Supporting women breaking the criminal records box

The issues surrounding women and incarceration are not only complex, but also a dynamic modern concern, one that was recently examined at Temple University by scholars and lay people alike on Monday, March 31.

Life Interrupted: Gender, Race, and Incarceration provided five hours for discussion, analysis and alliance building for those interested in shaping and implementing policies impacting women who have encountered the criminal justice system.

Tonie Willis, founder and executive director of Ardella’s House, spearheaded the daylong conference. The goal of the event was to explore the various challenges facing women – especially those of color – as they re-enter and re-integrate with society after incarceration. More than 100 turned out for the event.

Conference attendees ranged from political figures such as state Rep. Jordan Harris to grassroots organizations such as Veterans Helping Veterans. Among the mix was Patricia Coyne, PCHR community relations team member, armed with info about the city’s Ban the Box law. PCHR enforces this law.

“I was inundated with requests for more information,” Coyne said. “And we let people know that PCHR is ready to meet with any groups or organizations interested in learning more about Ban the Box and its enforcement, along with other work we do.”

Race Gender Criminal Justice conference

(l-r) PCHR’s Patricia Coyne, event organizer Tonie Willis, Ann Schwartzmann of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Christian Stephens of the Pennsylvania Board Probation and Parole and the Hon. Doris Smith were among those highlighting solutions for women of color seeking to find new futures after past entanglement with the criminal justice system.

Community Legal Services recently reported that an increasing number of clients seeking legal assistance to overcome barriers fueled by those criminal histories are women.

In a city where 52 percent of residents are women and nearly 1 in 6 of residents have a criminal record, the overlap is inevitable – and stunning.

According to the CLS report, among the under 30 set, young females, as opposed to men – by a 2 to 1 ratio. Most are women of color, primarily black or Latina. For those over 30, the split is almost even between male and female clients.

While for the most part, their past crimes tend to be less severe than their male counterparts, these women still face and fear difficulties because of their histories. For instance, state law bans people with certain histories records from working in particular fields, such as care giving for seniors or children – two growth areas in the local job market.

Many of these women already are on the lower economic rung, and even head households. Finding work – let alone advancing in the workplace – can seem an insurmountable obstacle, advocates like Willis say.

She has long spoken up for women with criminal histories, and also serves as a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Council on Probation and Parole in Philadelphia.

Teresa Fabi of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office provided the keynote, whereas the rest of the day was filled with moderated panels dissecting different sides of the issue. Insights came from experts ranging from Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, members of the judiciary, and representatives of service agencies such as the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE) and Women Organized Against Rape, among others.

Certainly the work continues, but the forces and voices uniting to tackle the challenges are expanding as well – reason enough to hope surmounting today’s odds is completely possible.

Sex discrimination education: focus on new protections for pregnant workers

PCHR today released new materials to help educate local employers and employees about new protections for workers that are pregnant or new mothers.

PCHR issued a poster that offers a plain-language explanation of the latest update to the Fair Practices Ordinance, the guiding civil rights legislation for the city. Under the law, employees who are pregnant or recently gave birth can ask for reasonable workplace accommodations without fear of losing their jobs. Requests generally deemed reasonable under the new law include asking for bathroom or rest breaks, access to water, assistance lifting items or re-assignment with manual labor duties, for example.

The law also explicitly states that accommodations are not to cause an undue burden on employers

Educating about the city's new law protecting workers who are expecting or new mothers.

Educating about the city’s new law protecting workers who are expecting or new mothers.

The legislation calls for employers in Philadelphia to provide notification of the law by April 20.

A downloadable electronic copy of the poster is available on the PCHR site.

Hard copies are available at PCHR and the area chambers of commerce also have agreed to help their members obtain hard-copy posters

  • Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce
  • African-American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ, and DE
  • Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia
  • Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
  • Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce

The initial poster is available in English. Other languages and related brochures will be made available shortly.

“One of our primary jobs here at the commission is education, because most people don’t want to break the law – they just don’t know about it,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “Likewise, for the tens of thousands of women out there doing their best to balance work and motherhood, this is an incredibly important piece of legislation that they need to know about. But many of them are not aware of their rights, either.

“That’s where this effort comes into play. And the workplace will be improved because of it,” Landau said.

The new provisions are geared toward those who are pregnant, nursing, or in some stage of post-natal recuperation.

In January, Mayor Michael A. Nutter enacted the amendment, authored by City Councilman William K. Greenlee. The action added Philadelphia to a list of jurisdictions stretching from California to New York that are reconsidering how to prevent sex discrimination.

The sizable numbers of women heading households and cited cases of women working under conditions hazardous to their health for fear of losing their income helped propel action on this issue.

PCHR is the local government agency charged with its enforcement.


Helping to build the city’s building blocks: 2014 Block Captain Rally

2014 Block Captains Rally

Tierra Thompson (l.) and Bunrath Math (r.), members of the PCHR community relations team, help arm the city’s block captains with vital information at the 2014 Block Captains’ Rally.

Vital to a vibrant city are strong neighborhoods, and critical to strong neighborhoods are engaged neighbors. That’s what makes the annual Block Captain Rally more than a fluff and puff event. It’s an opportunity to re-energize local leaders who help to cultivate harmony and respect, block by block — and why PCHR was among the many present on Saturday.
This year’s event took place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where more than 1,200 block captains and junior block captains, along with scores of everyday residents, converged to shake off the winter blahs and prep for a new season. And PCHR helped to arm those engaged civic leaders with more details on viable information such as the Fair Housing Ordinance and the Ban the Box law, for starters.
“There were so many people present, and they were really engaged,” said Tierra Thompson, a member of the PCHR community relations team. “There was a lot of positive energy. And people were really interested in the information we were sharing.”
Her teammate, Bunrath Math, agreed.
“The PCHR table was swamped with block captains and community leaders,” Math said. “They took every pamphlet, every handout about our services. I lost my voice from talking by the end of the day.”
Thompson and Math are part of a six-member team that spends countless hours in neighborhoods across the city, helping to build alliances and diffuse tensions when they arise.
The team counts on committed partners in this cause, and block captains – as well as junior block captains – often are among the keys to success on that front.
PCHR joined the more than 50 organizations on hand Saturday to offer information about building stronger, cleaner communities and improving overall quality of life in Philadelphia.
Between the workshops, speakers, and entertainment, Thompson and Math, helped to strategize with both new and familiar faces during the event, sponsored by the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee.
“It was definitely a success, because we were educating, directly, the people who need our services the most,” Math said. “And block captains will spread the word.”


Three champions of justice

The Mazzoni Center’s legal services department celebrated its five-year anniversary on Tuesday at the annual Justice in Action. This year, EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum received the Justice in Action award, provided her insights on LGBT civil rights, and celebrated with a host of supporters — including PCHR’s Rue Landau and Reynelle Brown Staley.(l-r) PCHR's Rue Landau, EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum and PCHR's Reynelle Brown Staley swap perspectives during the annual Justice in Action Awards. Photo credit: Tara Beth Photography

(l-r) PCHR’s Rue Landau, EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum and PCHR’s Reynelle Brown Staley swap perspectives during the annual Justice in Action Awards. Photo credit: Tara Beth Photography