Female felons get 'gender-specific' help to reenter family and work life in D.C.

February 6, 2011

About 200 District women recently released from prison or on court-ordered probation attended a six-hour forum Saturday designed to provide "gender-specific" help to get a job, recover from sex abuse or drug addiction, and reconnect with their children.

Amid feminine touches, including pink candles and a fashion show, attendees at the "Women's Re-Entry Forum" learned how to interview for a job, keep a family budget and get help for unpaid child support.

"It's so easy to fall back into the streets," said India Frazier, 46, who served six years in federal prisons for armed robbery and parole violations. "You're coming out [of prison], and unless you have some kind of job skills, you're lost. When you get that mediocre job and it's not paying the bills, it's harder" to steer clear of crime and drugs.

Officials at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency said they hope the seminars will help reverse a disturbing trend: Although the 1,200 women under supervision represent about 15 percent of the city's residents on parole or probation, their numbers are growing at a faster rate than men. Programs aimed at returning prisoners to their communities are usually geared toward men.

"Women offenders are dramatically different from male offenders," said Leonard Sipes, an agency spokesman.

Female convicts are less likely than men to return to crime, Sipes said, but they are more likely to have been physically or sexually abused, have young children at home, and have drug habits or mental health problems.

"These are real needs that need to be dealt with," Sipes said.

In January, the agency began consolidating services for women at 25 K St. NE, providing one place to get drug screening, job training and counseling. Supervision officers now focus on problems particular to women, such as abusive spouses or partners who force them to carry their drugs and guns.

The women at Saturday's workshops at the Temple of Praise church in Southeast heard practical tips: In a job interview, answer "Yes" rather than "Uh-huh." When potential bosses say, "Tell me about yourself," they're trying to learn about an applicant's professional background, not how many children she has.

"You can get a job, but if you go in there and act the fool or you fabricated your skills, it'll catch up with you," Eric Shuler, one of the agency's job specialists, told the group. "You've got to play within the rules. That's how you keep your freedom."

When Shuler called on a woman who had volunteered to be in a skit to come to the stage, she declined, saying she had changed her mind.

"Okay," Shuler said firmly, looking straight at her. "I'm your employer. I'm asking you to do something."

She reluctantly walked to the stage as the crowd cheered.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) drew applause and an "Amen!" when she told how she continues to push for all federal prisoners from the District to be incarcerated locally - closer to children, family and friends - rather than in other regions.

"Welcome home," Norton told the group. "We love each and every one of you. We have missed you as part of our community."

Sharon Moore, 52, said she had thought her August conviction for distributing crack cocaine would have disqualified her for a job as a hotel desk clerk. But after hearing pep talks and learning how to interview, she said, she came away more hopeful.

Learning that she can reenter the work world, Moore said, "means my life isn't over after all."

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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