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Formerly Incarcerated Women Unite


Elizabeth Leslie finishes her work in the Licensing Unit of the NYC Department of Buildings at 4 o’clock. She then takes a No. 4 train uptown to the Bronx, not to go home, but to go to her other jobs. She is an advocate for alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs, which offer women facing drug charges various types of long-term correctional programs instead of prison. She also does volunteer work at Greenhope Services for Women, the drug treatment program she graduated from in 2006. Every week, she makes about 20 phone calls to encourage women who are still fighting their way back from addiction.

“I use my experience, strength, and hope to show others like me that change is possible,” says Leslie on her way back home one Tuesday, the only day of the week she enjoys her own time after work.

Nowadays, more and more women like Leslie, who successfully stepped out of the shadow of their former lives in prison—including their histories of trauma, abuse, drug addiction and homelessness that are often connected with it—are trying their best to build a community among formerly incarcerated women.

“You fight for them, change the law, open the door that wasn’t open before,” says Leslie.

In fact, thanks to the concerted efforts made by formerly incarcerated women, progress has been made and bills have been passed such as the Anti-Shackling Bill, the Rockefeller Drug Law Amendment, the Adoption & Safe Families Act, and the Domestic Violence Merit Time Bill. The addition of such legislation has smoothed the way for women coming out of prison and is helping them fight back.

While professional advocates use numbers and research to persuade policy makers, women like Leslie can speak from their first-hand experience, which can be more persuasive.

“They can speak with much more credibility about the issue,” says Robert Gangi, 65, professional advocate and director of the Correctional Association of New York, an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1844 to improve living conditions of women in prisons and offer support for former women prisoners. “They had been incarcerated. Politicians and judges are getting tired of hearing from people like me, a professional spokesperson.”

Leslie, 47, was molested by her uncle at the age of 4. As a child, she was verbally and physically abused by her mother. Drugs took control of her life for almost 30 years. Before she was admitted into an ATI program, she was arrested 29 times and convicted 14 times, most of which were for larceny.

“I was a slave to my addiction and lifestyle,” recalls Leslie. “I was very, very deep in denial and almost surrendered to a life of crime, drug, abuse and pain.”

Unfortunately, Leslie is not alone. According to New York’s Department of Correctional Services, around 84 percent of women sent to New York’s prisons in 2007 were convicted of non-violent offenses, mainly drug and property crimes. There is also long history of research that shows a very strong correlation between women using drugs and their histories of physical and sexual abuse.

“Women who experience childhood sexual abuse tend to use drugs and alcohol to almost numb themselves,” says Ellen Tuchman, associate professor of social work at New York University.

Surveys conducted by Browne, Miller and Maguin in 1999 showed that in New York State, approximately eight out of ten women in prison have experienced severe abuse as children and nine out of ten women in prison have endured physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Despite the statistics linking drug addiction and crime, the court system today is still reluctant to send women to ATI programs, says advocates. Given the chance to attend ATI programs instead of being sentenced to prison, women can receive counseling for the root causes of their criminal behavior, namely drug addiction and mental illness, all while still under supervision. Many ATI programs also provide education and employment trainings.

Realizing the complexity of the problems, more and more formerly incarcerated women are now fighting for women-specific ATI programs.

“I want to be able to sit at the table when people are making laws, rules and regulations for people such as me,” says Carole Eady, a survivor of domestic and sexual abuse and a former drug addict. “I am the best person to tell them what works and what doesn’t work.”

Addicted to drugs for 12 years, Eady went back and forth to jails six times. After graduating from Crossroads for Women, an ATI programs offered by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), Eady was able to fight back and earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Because she received help from other women when she was trying to reintegrate herself into the community, Eady now thinks she has a responsibility to give back. She serves as a board member of the CCA. She is also a strong advocate for women out of prison that meet obstacles in getting education, housing and many other services.

Knowing how hard it is for women to look back into their dark days, Leslie and Eady regularly attend drug treatment programs to talk with women, encouraging them by using their own experience.

“Women like Carole [Eady] have given me inspiration and hope that my life could change, that it could go on, that I could have a life,” says Lisa Rappa, former drug addict and ex-offender who just moved to her first apartment since she was 19. “It gives you hope that there is life after addiction.”

While drug-addicted women prisoners now have a better chance to go to ATI programs, many of those entering treatment programs find it difficult to talk about their former experience of trauma and abuse. Talking it out can be one of the most effective methods of therapy, experts say.

“It’s a win-win situation for the women who come out of prison and who’ve been able to stop using drugs to give back and teach and help and role-model for other women,” says Tuchman of NYU. “It’s a gift to both.”

Realizing they are not alone in suffering these problems, women tend to be more comfortable and ready to share these memories. Research shows that women with histories of physical and sexual abuse feel much safer in a women-only environment.

“It’s easy to talk when you can identify with them,” says Helena Gumbs, who graduated from Greenhope Services for Women more than two years ago and still talks on the phone with Leslie every week.

Knowing how important it is to let women help each other on their way back to the community, the Correctional Association of New York is now offering curriculum and programs that give leadership training to formerly incarcerated women so they can gain a much larger voice of advocacy.

“If I speak to a thousand women, if I free one, I’ve done my job,” says Leslie. Still, no matter how strong the community of incarcerated women may be, there are some things beyond their ability. “I can’t give the determination to want to fight,” notes Leslie. “I am quite aware that each person has to earn her own experience.”

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