Henry Ford once said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” For many returning citizens coming home from prison, parole is that opportunity for renewal. But returning women citizens face greater, more nuanced challenges. Who addresses their needs?
The W.I.R.E. (Women Involved in Reentry Efforts) is a nonprofit organization for women and by women, working to help them succeed in spite of their criminal past.
For LaShonia Thompson-El that time in prison put things into perspective. A lifelong DC resident who spent her formative years in Ward 8, she attended Hart Junior High and Ballou Senior High before dropping out at age 16. Back in the late 1980s and early 90s, during the perilous crack cocaine era, she was “wild,” as her mother put it.
According to Thompson-El it was her social circles that brought her to that life. “I didn’t really have exposure to drugs in my household. My mother never did drugs or went to prison. I went to school and socialized in an environment where my peers were violent, starting at Hart. My boyfriend was drug-dealing. I was selling drugs and fighting. It was all normalized.”
Thompson-El has five sisters and three brothers. All except one have touched the criminal justice system in DC.
By the time she was 18 years old, Thompson-El had caught her first case: assault with a deadly weapon. She explained that although she acted out of anger, her overall feeling was of hopelessness. “At that point I had been involved in so much violence that I was paranoid. And I was in a cycle of violence for so long that I just became desensitized to it. I wasn’t necessarily an angry person. Just miserable.”
Thompson-El’s life took a downward turn a year later. “I was waiting to be sentenced on the assault case when one of my friends got into a dispute with somebody and came and got me. I was 19 and I wasn’t going anywhere without a weapon. I had a gun on me, and two girls lost their lives on that day.” In 1993, LaShonia, the unemployed single mother of two children ages three years and 10 months, was sentenced to 20-60 years in prison.
Rates and Recidivism
Thompson-El’s story is not an anomaly. Sadly, for many women in DC, prison has been a part of their trajectory. According to the DC Department of Corrections September 2018 report, on average, DC Correctional Treatment Facility in Southeast detains 193 women, majority black and between the ages of 21 and 40 years. On the federal level, the rate of imprisonment for black women in 2016 is 96 per 100,000.
Here’s a sobering fact: according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2005, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested within five years of release. Lack of employment opportunities, housing and mental health support are all cited as roadblocks that impact recidivism rates.
The Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) Act of 2016 was one solution offered by the District government. It is a program designed to help returning citizens get training and support to become entrepreneurs. Funding for the program was not included in the 2018 fiscal year budget.
Connecting The W.I.R.E.
Thompson-El was released from prison after serving 18 years of her sentence. In 2013, while she was working at the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs, her supervisor asked her for ideas on how to support women returning to the community. After participating in a few focus groups, she explains, “we started thinking about what we could do. We could provide peer support, peer mentoring, and we can be peer advocates and inform the community about the needs of women. We decided to start The W.I.R.E.”
The members of The W.I.R.E. connect with women who are returning to the community, serving as mentors and providing guidance and navigation services. They connect with women who are still serving time, assisting with transportation and family reunification.
They counsel women in trauma, an issue Thompson-El believes is the biggest hurdle to overcome. “Everybody experiences trauma before, during and after incarceration. Who helps us process all of that? Nobody.” In 2019, they will expand their services to host restorative justice programs and provide guest speaker services to the community at large.
Andrea Kane, long-term supporter, says The W.I.R.E. has a niche that gives an edge over others. “DC has a strong commitment to reentry but sometimes it helps to just get connected to other [formerly incarcerated] women they can relate to. The W.I.R.E. can help navigate challenges whether they are emotional, financial, housing or getting connected to services.”
She adds that they also keep a hand on the women still inside prison to strengthen bonds with their children. “They know first-hand how difficult it is to be away from your children; especially for DC residents who are sent to federal prisons away from the city. They are helping women who are currently incarcerated stay connected to their families including paying for visits and phone calls.”
Thompson-El, a married grandmother of five and an alumna of Trinity University with a bachelor’s degree in human relations, stands as a lighthouse in the community, guiding paroled women back with compassion. “I have a group of peers that understand what I’m going through without me even telling them. These are my aunties and sisters. We do whatever we can to help others and to try to make a difference.”
Want to learn more about The W.I.R.E. and how you can lend a hand? Visit www.thewirdedc.org.
Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News. Follow her, @urbanbushwoman9.