Incarcerated Women Face Hurdles Re-Entering Society The number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has risen dramatically in recent years. According to federal figures, about 207,000 women were held in prisons or jails last year, an increase of a third since the year 2000. Joanne Archibald, who was incarcerated as a young woman on drug charges; Gretchen Rohr, a lawyer who works for a non-profit group in Washington, D.C. and Sedrena Guy, who recently left prison, discuss women re-entering society after being incarcerated.
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Incarcerated Women Face Hurdles Re-Entering Society

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Incarcerated Women Face Hurdles Re-Entering Society

Incarcerated Women Face Hurdles Re-Entering Society

Incarcerated Women Face Hurdles Re-Entering Society

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has risen dramatically in recent years. According to federal figures, about 207,000 women were held in prisons or jails last year, an increase of a third since the year 2000. Joanne Archibald, who was incarcerated as a young woman on drug charges; Gretchen Rohr, a lawyer who works for a non-profit group in Washington, D.C. and Sedrena Guy, who recently left prison, discuss women re-entering society after being incarcerated.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share some thoughts about that Supreme Court case involving the firefighter promotion test in New Haven. I may know a little bit about that, since my father is a firefighter. That's my Can I Just Tell You? Commentary, and it'll be in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that are often kept hidden due to stigma or shame. And today we want to talk about women in prison. In the movies, on television, that's a subject that's often played for laughs or to play out some sexual fantasy, but it is no joke if for no other reason that the number of incarcerated women has risen dramatically in recent years.

According to federal figures, about 207,000 women were held in prisons or jails last year. That is an increase of a third since the year 2000. And because of the nature of the offenses they are charged with, most of these women will be released, and now community leaders and lawmakers are concerned that we have not thought very much about whether formerly incarcerated have different needs and experiences than men do in getting back into society.

It's a subject that's so concerned one member of Congress, D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, that she recently devised what's believed to be the video town hall involving incarcerated women from her city and community leaders so they can talk about those issues. So we decided to talk about that, too. We called Joanne Archibald. She's the associate director of a non-profit group in Chicago that aims to help people tell their stories who often don't get a chance to do that. She was incarcerated as a young woman on drug charges.

Gretchen Rohr is a lawyer who works for a non-profit group in Washington, D.C., and she's an advocate for incarcerated woman. Also joining us is Sedrena Guy. She just left the Maryland Correctional Institute for Woman on June 5th. Welcome, thank you all for joining us.

Ms. JOANNE ARCHIBALD (Associate Director for a Non-Profit Advocacy Group): Thank you.

Ms. GRETCHEN ROHR (Attorney): Thank you.

Ms. SEDRENA GUY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Sedrena, I'm going to start with you. Congratulations, first of all, in completing your sentence and going home. How are you doing?

Ms. GUY: I'm doing well, considering I'm traumatized. I mean, I've been locked up for five years. And it's really a transition period that I'm going through. It's very overwhelming, and I have a young child that I gave birth to in prison, so I'm re-acquainting myself with him and my older children. I'm trying to find work. I'm trying to just get a groove back, but I'm doing well.

MARTIN: You said it's overwhelming. Could you just talk about - what is the most overwhelming part of it?

Ms. GUY: Well, just the getting up in the morning. I mean, when you're incarcerated, you have officers telling you what time to do everything. You're responsible for you right now. You need to get up. You need to, you know, go and pass out your resume. You need to get up and get your children to school. You need to get up and make sure that you have a way to pay your bills.

MARTIN: Joanne, before you started working in your current position in kind of media literacy, you also worked in advocating for woman and supporting woman exiting the prison system. And in part you decided to go into that line of work because you were incarcerated as a young mother. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like for you when you first left prison?

Ms. ARCHIBALD: I would echo a lot of what she said, that a lot of the little day-to-day things. I mean, one good example, I think, is answering the phone. It took me lots of months before I got used to answering my own phone again. I would, like, tense up before I would answer it because phones are ringing all the time in prison and you can't answer them. And you get so used to being regimented that you're re-learning all those little, tiny decision-making and day-to-day skills. And it is very overwhelming, and you know, you come out, you're not feeling really good about yourself.

