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.

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