Moderated by Aja Beckham, the conversation between Aaliyah Polite, Jameon Gray, and Margaret LaPell covered how the stigma of their conviction shadowed how they made friends and applied for work, how to build trust between NIMBY advocates and returning citizens, and wanting to be judged by who they are now and not the mistakes in their past.
Returning citizens are just looking for a chance to thrive. But the stigma of their incarceration doesn't give them a real second chance. 80% of people coming home experience prejudice based on their status. And that's not fair.
A Chance To Thrive is a campaign to destigmatize returning citizens and get neighbors, employers, and friends to see them as the people they are and not the label they've been given. Please take time to watch the video below of our conversation, and if you're inspired, visit www.AChanceToThrive.com to see how you can get involved.
This year violent crime in DC has skyrocketed. With the increased violence comes more scrutiny at repeat offenders and those who have experienced incarceration multiple times, a group that was called out during a recently publicized email conversation between DC Police Chief Lanier and a concerned citizen.
While repeat offenders may be involved in rising violent crime in DC, it’s important to remember that this is a uniquely vulnerable population that faces many barriers to stability with little support. Two staff members from Thrive DC took the time to sit down and explain what it’s like for someone coming out of incarceration, and what Thrive DC does for people when no one else will help.
Can you introduce yourself (briefly) and what you do at Thrive DC?
Nicole: I am the Re-entry Program Manager for Thrive DC. I am responsible for coordination of services, case management, and life skills group facilitation for the women’s program for returning citizens: Women in New Directions. This program combines employment assistance, sobriety maintenance, basic needs, and supportive services offered by Thrive DC staff to assist women in their journey to stable and productive lives.
Jemahl: I am the Employment Specialist here at Thrive DC. I have over 12 years of experience in employment services teaching, training, and guiding community members toward self sufficiency. I specialize in working with individuals who are seeking to re-engage themselves back into the workforce and aide in developing habits that are relevant to the job or career of their choice.
At Thrive DC, I also manage the Real Opportunity Culinary Program, which is a 23 week extensive program designed to provide soft and hard skills training and an externship within the food service industry. For ex-offenders, restaurant kitchens and construction jobs offer the most opportunity for stable employment.
What is the biggest struggle for ex offenders coming out of incarceration?
Nicole: What isn’t one of their biggest struggles? In most cases what we would consider immediate needs are their biggest struggles. Employment, personal documents, stable housing, food, peace of mind, and rest are just a few of the barriers that many women and men face once released from custody. Each of these contributes greatly to an individual’s ability to become and remain a productive citizen.
Jemahl: All ex offenders struggle when transitioning from incarceration to a stable environment. What makes the transition more difficult is having to do it without support and immediately being expect to provide for themselves after starting with no resources and no initial funds.
Most people aren’t aware, but most ex-offenders released from incarceration finish their sentence in a halfway house that is supposed to help them with the transition. But without any money, IDs, or transportation, it’s extremely hard to make something happen for yourself before your time in the halfway house is up and you’re out on the streets.
As a result of not having the support and resources to help with their specific barriers, ex-offenders often get upset with the process and some will fall back into behaviors that contributed to their trouble in the first place.
What opportunities do you have at Thrive for ex offenders to turn their lives around?
Nicole: Most importantly, we offer support for those who are tired. As a returning citizen there is always something new to get back on track, and the process of finding housing, employment, services, benefits, etc can be draining. We work to assist returning citizens with the much needed leg-work that helps them piece their lives back together.
Supporting these women means being available and stating the hard facts. For example, I have helped a client recover from identity theft, something that happens more frequently when moving from incarceration to transitional living. I’ve provided a listening ear when personal issues and circumstances become overwhelming, and visited a client at her treatment program just to let her know that she’s not alone. Simple things like that help my ladies keep going in the right direction.
Jemahl: At Thrive DC, we offer access and support from our Employment Assistance Program and the Real Opportunities Program. Both programs are aimed at assisting individuals who have high barriers to employment. One of those barriers is the simple fact of there status as a returning citizen. Here we act as a buffer for all clients to advocate on their behalf and encourage employers that the skills and abilities gained within our training program will be an asset to their business.
What makes it hard for Thrive DC to help ex offenders?
Nicole: There is no one answer to this question; in my short time here I have seen/heard a combination of answers: that transportation is unreliable (it may take up to 3 buses to get from some areas in SE to Thrive DC), that the area around Thrive DC is too tempting for relapse (Columbia Heights being where they once participated in illegal/drug activities), and time/scheduling issues. Having the motivation to ask for assistance, and a willingness to commit to the processes is also a big struggle for clients who tried and failed before.