You know, I was full of shame about doing something wrong and being incarcerated. And when I came out, I didn't have a job, so I went on public aid. So I was a welfare mother, an ex-con, and it's really hard to get things going when you have those images of yourself, and the way you're treated in prison, she's really right. You're traumatized by that system.

MARTIN: Joanne, you and Sedrena are both mothers, and I want to talk about what that was like, being separated from your children and trying to figure out how to get back into their lives. But I want to bring Gretchen into the conversation and say Gretchen, what are some of the things that are unique to woman as they leave prison or jail, particularly things that are distinct to them. I mean, obviously some of the things about having your day be regimented, that is something that anyone who's incarcerated, man or woman, would experience, but what are some of the distinct things that you see with women?

Ms. ROHR: Absolutely. I mean, as you said, there are similar concerns that women have when they re-enter as men, which is primary securing housing and employment. But some of the unique experiences, as expressed here, is that, you know, seven out of 10 women in jail or prison do have minor children. And in the case of men who have minor children, I think a study came out about 90 percent of them were being cared for by the mother when they were incarcerated, whereas with women, only 25 percent were able to stay in the custody of their father.

And so there's a great need for family unification supports, and sometimes even a development of parenting skills, another significant unique need that women do have coming out because so many of them are in the system based on drug crimes. And 80 percent of actually drug arrests are for possession, and that has disproportionately impacted woman.

So they are seeking substance abuse treatment, and residential substance abuse treatment is offered in many different ways across the country. But there is a deep shortage of family-based treatment. Many are forced to make the decision as to whether they want to remain with their child and just try to get clean on their own or actually go into the comprehensive treatment that might be necessary because they're not allowed to bring their child with them.

MARTIN: What I'm hearing you say is that these women have already been separated from their children, and they're trying desperately to get back with their children. And so then if they realize they need additional support, particularly treatment, it's hard to get and still reunite with their children.

Sedrena, can I bring you back in? You have a 16 year old and a 19 year old, and you also had a baby while you were incarcerated. And as I understand it, you were only able to spend less than 24 hours with him before you had to return. So what was that like reacquainting yourself with these children?

Ms. GUY: Well, my children have been - I wouldn't say incarcerated with me, but I've seen them three times a week for the past five years. I was afforded the opportunity to be involved with the National Women's Prison Project. And the prison itself had a baby bonding programs for mothers who recently had children under 18 months when I got there. My son was able to come in for a two-hour visit aside from my regular visiting day, and I was able to change his diaper and feed him a bottle and just look at him and get to know him other than the visiting room. I parented from prison on a regular basis. I did homework. I had phone conferences with teachers. I never once felt that because I didn't live with them that I wasn't their mom anymore.

MARTIN: And, like, Joanne - I think people are going to want to know, so I think it is important to point out - you were in prison on drug charges as well.

Ms. GUY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: In your case it was possession with intent to distribute. And Joanne, I think it was the same for you as well, right? It was possession with intent to distribute?

Ms. ARCHIBALD: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Neither which is considered a violent offense. And let me just jump in to say, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about how women resume their lives after incarceration. We're speaking with Gretchen Rohr, Joanne Archibald and Sedrena Guy.

Joanne, I wanted to ask, you became very effective in advocating for women prisoners. You've been doing this for more than 15 years. I wanted to ask what do you think changed over the course of time for women coming out of prison? Do you think things have gotten better and, sort of, there's sort of more understanding? Or have they gotten worse because there are more of them and there's less - fewer resources to go around? What's your take?

Ms. ARCHIBALD: I would say a little bit of both. I think what's gotten a lot worse is the termination of parental rights for incarcerated moms. Because of the changes, the federal legislation, Adoption and Safe Families Act that most of the states have adopted to different levels that says basically if your kids are in foster care for 15 in the last 22 months without real compelling reasons, that alone can be grounds for termination of parental rights, which is the death sentence to your family.

