Returning Citizens, Families Address Obstacles During Recent Symposiums
Depending on what report you read or what expert you believe, an estimated 60,000-plus men and women are released from prisons and jails each year, becoming part of the District’s ever-increasing number of “returning citizens” that come back home after serving their time.
And, while it’s hard enough to adjust after decades – even a few years – of incarceration, those who find themselves saddled with felony records find the odds stacked even higher against them, which makes it that much more difficult for them to retain their freedom and get on with their lives.
In D.C., February has been designated as Re-entry Reflection Month. And several nonprofit organizations and advocates have sought creative ways to hear the cries of returning citizens and their families while also sharing those concerns with elected officials, potential employers and other fair-minded citizens and advocating for change.
The director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, co-sponsor of the Women’s Re-entry Symposium 2015, which was held on Saturday, Feb. 14, at The Temple of Praise in Southeast, said men’s needs tend to be addressed first.
“For so long, women have been ignored in the criminal justice system, so [we] decided to commit some of our resources to them because of their unique needs,” said Nancy Ware. “We will have yearly events that uplift women and unite staff around both their challenges and potential for success. The fashion show and forum that were held last weekend are ongoing activities that serve as an excellent opportunity to help our women see what they have within themselves to overcome the odds.”
CSOSA Associate Director Cedric Hendricks said the message remains clear.
“All of our speakers said the same thing: You can be what you want to be. Many in attendance were [people] from the Fairview Halfway House who are coming from prison and who are under CSOSA supervision – they’re going through a transition and transformation in their lives. Many of the women who spoke up today were able to move forward, go to school and acquire degrees, secure employment and raise their children. They aren’t looking back. Those on the receiving end of that message can believe that they can do it too,” Hendricks said.
Still, as one CSOSA community supervision officer admitted, success doesn’t come easy.
“[Returning citizens] are successful if you create programs that meet their needs,” said Marcia Davis. “We have to address criminogenic risk factors like substance abuse, low employment and anti-social behaviors. By addressing those issues, we see that they can change, and the rate of success or their chance for success rises. A lot of people think that probation officers and supervisors don’t want to see ex-offenders succeed, but that’s simply untrue.”
“Still, we’ve found that we have to deal with gender-specific issues, which is a relatively new trend. Some of our people on supervision don’t feel like they’re worthy of anything. They were victims of sexual and physical abuse that led to substance abuse, which eventually led to their introduction to the criminal justice system. So, these events help them see each other in a different light and deal with their issues openly for the first time. When we mixed the genders, the women didn’t feel comfortable talking about their issues, but when conversation focuses solely on them, they can see their inner strength and that of their fellow former inmates,” Davis added.
One Southwest resident first became involved in CSOSA programming in 2011 and said it’s changed her life for the better.
“I was locked up for 18 ½ years and was stripped of everything, but it didn’t really hit me until I was locked up and facing 45 years that I realized that my actions could keep me from ever being part of my daughters’ lives,” Anderson said. “I guess the light came on, and I developed a passion for education. I was able to hear others incarcerated and myself. But it wasn’t easy.
“Even when you’re released, you face discrimination and stereotypes. We still need a change in many of our laws. We’ve served our time – we should be allowed to better ourselves and improve things for our families,” said Anderson, who now serves as the director of Family and Friends of Incarcerated People, an organization he founded even before his release.
Seeney, a D.C. native, admitted to selling drugs because he wanted things that his family could not afford.
“I did my time – 25 years – and it was a real blow to my family because I was an athlete and had never been in trouble before,” he said. “It took me five years behind bars to adjust. By the time I was released, I was institutionalized – raw. I didn’t care about anyone or anything even though I had two daughters and a big family. It’s taken time because my kids, especially my youngest, were negatively impacted too. Then there’s always the background check. Keeping a job isn’t easy for an ex-felon,” he said.
Gaffney secured her cosmetology license while in prison. She said that while she once served as the caregiver for several members of her family, today her focus has to be on herself.
“When I first came home, everyone was excited, but now I guess the thrill is gone,” she said. “I take the bus or train and try not to ask anyone for anything. I feel like the ‘Welcome Home’ mat has been ripped from under me. Women need support even more than men because we are the ones that tend to nurture our children – I know my absence hurt my children. We’ve gone to counseling, and there’s still more healing that needs to take place – for all of us,” she said.
“I’ve never seen anything tailored to women and can’t count the times that I’ve been in jail,” said Laverne Newman, 56. “But I’ve since learned there’s more than one way to live life, and you have to deal with your problems in healthy ways. There are resources to use so I don’t abuse drugs again. It feels awesome – seeing other women make it showed me that the program works,” she said.
One panelist and ex-offender, who recently came home after being held at a facility in Hazelton, West Virginia, first became involved with CSOSA in 2003. But she said she needed additional support.
“I learned that I can’t get better alone, and I have to ask for help and be willing to receive help. I have to be honest about how people make me feel. I also have to separate myself from negative people. The resentment I had toward my mother, who was an addict, kept me in a bad place, and I once sold my body for drugs. Now it’s different. I have my own apartment; I have a GED. My father is now dead after battling cancer. He showed me how to live life sober and how to solve my problems without drugs,” said Torlonda Thomas, 33, a resident of Southeast.
One Northeast resident, who’s been home for only three months after a stint at the Fairview Halfway House, said she attended the event because she needed more encouragement.
“I like hearing the stories of the speakers, and I’ve finally learned that you have to love yourself. We need more programs like this to help the specific needs of women. My support system is my mom, and she stands by my decisions even when I’m wrong. Those around me are positive – no more negativity in my life. Right now, I’m studying for the GED exam, and I’m going on to college so I can eventually become a public defender,” said Sheray McKay, 22.
A similar event, held Thursday, Feb. 12, and sponsored by Returning Citizens Inc., which has offices in both Northeast and Prince George’s County, saw more men in attendance. But Acting Executive Director Debra G. Rowe said both genders face discrimination, both in housing and employment.
“The public needs to understand that returning citizens have groups fighting for them for their rights. Recently passed legislation like the Fair Criminal Screening Amendment Act of 2014 has helped with employment but doesn’t go far enough,” Rowe said.
“They need more fairness when it comes to housing. Many returning citizens have family members who live in public housing, and the law says a convicted felon cannot live in public housing. Where are they to go? That’s why we’re back at the table,” she said.
Mona Lisa Gaffney, 64, sitting in the offices of The Washington Informer with two other returning citizens, Stuart Anderson, 54, and Ricardo Seeney, 53, all of whom reside in Southeast, said reconnecting with their families has been the greatest challenge.