Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking to the Bureau of Prisons Warden’s Advisory Council in reference to programming in female facilities and reentry efforts. I spoke alongside Jeri Kirby of West Virginia University. She is a professor who served two years in prison two decades ago. Since her release, she has obtained her degree and currently teaches the Inside Out Program to incarcerated individuals.
I was one of Professor Kirby’s first students while incarcerated at SFF Hazelton. Learning alongside outside students from West Virginia University along with my peers who were incarcerated with me in the Secure Female Facility in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during my 18 years in prison. Jeri Kirby taught Reentry and Collateral Damages. She was inspiring to me.
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Yesterday when we shared our experiences of incarceration, reentry, and our current work with incarcerated women in the system, I was equally motivated to be in her presence. She is the epitome of transformation.
We both spoke about what programs were beneficial to us during our prison terms and what improvements we believe should be made. We were adamant about the fact that women in prison need to hear from women who have been formerly incarcerated to receive firsthand insight about the reintegration process.
Jeri spoke about missing the camaraderie developed with her peers while at Alderson 20 years ago. She spoke about the struggle to find her place in society after release. She so sadly missed it that at times she longed to return.
I shared testimonials about The W.I.R.E. (Women Involved in Reentry Efforts) and the social support we have been able to provide to one another and to women in prison. Women flourish in relationships, and being connected to strong, positive women who are thriving after tragedy is critical.
We spoke at length about the ill treatment we were often exposed to at the hands of officers who were on power trips and how that can affect reentry. Jeri stated, “I am certain that if Lashonia or I saw one of those officers who degraded us in the past while we were incarcerated, we would regress into the state of fear, anxiety and helplessness that we displayed in the past.”
We shared the importance of trauma-informed care. It’s no secret that most of the women in prison are victims of sexual and physical abuse. At times it seems unfair that women remain the fastest growing group of people who are becoming incarcerated when we consider the struggles we face. Nevertheless, we understand that we all must be held accountable for our actions.
My hope is that we can somehow make a difference in the lives of women at risk of incarceration. We want to help women through prison reform, inspire law makers to enact fair sentencing laws, and reduce recidivism among women by providing gender-specific programs and support services.
As I left the grounds of FPC (Federal Prison Camp) Alderson, West Virginia, I made a wrong turn and ended up too close to a dorm. I saw a woman walking out in her brown, khaki uniform. Bracing myself from the sudden anxiety I felt, I backed up and turned my car around as quickly as possible. Then, I saw a sign that read, “Reformatory for Women: The only Federal Industrial institution for women… Established by an act of Congress… Formally opened Nov. 24, 1928. Stresses rehabilitation and industrial education.”
Since that sign was posted, at least seven more Bureau of Prison facilities and countless state prisons have opened their gates to female offenders.
Video: Gender-Responsive Treatment