically screamed out, you know, I was born black, poor neighborhood.
NNAMDIAnd so what did they do? They changed their names.
NNAMDIThey changed their names in order to find employment?
BRENDANThey started using their middle name if they had what they thought was a, you know, more common name. Like some of them -- two of them had names that were their grandmother's names. And the other one simply made up a name, and they all ended up legally changing their names to those names. And this may seem bizarre or off-base or not right...
NNAMDIIt seem -- it is...
BRENDAN...they all experienced considerable success after that change and...
NNAMDIFrankly, I don't believe you. Second, it is bizarre because if your last name happens to be Nnamdi, or if your last name happens to be a name that's associated with African-Americans like, ooh, Jackson, Washington, are you suggesting that these people can also do better by changing their last name, by rejecting their family names and by implicitly rejecting who they are? No, I can't accept that. I cannot suggest that as a way that people should try to change their lives at all. Eric, you are -- Brendan, that's absolutely bizarre.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from general who -- from Jennifer, who says, "In general, what happens to these women's children when they are incarcerated? Do they usually go live with other family members, or are they placed into foster homes?"
FRAZIERI can answer that, Kojo. When I was incarcerated 20 years ago and I had my daughter, I could have either sent her home to my family or placed her up for adoption, you know. It didn't make the system any -- they didn't care what happened, okay? All we want is your body behind in a cell. You know what I'm saying? Send your daughter somewhere. My family came in and got her from the hospital because they allowed me to go to the hospital and have her.
NNAMDIYou only got about 20 seconds left.
FRAZIERI got -- I had 24 hours to spare before my family came and took her. But there are adoption agencies that can help these women with their children. But who wants to give their child up for adoption?
NNAMDIBetter to stay with family members. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. India Frazier is a person under supervision with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Good luck to you, India.
FRAZIERThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAdrienne Poteat is the interim director of that agency. Thank you for joining us. Ashley McSwain is executive director of Our Place, which serves women returning to the community after incarceration. Thank you.
MCSWAINThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd Nancy La Vigne is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Good to see you again.
VIGNEGreat to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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