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The Huge Challenges of Building a Life After Prison

Helping women prisoners cope with the challenge of re-entry into normal life requires a lot more than motivational speeches and fashion advice.
 
 
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Editor's Note -- One of the important themes in Piper Kerman's Orange is the New Black: My Year In a Women's Prisonis the difficulty so many women prisoners have with re-entry. As the fastest growing prison population in the U.S., women face daunting challenges when it comes to fulfilling their basic needs once they leave prison, including finding a job and somewhere to live. As Kerman would learn, while the "correctional" system provides some programming on how to live a successful life on the outside, very little of it is of practical value. The following excerpt is adapted from two chapters of the book.

Go here to read AlterNet's interview with Piper Kerman.

September 16 was the day of the prison Job Fair, an annual Danbury Federal Correctional Institution event that paid lip service to the fact that its prisoners would rejoin the world. So far I had witnessed no meaningful effort to prepare inmates for successful reentry into society, other than the handful of women who had gone through the intensive drug treatment program. Maybe the Job Fair would impart some useful information to the crowd.

I was lucky to have a job waiting for me when I went home: a generous friend had created a position for me at the company he ran. Every time he came to visit me, Dan would say, "Would you hurry up and get out of here? The marketing department needs you!"

Hardly any of the women I knew in Danbury were as fortunate. The top three worries for women getting released from prison are usually: reuniting with their children (if they are a single mother, they have often lost their parental rights); housing (a huge problem for people with a record); and employment. I had written enough jailhouse résumés by now to know that a lot of the ladies had only worked in the (enormous) underground economy. Outside the mainstream, they didn't have the first notion of how to break into it. So far, nothing about prison was changing that reality.

A bald guy from the central BOP office in Washington, who seemed nervous, opened the Fair and welcomed us. Programs were handed out, folded photocopies with a drawing of an owl on the cover. Below the owl it read: be wise -- Women In Secured Employment. On the back of the program were Andy Rooney quotes.

Various companies had committed to participating in the event, many of them nonprofits. The day would include a panel discussion on "Emerging Jobs in the Workforce & How to Land One," mock job interviews, and Mary Wilson, the legendary Motown singer from the Supremes, was going to deliver a motivational speech. That I had to see. But first, Professional Appareling!

Professional Appareling was run by Dress for Success, the nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women get business-appropriate clothes. A jovial middle-aged woman briefed us on the dos and don'ts of outfits for job interviews, then asked for volunteers. Vanessa almost broke her seatmate's nose waving her arm madly, so the woman had no choice but to pick her. And then in the blink of an eye I found myself standing at the front of the room with my Amazonian neighbor, Delicious, and Pom-Pom. "These lovely ladies are going to help us to demonstrate the dos and don'ts," said the volunteer brightly.

She herded us into the bathroom, then passed out togs. She gave Delicious a sharp, almost Japanese-looking black suit; Pom-Pom, a pink suit that looked like she was going to church in the South. I got a hideously dowdy and itchy burgundy outfit. And for Vanessa? A fuchsia silk cocktail dress with beading on the chest. "Hurry up ladies!"

We each got a turn on the catwalk, much to the glee of our fellow prisoners, who whooped and whistled. They went bananas when they caught sight of Vanessa, who basked in the glory, tossing her curls. Then we were lined up, and the volunteer explained who was a job-interview do, and who was a don't. Delicious's outfit was deemed too "edgy"; Pom-Pom's was too "sweet." Vanessa looked crestfallen when she heard that she was wearing "the last kind of thing you would want for an interview." "What kind of job are we talking about?" she asked plaintively.

My ugly tweed librarian outfit was lauded as the most workappropriate. After the dress-up fun, a panel of businesswomen spoke seriously about growing sectors of the economy that had entry-level jobs for workers, like home health care. But there was nervous rumbling among the audience. When the Q&A time came, hands shot up.

"How do we get trained for these kinds of jobs?"

"How do we know the jobs that are open out there?"

"How do we find out who will hire women with a record?"

