GRAND RAPIDS — The inequities women face in daily life are often much worse for women who are incarcerated.
It’s an issue that Women’s Resource Center has been working to address since 2012 when it launched the New Beginnings program for women housed in the Kent County Jail. Staff career coaches and specially trained volunteer mentors assist participants and work with them toward a goal of making a successful re-entry into the community.
“Women are judged more harshly than men when they’ve been in jail,” said Sandra Gaddy, CEO of the Women’s Resource Center, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit. “It’s harder for women to find work when they come out of jail or prison, and for women of color it’s even harder.”
The phenomenon relates to standards that the community has for men versus women, including the idea that women should know better than to end up in jail, she said.
Julie Harper-Evans, a career coach in the New Beginnings program, said men who are incarcerated often have a wife or girlfriend at home to care for their children. Women who are incarcerated, on the other hand, often must face turning over custody of their children to a family member because there is no husband or significant other at home. That process comes in addition to navigating the food stamp and health care maze so that their children are able to eat and receive medical treatment while their mother’s in jail.
Over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Leaders with the organization attributed the change to more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to re-entry that uniquely affect women.
The New Beginnings program began after Women’s Resource Center was selected as one of five agencies throughout the country to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to pilot a program aimed at helping women transition to life after incarceration, Gaddy said.
“They knew that we had a high recidivism rate for women in the Grand Rapids area and the Department of Justice knew that we have been working with women for a long time,” she said.
Women’s Resource Center, which has a staff of 10, was founded in 1973 to empower women to become economically self-sufficient and improve their lives through employment, career development and personal growth. The organization’s annual budget of just less than $700,000 is funded through donations from foundations, corporations, individuals, and the local and federal government.
“We work with unemployed, underemployed women and single women who want to find meaningful work to support themselves and their families,” Gaddy said. “Our services are designed and delivered to meet the needs of women.”
Of the 614 women served based on the most recent annual count, about one-third were coming out of the New Beginnings program, Gaddy said.
New Beginnings gave the organization an opportunity to extend the scope and reach of its work.
It also comes as the number of women who have been incarcerated continues to grow, according to the Sentencing Project.
The advocacy group cites data that the female incarcerated population as of 2017, 225,060 women, was nearly eight times higher than it was in 1980. As well, more than six in 10 women in state prisons have a child who is under age 18.
Locally, women Harper-Evans works with face a whole new set of challenges once they’re released, and many women aren’t equipped to tackle these barriers on their own.
“Housing is a big issue,” she said. “For men, they have Alternative Directions, but there’s no facility like that for women. The struggle for them is housing.”
Although there is transitional housing, the length of time that a woman can stay ranges from a couple of months to two years. As well, women who have children face a different set of circumstances that must be dealt with, Harper-Evans said.
The work with participants in the New Beginnings program begins 90 days before the women are released and continues from one year to 18 months afterward.
Each week, several specially-trained volunteer members head to the Kent County Correctional Facility to begin training and development work with the soon-be-released women.
“They work on skills or workforce development skills so they’re prepared when they’re released, but they spend the last part with a mentor doing one-on-one work,” Gaddy said. “That one-on-one mentor time is important because when they’re released, it’s important for them to have someone they can turn to.”
Harper-Evans teaches classes in employability to women in pod-like settings four days a week. She said a number of factors are taken into consideration when determining the employee-readiness of each participant, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Cascade Engineering, Manpower, Butterball Farms and Mercy Health are among the businesses employing New Beginnings participants who are ready to enter or re-enter the workforce.
“There are a number of employers that have partnered with us to hire people re-entering from jail or prison, but it’s still not easy, because not everyone has ‘Ban the Box,’ which is asking employers not to require a felon to say upfront if they’ve been incarcerated,” Gaddy said. “The desire is that they reveal that once they’ve gone through the interview process.
“I can say that there have been some employers who as soon as they found out the person had a felony, they wouldn’t hire them.”
These challenges have not discouraged Teresa Collins, a New Beginnings participant training for a career as a welder.
“The trades business does not discriminate against felons,” Collins said. “They see their potential, not their mistake.”
Through New Beginnings, she was able to access the Metallica scholarship for welding training through Grand Rapids Community College. The school was one of 10 nationwide to be awarded $100,000 from the heavy metal band Metallica for workforce training programs for non-traditional students.
What differentiates New Beginnings from other workforce development programs, Collins said, is its focus on issues like proper clothing, housing, training for career or job assistance, and mental health counseling, which is extremely beneficial to allow women to leave their past behind them and look forward.
“What I see and observe is that there is a genuine concern for the well-being of women and their success in life,” Collins said.
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