On September 30, 2015, The Women’s Home held our very first Re:Entry Summit, a day long symposium dedicated to discussing the issues women face upon re-entering society after incarceration. The event brought together panelists and speakers from across the nation who have dedicated their work to researching the ways the criminal justice system affects those involved. Chau Nguyen, then Manager of Community Involvement for The Home, and the emcee for the morning, opened the Summit by giving thanks to Texas Bar Foundation for awarding the grant which made this summit possible. Attendees then saw a short video of one of The Home’s graduates, who spoke on her experience with re-entry.
The morning’s keynote speakers, the authors of A Country Called Prison, Drs. Mary D. Looman and John D. Carl opened the day with the origins of their book. The Drs. research began when Dr. Looman noted to Dr. Carl that incarcerated people share a distinct language, pro-social behavior (ways of dressing and presenting yourself and interacting with others), and similar childhood narratives. Dr. Carl, a sociologist noted that these commonalities are the things that a country’s culture is built on, and the two began researching how our current prison system alienates millions of citizens, effectively preventing them from ever fully re-entering society.
Drs. Looman and Carl went on to explain how the United States’ incarcerated population, at over 16 million, is just slightly smaller than the state of Florida, and those incarcerated carry lifelong disadvantages from stigma and poor resources that are passed to the next generation. Prison systems, Dr. Looman noted, are the only industry she has worked in where there is not a unified goal for all those involved. Those incarcerated are focused on leaving, behavioral staff like her are focused on getting them needed medical treatment, administrative staff focus on keeping the prison running, and security staff are focused on preventing any physical violence. Prisons are also the only organizational structure that do not specialize their treatment, unlike schools or hospitals where those using services are divided by age, learning level, or needed treatment. This leads to situations like 19 year olds on their first nonviolent drug charge being roomed with convicted pedophiles or experienced convicts whose only mentorship is how to survive best in the prison system. This failure to categorize and provide specialized services and training to those incarcerated creates an environment where inmates stagnate until they are released, with no resources, social skills, or pro-social skills to help them recover and avoid returning.
After this provocative opening, attendees left the main room to the morning breakout session of their choice. The morning sessions included:
A more in depth look at Dr. Looman and Dr. Carl’s eleven proposals to address the problems their opening speech laid out
A panel featuring keynote speaker Dr. Andrea Leverentz and The Women’s Home graduate, Natasha Jones that examined the journey from prison to re-entry from the lived perspective
A behavioral health panel featuring Career and Recovery’s Alternative Program Director, Jeff Berry as well as The Women’s Home Executive Director, Paula Paust and Tina Carr, a graduate of The Women’s Home who now works within the Harris County Jail providing mental health services
A look at the impact of diversion courts and similar initiatives by the Honorable Judge Denise Bradley, Director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Teresa May, SAFE Program District Attorney Crystal Okorafor, and graduate of The Women’s Home and STAR court client, Anna Rabe who now works as an account manager and recruiter for a staffing firm
A panel focused on how activism and programs within the community can enact change and provide support with the Executive Director of Angela House, Maureen O’Connell as well as their Associate Director, Alycia Welch, and Brigid’s Hope’s Program Director, Regina Walker.
After lunch, former news anchor and friend to The Home, Fran Fawcett Peterson, introduced the afternoon’s keynote speakers, Senator John Whitmire and Dr. Andrea Leverentz. Senator John Whitmire gave a speech addressing how, from early on in his career, he recognized the need to provide treatment and support instead of punishment to individuals brought into the judicial system for nonviolent drug offenses. The Senator made the point that when dealing with infractions, our justice system often fails to differentiate between whether we are afraid of those who have broken the law or angry with them. This failure means that nonviolent offenders, many of whom are charged for offenses relating to addiction or drug possession, are being sentenced to serve terms that will follow them throughout their life. Senator Whitmire advocated for alternatives such as diversion courts, which allow those brought in on charges like drug possession the opportunity to seek treatment rather than incarceration. He also advocated for a process that would allow for eventual expungement of records after former inmates had made changes to their lives and were again productive citizens.
Dr. Andrea Leverentz followed Senator Whitmire with a presentation elaborating on the research she discussed during her morning break out panel. The author of The Ex-Prisoner’s Dilemma, Leverentz began researching the effects of incarceration upon women after discovering a lack of information and data focused on the gender specific needs of women re-entering society from prison. Dr. Leverentz presented how interviewing formerly incarcerated women in Chicago and Boston revealed a common language the women used for talking about their experiences. Dr. Leverentz noted that this language, adopted from the program provided by a local nonprofit that provided support services to women struggling with addiction and re-entry, created a narrative similar to the 12 step program. She discussed how this narrative was not always appropriate or helpful in facing barriers of re-entry to the community.
The summit broke out again for afternoon sessions covering:
Employment barriers and finding and maintaining work with Second Chance Chief Executive Officer Robert Coleman and Barbara Irving, Career and Recovery Services’ Director of Veteran and Housing Services
The overlap between those facing chronic homelessness and repeat incarceration with Mandy Chapman-Semple, Special Assistant to the Mayor for the Homeless Initiative and Coalition for the Homeless’ Director of Programs Eva Thibaudeau
The Honorable Judge Angela Ellis and Angela House and Healthcare for the Homeless’s Program Director, Dr. Andrea Link discussed how human trafficking and prostitution can trap women in a revolving cycle of incarceration and re-entry and how judicial solutions like GIRL’s Court, a diversion court designed to help minors leave human trafficking and expunge criminal records, and health oriented solutions like The Healthy and Whole program can help
The Honorable Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore, No More Victims Founder, Marilyn Gambrell and Big Brothers Big Sisters Director of Houston Enrollment & Special Projects, Jenifer Butler discussed the impact incarceration can have during and after incarceration on family members, children and caretakers
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church’s Senior Associate Pastor Matt Russell discussed his research on the how men and women differ in building narratives of recovery and viewing their experiences with incarceration
Attorney at Law and Program Director of Beacon Law at The Beacon Leslie Schweinle Ginzel discussed the importance of providing comprehensive legal services to women re-entering society.
The symposium concluded with a keynote speech from Texas House of Representatives Member Senfronia Thompson, who spoke about the recent victory she and her cohorts accomplished that struck down legislation preventing those with drug-related felonies from accessing SNAP food benefits and being able to rent an apartment. She recounted how when an opponent of this change said ex-offenders should be tested if they want to receive food stamps, she countered that they already experience random drug screenings through the judiciary system, and adding an extra layer of testing wastes government funds. Representative Thompson, who has been in office since 1972, spoke about how politics make for strange bedfellows, and that she and her colleagues will be doing work to reduce prison terms across the board in the upcoming legislative sesson.
The Re:Entry Summit bid farewell to over 180 attendees with closing remarks from The Women’s Home Development Director, Marcia Tapp, who thanked the presenters and speakers and affirmed the important work they and those who attended the summit do every day. Marcia also brought to the stage The Women’s Home Intern, Haley Sparks, who worked for months alongside Marcia to help organize the Summit and played an integral role in seeing the event to fruition.