Women have complex needs behind bars and upon re-entry

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Convicted robber Delmarshae Allen was discouraged weeks before her release from prison and serving her mandatory three years, or maxing out, before the Volunteers of America came knocking with its Safe Return program and plans to help Allen get her driver’s license, housing, a job and other necessities and services.

“I came out they stuck by their word 100 percent of the way,” Allen said.

Allen is one of the fortunate women leaving incarceration to have the state-funded Safe Return in her corner.

“I think the needs of women are more complex than the men,” said Pat McKernan, Volunteers of America chief operating officer.

Among them, child care. Who’s been caring for the minor children who lived with 60 percent of the women imprisoned? Mothers could lose custody, and their children can wind up in foster care. Advocates say if those re-entering mothers get a job and housing and want their children back they could be hit with owing child support from the day they leave prison.

Another issue: a stigma from their own families.

“We’ve collected data for years about family involvement and we see a higher rate of family involvement for all of the men that we serve than we do for the women. And we went back to the women and asked them — what do you attribute this to? And from their words, what they say is it’s a lot less acceptable for women to go to prison than it is for men,” said McKernan.

Lydia Thornton served more than four years for theft by deception and forgery. She says another hindrance for women re-entering society is housing.

“As women we are probably more easily victimized in looking for somewhere to just sleep,” Thornton said.

While prison reform has led to a decrease in men behind bars, it’s not so for women in the United States thanks to drug and property crimes. The Sentencing Project says the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980, and it credits more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to re-entry that uniquely affect women. The female prison population stands nearly eight times higher than in 1980.

Munirah Bonami is a construction worker and truck driver now. She served all three years for possession with intent to sell heroin in the mid-90s.

“I was quite bitter about the fact, that being a first-time felon for a fourth degree drug offense, you know, sending me to prison wasn’t going to help me at all,” Bonami said.

Bonami founded an organization that advocates for better conditions for women behind bars and for better policies and laws outside of prison. She says she supports Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez’s bill, Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act. It would provide parenting classes to inmates and create an overnight pilot program for inmates and their children, among other things. Lopez said in a statement, “The bill seeks to restore the rights of incarcerated men and women in connecting with their children and in accessing basic rights while incarcerated.”

“Not the one I’m pushing. I’m for it, obviously,” said Thornton.

Thornton, who writes for several advocacy publications to improve prison conditions and re-entering, is among those who testified about legislation to reform Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

“You’ve created a culture there where it’s OK,” Thornton said.

Thornton says it’s gratifying one prison guard received a 16-year sentence for his crime and will have to register as a sex offender for life. Progress yes, she says, but prevention and protection would be better in and out of prison.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.