And I know women who were in for repeat shoplifting and lost their children permanently. I think that's gotten a lot worse. There are a few more resources, I would say, but because the numbers are bigger, there's still a massive lack of resources. And a lot of the programs are for people with substance abuse, and that's a tremendous need, but then it leaves out people that don't have the substance abuse issue. So…

MARTIN: Gretchen, what have you noticed? What have you noticed over time?

Ms. ROHR: Well, and I do want to just state that my program, University Legal Services, does not restrict its representation to women. The DC Jail Advocacy Project that I direct, we represent women, men and youth who have psychiatric disabilities. About 31 percent of women have a serious mental illness. A new study just came out with Council of State Governments of women in jail. That's about double the rate of men incarcerated and about three to six times higher than the general population. And so that's why they do fall within focus of ours.

But the response, and that being actually they're a lot of new ideas coming to looking at that and why. There's some new discussions about support of housing and providing wraparound support for people as they transition out. There's, fortunately, some new legislation relating to the Second Chance Act, which has developed some demonstration projects in different localities to really identify let's base it on evidence. Let's not just create some ideas that seem good, just like the idea of the war on drugs wasn't really necessarily based on any evidence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROHR: Let's now look at how we can try to address public safety, ensure public safety and reduce the cycling of people coming back.

MARTIN: You anticipated my next question, Gretchen. So I appreciate that, because I was going to ask, what are some of the ideas that help women particularly transition back into their neighborhoods with their families? And you've started us off. Just give me one to two more ideas, and I want to end with asking this - that same question of the other ladies.

Ms. ROHR: I think one more is just recognizing that women with complex needs are going to be interacting with services that need to recognize complex needs and have it - not necessarily one-stop shop, but we provide, you know, holistic legal services where everyone represent gets not only just a lawyer, but also a licensed social worker and a pure advocate who's going to work with them. And one of the things we're doing and a lot of other organizations are, are developing peer supports - individuals who can come into the facility but also continue with the person for up to a year and follow them and help them navigate this very difficult system of reentry.

MARTIN: Sedrena, I'm going to go to you first, and then Joanne, I'm going to give you the final word because you've been walking in this journey that Sedrena just started of trying to get yourself back into family and community and so forth. So Sedrena, let me just ask you: What do you think would make a difference for you now in helping you navigate this next part of your life?

Ms. GUY: Well, I believe the availability of the services, you know, for ex-offenders, period. What the women need is training, not just punishment. Okay, you did a crime. You're in jail. While you're there, you need to access everything that's available to you and better yourself. You have to build up your character. You have to build up your self-esteem. A lot of these women are walking around because of drug use with no teeth in their mouths, and they're young, 25, young girls, three generations, a mother, a granddaughter and a grandmother in the same prison. The breakdown has happened already. How are we going to fix it? We have to stop pulling each other apart and start building each other up.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. Joanne, final word from you. What's made the difference for you? What's made the biggest difference for you from where you started out when you left prison all those years ago and to where you are now, a real, you know, leader in your community?

Ms. ARCHIBALD: I would say both peer and community support. Peer support, and then finding organizations and individuals that are sympathetic. There's a lot of changes that need to be made. I think the key players in making them are the people who've been there. We're the experts in the prison system. We need to talk about it and not just close our mouths when we get out, but tell people the realities. And there is a lot to be done. Education, I think, is huge. In Illinois, 60 percent of the women in prison don't have a high school diploma or a GED when they go in, and the percentage is not much different when they come out. So it's kind of the microcosm of what's wrong as far as race, how we're dealing with race and poverty and addiction in this country.

MARTIN: Joanne Archibald is the associate director for Beyond Media Education. It's a non-profit organization that teaches media skills to underserved women and youth and communities. She was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Gretchen Rohr is project director for the DC Jail Advocacy Project. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Sedrena Guy, who has just come home from the Maryland Correction Institute for Women in the last couple of weeks, joined us from her home in Baltimore County, Maryland.

I thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

Ms. GUY: Thank you.

Ms. ROHR: Thank you.

Ms. ARCHIBALD: Thanks for having us.

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