It was tempting for the women who came out to the Temple of Praise church in Southeast on Saturday to focus on the clothes, the shoes, the table full of makeup with a rainbow of blush and eye shadow laid out before them.
But for many of the women, the real gift — the rebuilding of their lives after serving in prison — started months or even years ago. And it started from the inside, before they attended this weekend’s conference designed for female offenders reentering society.
Laverne Newman got a dash of mascara added to her lashes Saturday morning after picking out a donated tan pantsuit to take home. The makeover would serve as a good “ego booster.” But Newman, 54, said she went to the conference because she wanted to become more independent after spending 13 months in prison on drug possession charges.
“Women like me, sometimes we go through a lot of things as children, like abuse,” said Newman, who started drinking when she was 6, after she was molested. “It leads us down the wrong path because it’s a way of numbing our feelings, but we’re not bad people.”
Newman and about 400 women got new suits for future job interviews, career tips, relationship advice and other social services at the “Lifetime Makeover” reentry symposium hosted by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia. The federal agency oversees adults on probation, parole and supervised release in the District.
This weekend’s conference is one piece of the agency’s strategy to decrease recidivism among female offenders.
Agency Director Nancy Ware said they began to focus on female offenders about a year ago because they have many unique needs and experiences compared with male offenders. Female offenders are more likely to have suffered from physical abuse, isolation and low self-esteem, she said. These challenges haunt them as they embark on everything from starting new relationships to job hunting.
“They don’t feel like they have anything to offer,” Ware said. “We want them to have a better success story to tell.”
At any given time, the agency oversees about 16,000 offenders. Of those, about 1,200 are women.
Much of the conference focused on building healthy relationships.
Bernadette Davis, 55, said she “medicated” her feelings for 10 to 15 years to cope with a violent relationship.
“All my self-worth was drained from me,” said Davis, who was arrested on drug possession charges.
Calling herself a “functional addict,” Davis said she held down a job as a legal secretary while abusing substances on the weekends to deal with depression. But getting arrested was a “wake-up call.”
Davis said she learned to rebuild her self-esteem and tell herself she was “worthy and an important citizen in society.”
But “I had to surrender to get my life back,” Davis said.
Davis’s message of empowerment has just started to click for Aishia Smith, 32.
Smith changed from jeans and a black sweater into a coral business suit with a skirt and blazer Saturday, showing off her transformation along with others at the conference.
“I feel like a business lady,” Smith said after donning her new outfit. “I’m a sophisticated woman.”
Smith, who started drinking and abusing drugs when she was 8, said she went to the conference to reconnect with society and to become a “young lady.” Smith just started working at DC Central Kitchen and dreams of being a chef.
“I have a lot in me I was holding back,” said Smith who was released from prison last April. “I needed help dealing with what’s going on on the inside.”