Focusing on the concerns of formerly incarcerated mothers and their advocates, the “Ain’t I a Woman” conference at the Blackstone Community Center started a public conversation about the structural barriers precluding re-entry into society.
In many ways, the panels, breakout sessions and speeches echoed the sentiments expressed 159 years ago by the author of the conference’s title — American abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
“This is the first step in a strategy to move the awareness of the importance of what happens to mothers that have experienced incarceration and have been limited in their child-rearing skills because of CORI ramifications,” said Haywood Fennell, Sr., a community activist and a board member of the Stanley Jones Clean Slate Project.
Fennell was one of the organizers of last week’s event with Kimberley Sutherland, Alveta Haynes, a Boston University School of Public Health project manager; Nia Imani of Sisterhood on the Move and Karen Miller, executive director of the Boston Society of Vulcans.
Their goal was to bring light to some of the mitigating circumstances bringing mothers into contact with the correctional system in the first place: stress, substance abuse, domestic violence, autism and the Criminal Offender Record Information system (CORI).
At “Women and CORI After Incarceration,” a session facilitated by Pyramid Builders’ Sister Sandra Muhammed and Suzanne Bruce, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — or as Bruce puts it “Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder” — was cited as a key issue that women confront after release from prison. In addition, a lack of housing due to stringent public housing policies mandated by the federal government play a significant role in preventing some women from obtaining public housing.
Speaking on behalf of the Massachusetts House of Corrections, Michelle Donaher, director of Female Offenders Services, told the audience that they are trying to alleviate that problem.
“We have re-entry services whereby we find placement for every woman,” Donaher said. “Our goal is never to find shelters, but to find placement for women when they are getting out. That is a big thing for us. Nobody leaves without a place to go to. There are some things that are being done.”
Not everyone agreed wth Donaher’s assessement. “But even though those programs are in place,” Bruce argued, “when the women are released, they don’t go directly from jail to housing, they go from South Bay to a transitional house, then they go on a waiting list, and if they wait long enough then they are able to get housing but in most cases the wait is too long, and the time in between creates a lot of opportunities for these women to slip back into the system.”
An equally important issue of previously incarcerated women is the CORI system — cited as the major structural barrier confronting previously incarcerated women in Massachusetts.
Many questioned the practice of allowing potential employers to review an applicant’s criminal history. As it’s now, job applicants can mark a box giving employers permission.
Speaking on behalf of the state, and as a workshop attendee, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, talked about Bill No. 2220, which passed in the Senate in November of 2009 and is now on its way to the House of Representatives before being sent to Gov. Deval Patrick and becoming state law.
“If passed,” said Chang-Diaz, “the bill will regulate who can have access to a CORI, but more importantly, it prohibits employers and housing providers from putting that checkbox on the paper application when you apply for a job or apply for housing. This law will prohibit asking at the initial stage, but will allow employers, housing providers, and others to ask later on in the process once they’ve gotten a well-rounded view of the person. It will also take anything other than a conviction away from one’s CORI.”
On the closing panel of the conference, which was moderated by former television news reporter, Sarah Anne Shaw, Secretary of Public Safety Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, Under Secretary of Children & Families Marilyn Anderson Chase, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, and Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, all spoke about city and state efforts to restore civil and human rights after release from prison.
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