The Washington Post

Female ex-offenders describe the hurdles to reentering society

Most female ex-offenders returning home after incarceration need help with substance abuse, education and housing, according to many of the panelists participating in a symposium Saturday in the District.

Canise Robertson, released from jail three years ago after serving time on a drug conviction, agreed. But Robertson, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of the District of Columbia, said what she really needed when she was released from jail — and all she really wanted — could be boiled down to three words: a second chance. All the other things would follow, she said.

“What can the community do to contribute to your success?” the moderator asked.

“The community can recognize me as Canise Robertson, not as an inmate or a number,” said Robertson, a recovering addict, during “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” a program on women’s reentry after prison held at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast.

The audience applauded.

The program was presented by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, the U.S. Parole Commission, Our Place DC and Serenity Inc., two nonprofit organizations that help formerly and currently incarcerated women.

The forum was designed to help ex-offenders find information about resources, give the public a chance to hear about the challenges facing women who are rebuilding their lives, and allow the former inmates an opportunity to talk about the troubles they encounter.

Darnella Adams was released from prison in June after serving 17 years. She now works full time and goes to school.

“I was incarcerated for murder,” Adams told the crowd. “When someone asked the question of what do ‘they’ look like — ‘they’ look like me. But what I did almost 18 years ago is not indicative of the person I am today.

“Without God, I would not be.”

According to the Department of Justice, 113,000 women were incarcerated in state and federal facilities in 2009. Female inmates have higher rates of drug use and mental health problems, and seven out of 10 incarcerated women have children younger than 18, according to government statistics.

“Successful re-entry of former offenders returning to our community is critical to reducing recidivism, saving taxpayer dollars and building safer, healthier neighborhoods,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement. “This forum allows us to confront the special challenges facing women who return to the community and to build the support systems necessary to get them back on the right track.”

Adrienne R. Poteat, deputy director of the District’s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency — which provides supervision of adults on probation, parole and supervised release — said 50 percent of the women under her agency’s oversight have mental health issues, 14 percent are homeless and a sizeable percentage of them read at a third- or fourth-grade level. Women who were incarcerated were more likely than men to have been physically or sexually assaulted, she said.

Poteat said the agency is working to address the unique challenges these women confront. Among the agency’s efforts for women: providing a 15-bed substance-abuse unit; helping them reconnect with their families; assisting them with developing vocational skills; and promoting counseling.

Poteat said she hoped community members learned something of the hurdles these women must overcome as they move forward.

Ashley McSwain, executive director of Our Place DC, said one of the biggest challenges the women face is that members of society see them as so different.

“It’s important to me,” McSwain said, “that the community know that they are you and they are me.”

Ovetta Wiggins covers Maryland state politics in Annapolis.

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