Philly Works to Keep Moms Out of Jail

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 26, 2010

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Taina Vasquez, 27, spent three years stewing in the Riverside Correctional Facility, paying for a crime committed in anger. She doesn’t talk much about her conviction for aggravated assault—downgraded from attempted murder—except to say, “I was trying to break up a fight, and someone swung at me with a knife ... and someone else ended up getting stabbed.”

Vasquez, whose incarceration separated her from her daughter, now 7, finished the jail term three months ago and was released. One week later, she had a job doing data entry, phone bank and membership outreach for local advocacy group Mothers in Charge.

Vasquez’s case is unusual. Ex-offenders have a notoriously hard time finding work; they often come from poor backgrounds and possess scant job skills and low literacy levels. And regardless of qualifications, many employers throw out resumes as soon as they see the check mark indicating that the applicant has a prior conviction. Getting a job is difficult under the best of circumstances, but Vasquez didn’t luck into her timely employment. She had help.

She is one of about 70 women in Riverside who have completed the Thinking for a Change program administered by Mothers in Charge. Originally founded as a support group for women who have lost loved ones, Mothers in Charge has branched out to address root causes of street violence, and keeping women out of prison is a key component. The program is a national curriculum teaching life skills and anger management aimed at reducing recidivism rates. But completing a life skills program isn’t enough for women with families to support once they get out of prison, so group founder Dorothy Johnson-Speight decided to add her own twist with a re-entry jobs program for graduates.

Vasquez has been a beneficiary of both. She says she’s had anger and behavior problems since she was a child. Both parents spent time in jail, she says, which prompted her to act out. “I thought if I was bad, it would get their attention, and maybe they’d stop being bad,” she says. She was in jail once before, for drug charges when she was 18.

“It [Thinking for Change] taught me how to deal with my anger,” Vasquez says. “I knew I had to change to become a productive member of society before I came home.” She now goes back to the jail to work with other women and tell her story. “It definitely feels good to go back to prison and let them know they can change,” she says.

“The sessions cover things like anger management and how to handle stressful conversations,” says Speight, who sees keeping mothers out of jail and available to raise their children as part of the larger fight against violent crime. She started the program when a woman serving time in Riverside heard her son was murdered on the outside and contacted Speight for help. Speight wondered if the woman hadn’t been in jail, maybe she would have been able to help her son. “We’re ready to see why there aren’t alternatives for incarceration,” she says. “The goal is to reduce recidivism.”

Twenty more women at Riverside were set to graduate from the program last night (after the paper had gone to print). Speight plans to start up a new class with 40 additional inmates, chosen by social services as good candidates. And she says others are “beating the door down” trying to get in the class.

More challenging is the jobs program. Speight has helped women find work in grocery stores, and says she herself hired eight or nine program graduates like Vasquez through the Philly’s Way to Work program, which used federal stimulus funds to subsidize new hires. Unfortunately, she had to lay off several workers and reduce the hours of others when Way to Work ended in September. Vasquez has been cut down to 15 hours a week from her previous 40, a big setback as she tries to get back on her feet and put herself in a position to take custody of her daughter again, who stayed with family while Vasquez served her jail term. “I got to get everything together first,” she says. But at least she has a job, unlike so many other women fresh out of jail.

In fiscal year 2010, 15.75 percent of all inmates admitted to the Philadelphia prison system were women, 5,948 in total, at an average age of 31. More than 40 percent of female inmates taken from a one-day survey in May were in trouble for either drugs or assault, just like Vazquez. Not all those women will be convicted or serve jail sentences—half of all people admitted stay less than two weeks, and the average length of stay is 65 days. In total, 6,061 women were released from the Philly jails to the streets over the year, lives and careers interrupted, if they had a job in the first place. And with Philly’s unemployment rate at 11.8 percent through August, it goes without saying getting new work will not be easy.

Other groups want to help, offering basic academic classes, parenting workshops and maternity care for women who are pregnant while in jail. And the city has its own office aimed at helping both men and women when they leave prison: The Mayor’s Office for Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE). Participants go through trainings according to need, be it literacy classes, anger management, or other basic life skills seminars similar to Thinking for a Change. So far, the Mayor’s Office says close to 400 people have gotten jobs through the program in the last 15 months. Recidivism rates for those who have completed the program hover around 3 percent, says Michael Resnick, chief of staff for Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison. That’s far below national rates, where studies peg recidivism between 58 and 67 percent over two to three years, and over a 20-year period as high as 82 percent, according to a study by Correctional Counseling Inc.

Whether through the city or private groups like Mothers in Charge, ex-offenders can use the help to ensure their next step is gainful employment instead of a return trip to jail. “Going to prison, I lost myself,” says Theresa Ratliff, 27, who served 58 months at Riverside for aggravated assault and now works for Mothers in Charge doing data entry. “The support system is important to me.”

“I need someone to talk to who has been in my situation.”

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