Sep 21, 2010

H.I.R.E. Conference on Women Elevates & Unites

The H.I.R.E. panel on keeping women front and center in advocacy, from left to right: Tracie Gardner, state policy director at the Legal Action Center; Serena Alfieri, associate director of policy at the Women in Prison Project; Virginia Lasoski-Nepa, program director of Reentry Services at the Women’s Prison Association; Kathy Boudin, director of the Criminal Justice Initiative at Columbia University; LaResse Harvey, policy director at A Better Way Foundation; and Anisah Thompson, peer leader at ReConnect.

For those of you who missed last week's H.I.R.E Conference, which focused on the unique challenges women face during and post incarceration and generated recommendations for reform,  here is a brief write-up from our friends at H.I.R.E:

It was a reentry policy gathering like many others, with advocates and experts putting their heads together on the best ways to smooth the way for reintegration into society, both during and after reincarnation. But there was something different about this conference: Every single one of the speakers and panelists were women.
Indeed, that was the whole point of the National H.I.R.E. Network’s 5th Annual Policy Conference. Titled “Elevating Women” and marked by both policy discussions and poignant stories, the event highlighted a key problem in the criminal justice system: Though women have a different set of needs and experiences during and after incarceration, most discharge and reentry planning focuses on men.

In the face of this bias, women face not only practical difficulties, but also a higher level of stigma – and that means even more work for advocates. “It’s about looking past our own biases that we put on even folks that we are representing,” said Serena Alfieri, associate director of policy at the Women in Prison Project. In a panel on keeping women front and center in policy decisions, Alfieri described her own time behind bars as eye-opening: “I saw the face of my sister, of my friends – the people in the prison were just women, like all of us.”

This is what makes unity even more important in pushing for positive policy change, said Kathy Boudin, director of the Criminal Justice Initiative at Columbia University. “On the one hand, you can be invisible for a while,” she said. “On the other hand, if you’re going to deal with the stigma, at some point you have to come to terms with it, so you can use yourself as an example.”

The conference keynote speaker, Brenda V. Smith, pushed the audience to take “no” as a starting point, not an insurmountable obstacle. “Look at women as a bundle of assets instead of challenges,” said Smith, a professor of law at the Washington College of Law at American University, asking the audience to call out their assets.

Shouts punctuated the auditorium: “Educated!” “Resilient!” “Creative!”

With a focus on that language of possibility, the panel discussions produced several new policy recommendations and reinforced many existing priorities for H.I.R.E.’s work with women:
Within facilities
  • Improved discharge planning, including reinstating Medicaid and obtaining a state identification card and birth certificate prior to release. 
  • More higher education opportunities for women.
  •  Placement for mothers within reasonable distance from children to encourage visitation.
  • Improved medical and psychiatric care, and an increase in trauma-informed corrections and service provider staff.
  • A shorter, less-invasive process for securing a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.
  • Improved communication between criminal and housing courts to reduce problems women have trying to reunite with their children upon reentry.
  • More transitional and affordable housing; too often women manage to reunite with their children only to wind up in a shelter.
Overall, everyone agreed, the system needs more women involved in the policy-making process on these issues – particularly those who are formerly incarcerated themselves. At the end of the day, each of us must measure our work against the greater goal, said Patrice Gaines, a renowned speaker and activist who closed the event with her own tear-jerking reentry story.

“Give the funders what they want,” she said, “but understand what true success is.”
In their words:
“To be in the room with so many successful women – women who have survived so much hurt and pain but have managed to come through and find the strength to help, teach, and encourage others – was just surreal for me as a professional in this field. Participants heard different perspectives about how incarceration affected their lives, they learned about the role of trauma and why organizations that serve women must know how to help individuals who have been traumatized, and finally, they learned how to take part in changing laws and policies that affect them and their families. Three resounding themes did come through throughout the day: the importance of increasing their education, networking, and doing something positive like volunteering.”

 – Roberta Meyers-Peeples, director, National H.I.R.E. Network

 “The level of sincerity on the part of the participants was overwhelming. So many who had experienced incarceration demonstrated a passion that feeds the very work that we do. The level of knowledge shared by the other presenters became a nod of agreement amongst us, causing me to step up my game, excited to be on a panel with such prolific speakers! I was honored to be a part of the event – and more events are needed to tell the story of the woman's struggle, how she can overcome and trudge forward educated about our realities!"

– Alfreda A. Robinson, founder/executive director, National Women's Prison Project