One of the panelists tried to answer several things at once. "I recommend you spend quite a bit of time on the computer researching these companies and industries, looking at online job listings, and trying to locate training opportunities. I hope you have some access to the Internet?"

This caused a mild rumble. "We don't even have any computers!" The panelists looked at each other and frowned. "I'm surprised to hear that. You don't have a computer lab, or any kind of computer training here?"

The bald BOP representative spoke up nervously. "Of course they do, all units are supposed to --"

This elicited outright shouts from the ladies. Rochelle from B Dorm stood up. "We do not have any computers up in that Camp! No sir!"

Sensing that he might have a situation on his hands, the BOP suit tried to be conciliatory. "I'm not sure why that would be, miss, but I promise I'll look into it!"

***

I saw on the callout that I was scheduled to spend my afternoon in a mandatory prerelease class on housing, and my blood pressure started to rise. All federal prisoners are required to go through a series of prerelease classes before they reenter society. This made perfect sense. Many of the women in Danbury had been cloistered away in prison for years, and despite the harshness of being institutionalized, it was also infantilizing. The idea that they were going to hit the ground running and be able to cope with the day-to-day requirements of life "on the outs" was ridiculous.

I had been pretty curious about what the reentry classes would convey to us. The first one I was required to attend was on health. I showed up in the visiting room at the appointed time; chairs had been set out for twenty women, and a CO who worked in food services down in the FCI was there to lead it. I leaned over and asked Sheena, seated next to me, why he was teaching.

"He used to play professional baseball," she replied by way of explanation.

I thought about that for a minute, as if there were any sense to it. "But why is someone from Danbury teaching this class -- and why not someone from health services?" Sheena rolled her eyes at me. "Are all the classes taught by the prison staff? They don't work on the outside, with ex-offenders. They spend all their time here. What do they know about reentry?"

"Pipes, you're looking for logic in all the wrong places."

The guy from food services was very nice and very funny. We liked him a lot. He told us that it was important to eat right, exercise, and treat your body as a temple. But he didn't tell us how to get health care services that people with no money could afford. He didn't tell us how we could quickly obtain birth control and other reproductive health services. He didn't recommend any solutions for behavioral or psychiatric care, and for sure some of those broads needed it. He didn't say what options there might be for people who had struggled with substance abuse, sometimes for decades, when they were confronted by old demons on the outside.

Another class had been titled "Positive Attitude" and was taught by the former warden's secretary. We liked her very little, as she was deeply condescending toward us. Her talk detailed her epic struggle to diet her way into a fancy dress for a holiday party. Tragically, she had not been able to lose the weight, but she still had fun at the party, because she had managed to keep her positive attitude. I looked around the room in disbelief. There were women in there who had lost their parental rights and would have to battle to reunite with their children; women who had nowhere to go and so would be heading to homeless shelters; women who had never worked in the mainstream economy and must find real jobs or end up back in prison. I had none of these concerns, because I was so much luckier than the majority of the women I'd been living with in Danbury, but I felt disrespected by how trivial these classes were turning out to be. The next one was led by the dour German nun who ran the chapel and was so vague it's hard to recall but dealt with "personal growth."

Next we heard about housing. Housing, employment, health, family -- these are the factors that determine whether a person returning home from prison will succeed or fail as a law-abiding citizen. I knew the guy who was leading this session from CMS -- he was a nice enough guy. And he talked about what he knew -- which was insulation, and aluminum siding, and the best kind of roof to put on your house. He talked about interiors too. I was so disgusted with the BOP's farcical prerelease program that I just shut my eyes and waited for it to be over.

One woman raised her hand. "Um, Mr. Green, that's cool and all, but I need to find an apartment to rent. Can you talk a little bit about how to get an apartment, and if there are any programs we could qualify for, you know, affordable housing and stuff? Someone told me I should go to a homeless shelter. ..."

He looked not irritated, but unsure. "Yeah, well, I don't really know too much about that. The best way to find an apartment is in the paper, or there are websites now that you can search." I wondered how big the BOP's budget for reentry was.