From the Inside Out

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out of 100 is incarcerated. Over 1.5 million adults—largely
Black and Latino—have become part of this growing population.
Yet, what’s generally left out of the discussion is that
women prisoners are one of the fastest growing populations
today, increasing over 500% in the last 30 years. Consequently,
what led them to incarceration and what they
need once released is seldom seriously engaged by society.
Seeking to fill this gap, Women In Progress, provides
one-on-one mentoring and services to women who have
been incarcerated. Many of the women speak candidly
about sexual and physical abuse, drug running and selling,
domestic violence, forgery, and theft. Many of these crimes
are the reasons they have spent a part of their lives behind
bars. Now free and ready for change, they face major challenges—
challenges society seems unwilling to address.
For many in the community, rehabilitation of prisoners
seems a distant reality. If the subject of incarceration, rehabilitation
or re-entry surfaces, it’s often met with cynicism
that change can only occur in an ideal setting. Yet the fact
remains, every day women are released from jails and prisons
across the country, expected to return to a home they
may no longer know and people on the outside, including
family and friends, who may treat them with suspicion or
low regard.
Moreover, the majority of incarcerated women have
children, who are often the “other victims” that are left
without a voice, when their mothers are sent away. Lack of
education and housing, as well as unemployment, are just
a few of the formidable struggles they must contend with,
once back home. If women who have been incarcerated
are to re-enter society effectively and become viable members
of their communities, they need to find support systems
in place that counter the poverty, lack of training,
and disillusionment that generally led many of them into
crime in the first place. The problem oftentimes is not the
ex-offender, but the unchanging and unyielding social attitudes
that continue to punish and marginalize formerly
incarcerated women for their mistakes, long after they
have paid their debt through imprisonment.
As a consequence of this negation and lack of support
services, many women of color find themselves back in
prison. If recidivism rates are to decline, along with the
necessary changes in the lifestyle of ex-offenders, it will
require a changing attitude and a growing commitment
within the larger society. “We,” as a collective, must rise to
the challenge of transforming attitudes, grounded in the
realities that incarcerated women face, before, during, and
after their incarceration. This requires a willingness of
communities to advocate and support social and economic
endeavors that are required, if the women are ever truly
to be free.
We know many of the problems that exist within poor
and working class communities of color. What we need
are real solutions. Building more prisons is not the answer
to reducing crime, nor does it solve our basic needs for
survival and self-sufficiency. Instead, we must strategize
and mobilize to create conditions for social, educational,
and economic empowerment in our communities.
When we have strong and capable women who are able
to care, support, and provide for their families, we also have
stronger and stable communities. Communities must rise
and advocate for women who are or have been incarcerated.
They deserve the rights afforded to all human beings. However,
as Women In Progress has discovered, to accomplish
this effectively requires that we work our way forward, from
the inside out. Only through our collective work with incarcerated
women can we know them, learn their needs, and
address their struggles with dignity and respect.

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