It’s National Women’s History Month and each year I feel the same way: Inspired by the progress we’ve made but deeply concerned for the women and girls we continue to leave behind. You see, I know first-hand what it’s like to be on the margins of society. It’s deflating and disempowering, but more than that, it’s scary. At the start of my 7-year prison sentence more than 25 years ago, I was able to turn those feelings into motivation only because I found opportunity and support while incarcerated. For most of the 222,000 women in prison, they don’t have access to what changed my life: Business skills training, a professional job, and mentorship.
Women in Prison
Over the past 35 years, the number of women involved in the criminal justice system has increased dramatically. This is because of expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.
The Equal Justice Initiative found that female incarceration is happening twice as fast as men, with 25 percent convicted of a drug offense and 27 percent for property damage. What’s worse is how we’re involving young girls in the justice system for “crimes” like truancy, curfew violations, and running away. Research has found that in most of these cases, there’s a history of untreated abuse, trauma, and mental health problems.
What we aren’t considering when we hand down sentences to women for low-level crimes is the generational effect it has on the family. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under age 18. When we remove the mother from the home, most of whom are the primary caretaker of their children, we disrupt the family. And we know that children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system face psychological strain, antisocial behavior, suspension or expulsion from school, economic hardship, and criminal activity. These issues are the hidden consequences of incarceration and they don’t resolve when women are released.
Because American prisons focus on corrections rather than rehabilitation, women leave prison at an even greater disadvantage: Behind in marketable business skills and technology, no meaningful mentor relationships, and without support to reenter society successfully and address the issues that led them to prison. How do we expect anyone to find and fulfill their human potential, provide for their families, and not return to prison when society all but discards them in the run up to and following incarceration? There’s no greater proof point that we’re failing returning citizens than the national three-year recidivism rate, which is a staggering 68 percent. Do we care enough to fix it? I’m not sure we do.
Society has an issue with social forgiveness. We embrace it for only a small few: people who we know personally or well-known talented people (think athletes). Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe that anyone deserves to live a lifetime of shame and public disgust. What I do want is for us to stop defining people by one regrettable chapter in their lives. We do this now for a select few. Now we need to extend that forgiveness to all.
For the overwhelming majority of people, circumstances and lack of opportunity led to crime. This isn’t justification. It’s context. Desperation drives people to make bad choices. The Marshall Project recently asked incarcerated people what might have prevented them from committing the crimes that landed them behind bars. Respondents said: affordable housing, a living wage and mental health care would have made the most impact. If this isn’t an indictment on society, I don’t know what is. It saddens me because through my work I see the outcomes of our failings every day. Where do we go from here?
A Path Forward
There are three things business leaders can do right now that can help reverse that pains of incarceration and drive meaningful reform.
Be a Mentor. Mentorship matters to me now, but it really mattered when I was in prison. Having someone make a long-term commitment to you during (or after) incarceration is critical. It makes the personal and professional goals, dreams, and vision of a future life seem real and achievable. The justice-involved individual is able to grow and improve as they learn from you and your experiences. And as the relationships matures, the learning will go both ways. I take clients and partners regularly to meet the women with whom we work. Everyone describes it as life-changing because it is. When we’re able to peek behind the curtain of incarceration, we see brains, talent and potential. All those Hollywood images that paint prisons as derelict cesspools fade from memory and we’re left with only a positive view. Mentoring can help us more past our stereotypes and see incarcerated people through a new prism. There are many organizations that offer mentorship opportunities too. Hope for Prisoners is one. And for those that are already second-chance employers, start a company mentorship program!
Hire Us. I explored new job opportunities a few years back. I got to the part where they asked if I had a criminal record. Twenty years after I completed my sentence, I was being asked to relive the worst moment of my life. And for what? I am nothing like the person I was then. I answered it honestly, was immediately thanked for my interest, and exited from the online application. I wasn’t “the right fit.” Here’s the thing: I have a job so the end result while horrifying didn’t impact my ability to earn and support my family. What about the 600,000 individuals released each year?
With joblessness the No. 1 predictor of recidivism, it’s incumbent on all companies to put an end to systemic policies that exclude job candidates because of background. We must start seeing people for who they are today…for their talent and skills…and for their desire to grow, learn and be better. I know we can do this. In my 26-year career, I’ve seen so many companies evolve their workforce strategies, hire people who were once incarcerated, and benefit – both culturally and in their business results.
Support non-profits that empower this community. There are so many terrific organizations across the U.S. that teach technology and business skills to incarcerated individuals. The Last Mile and Justice Through Code are two organizations that are doing really transformational work. There’s no question that education in prison makes sense. In fact, the RAND Corporation reported that individuals who participate in any type of educational program while in prison are 43 percent less likely to return. But in addition to reducing recidivism, education also improves outcomes from one generation to the next as the children of justice-involved individuals are less likely to turn to crime. By supporting organizations that provide marketable skills and/or reentry support to the incarcerated, we can build a prison to workforce pipeline in which all companies benefit, reduce crime, strengthen our communities, and bolster the economy.
This Women’s History Month, celebrate progress — yes! —but also look ahead at the work in front of us – the women and girls who we don’t see but whose voices I represent. I want us to commit to create pathways for them and their families so that they, too, have the same opportunities as you and me. Everyone should be able to move past their worst mistake, step on the economic ladder, and climb.