Another issue is that some agencies we share clients with may not always have the same zeal that I do for ensuring that their clients get all that is available to them. There have been issues in the past with agencies not willing to coordinating services, and times when it has been difficult to speak to shared clients at another agency’s location.
Ex-offenders face a lot of stigma, especially the idea that since they did the crime, they deserve all the consequences that come from that. Whatever they may be. For ex-offenders, it’s hard not to get punished over and over for the same past crimes.
Jemahl: If an ex-offender has the time, access, and opportunity he/she is welcome. But if the ex-offender has no open time, access, or opportunity to come and enjoy the benefits of our program, they will be very difficult to assist.
What can people do to support your programs?
Nicole: My ladies have a hard time committing to the program because of all the obstacles in their way. People can help them by providing us with gift cards to grocery stores, coffee shops, hair salons, and places like Target that can be incentives and rewards for clients on their path back to stability.
But the biggest thing that people can do is to keep encouraging returning citizens to persevere. Ex-offenders face a lot of uphill battles, and get frustrated with organizations they’ve had bad experiences with. Support and encouragement to keep working with organizations trying to help them make the biggest difference in our clients’ path back to success.
Jemahl: To support the employment department of Thrive DC:
Employers – Allow an opportunity for ex-offenders who have come through our employment program a chance to work with your organization.
To support either the WIND program or our Employment Services, please contact our Community Relations Coordinator Greg Rockwell at 202-503-1528 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole Price is our Women In New Directions (WIND) Program Coordinator. WIND helps women transition from prison back into our community, and helped 26 women last year navigate post-incarcerated life.
We sat down to interview Nicole about her program. For more information about WIND, or to ask for help, click here.
To read about the success of one of our program participants, click here.
I generally pass out information packets to transitional homes and give workshops at homeless shelters. The organization Consultants for Change is a big help in getting the word out to the women who need support services the most after coming out of prison.
Just a few of their external challenges are finding jobs, housing, childcare, getting transportation to and from interviews, and basic skills (things like using a computer).
Internally, the biggest challenge is self-esteem. Many women experience tunnel-vision and get discouraged when they experience a setback. They also struggle with basic life skills like conflict resolution and overcoming resentment.
Too often they also begin to internalize the labels placed on them such as “homeless” or “convict” and begin to use them for themselves. A big part of my job is helping them remember that this is something that has happened to them, but it doesn't need to define them.
It depends on how long they've been there. Prisons don’t always have the best people working for them and they take it out on the women stuck there. It creates a barrier of trust when they come out because of how inhumanely they've been treated.
It’s a very long road and many women struggle with accepting that a change actually needs to happen. They've been in a routine of unhealthy and self-harming actions that have seemingly worked for years so they’re hesitant to try anything else, especially if they have a chance at failing. It’s all about getting them to a mindset of being willing to work for it.
Being there and being available. I promise them that I can help and I need to keep that promise. I can’t have them coming into the office and asking for me and then finding out I’m not there, then giving up and leaving: I could lose their trust.
They need my attention, time and dedication because I may be the only person willing to give it. I always remind the ladies that they’re never at a dead end, there’s always an option to try. I encourage them and provide them with options to pursue, and I’m there for them at every step of the way.
It’s all about the fear of failure. When something doesn’t work, it’s followed by disappointment and discouragement. For most people it’s easy to bounce back after a failure, but these women already have such low motivation and self-esteem that it really hits them hard.
The thing I struggle with the most with these women is getting them to commit. We require a lot of their time because our services cannot be taught and internalized by coming in once a week. We provide addiction services, help with finding a job, and a cognitive restructuring program.
Thrive DC wants these women to succeed; but to do so, it’s partly on us and mostly on them. It’s hard to get them to that place to commit to our extensive program.
That we still have women who are willing to bounce back after they lose a job or relapse with their addiction. If they are still committed to achieving success after all that they have been through, it makes me want to work that much harder with them to help them achieve their dreams.
It’s especially encouraging when women ask for help after they have found some stability, but before they reach a crisis. It’s hard to ask for help, and it’s a healthy sign that our women are gaining control over their lives and are self-aware to know when they need help. And I’m happy to give it to them!
Running the WIND Program is a full-time job and a half! If you would like to volunteer and help Nicole, please contact our Volunteer Coordinator directly at (202) 503-1533 or email@example.com. If you would like to support our efforts financially, you can donate directly by clicking here.