By Liv Velarde, Program Assistant for the Michigan Justice Fund
Conversations around incarceration often center around men, but women now account for 1 in 4 jail admissions and the number of women in prison has increased exponentially in past decades. The Women’s Resource Center (WRC), a partner of the Michigan Justice Fund, is working to bring the unique obstacles that justice-impacted women face to the forefront. WRC focuses on workplace success, economic independence, and financial stability through one-on-one and/or group mentoring, life skills development, and more.
WRC recently celebrated its 50th anniversary serving justice-involved women and providing them with the resources and support to thrive after their encounters with the criminal legal system. Since the organization’s inception in 1973, the state of incarcerated women has changed drastically.
In Michigan, the number of women in jails has risen from 431 in 1970 to 2,343 in 2015. In part, because of this increase, the Women’s Resource Center has adapted its programming to fit the changing needs of women, while maintaining a focus on workplace success, economic independence, and financial stability. The mentoring services offered by WRC in their New Beginnings program are available to women up to 90 days prior to their release and could continue up to 18 months post-release.
While the New Beginnings program focuses on the success of women upon their release from jail, WRC is supporting these women before, during, and after incarceration in jail. Jails are operated by local law enforcement authorities and house people awaiting trial or sentencing. If an individual is sentenced to less than a year, mainly with misdemeanor charges, they would also be housed in a jail. In contrast, prisons are overseen by the state or federal government and house people that have been convicted of a felony and/or are serving sentences longer than 365 days.
Sandra Gaddy, Chief Executive Officer at WRC, stated that, “Jail is often the entryway to prison.” The Women’s Resource Center’s goal is to reach women once they enter jail and offer resources to reduce the recidivism rate. Once someone housed in a jail has the resources provided by the New Beginnings program, it becomes less likely that they will become incarcerated in a prison in the future.
Through various programs, the Women’s Resource Center was able to serve 580 participants in 2022 and WRC volunteers racked up 1,650 volunteer hours. Additionally, 77% of participants saw an increase in their salaries in 2022. The success of New Beginnings is undeniable, and its impact is only growing with the expansion into Muskegon and Ottawa counties.
During a participant’s stay in jail, they have the opportunity to communicate with volunteer mentors and staff career coaches, often through written correspondence. These mentors act similarly to a case manager and work with the participant to identify her goals and address the obstacles facing her ability to achieve those goals. They will then work together to establish an individualized career plan that will address those challenges and barriers.
Gaddy stated, “Upon release, one of the most important factors is having that connection to their mentors.” Many individuals who are re-entering their communities after incarceration report feeling lost and lonely. Having access to someone who was there for them during their time in jail and who will continue to show up for them upon release is vital. A strong support system is necessary for future success.
According to Tatum Hawkins, WRC’s Director of Development and Communications, “Having someone that’s able to advocate for the women and for their unique needs and individual circumstances is a persistent obstacle.”
One example of this advocacy is ensuring that they’re able to stay in the program as long as is necessary. If an incarcerated woman misses three of the New Beginnings classes, they are no longer able to participate in the program. However, there are many reasons a participant may have to miss a class, most of which are not within their control. They could have a doctor’s appointment or be ordered by jail staff to do something else at that specific time. Instead of being penalized for these instances, the Women’s Resource Center advocates for them to receive the resources they need.
When women in Kent County Jail did not have access to underwear and sanitary napkins. Gaddy was able to sit down with the sheriff and say, “We have to find a solution.”
The Michigan Justice Fund seeks to fund innovative practices to reduce recidivism and improve economic mobility for system-impacted people, which is an objective the Women’s Resource Center embodies. Organizations in Michigan across the country, even organizations worldwide have taken notice of these successes.
WRC receives calls from across the country asking how to implement programs similar to New Beginnings. At the Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath) conference, individuals from Sweden and the Netherlands wanted to learn how they can develop a similar program to serve their citizens.
The obstacles facing incarcerated women are unique and organizations often aren’t equipped to address those specific barriers. According to Gaddy, “Programs and processes have often been established for men and then retrofitted to serve women.” The specialized care that the Women’s Resource Center provides is essential to address the unique situations in which justice-impacted women find themselves.
Two of those unique factors facing women are motherhood and domestic violence. According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, there is a high correlation between domestic and/or sexual violence and incarceration. Additionally, 80% of women in jail are mothers, and are often single parents.
Because of these factors, WRC strives to have a holistic approach. The many partnerships throughout Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon Counties including domestic violence shelters and Read Muskegon, help the organization achieve that holistic strategy.
In partnership with the Women’s Resource Center, Read Muskegon helped to create a parent village in the women’s county jail in Muskegon. “This provides a parent support group for mothers who are in jail so they can talk about the unique challenges and experiences they face as incarcerated mothers. They work together to identify a challenge that they have, one of which has been transportation for their children once they get out of jail. They then work to find a solution,” said Hawkins.
After release, mothers must often face the seemingly insurmountable challenge of family reunification. Reunification can be difficult after incarceration for many reasons. If the family of an incarcerated individual is not able to take in the children, they become wards of the state. After that it can be very difficult to regain custody, especially when the mothers are experiencing poverty and cannot pay legal fees or outstanding fines. They must also achieve financial stability and have access to safe housing to regain custody. Reunification often becomes an important goal of their re-entry plans.
Hawkins stated, “All of these obstacles, including poverty, housing, food insecurity, financial insecurity, all play into each other. If we really want to see these women achieve the economic independence that they deserve for themselves and their families, then we have to address all of these barriers at the same time.”
The Michigan Justice Fund is proud to have partnered with the Women’s Resource Center. The organization’s dedication to women and drive to innovate fills a significant gap in the re-entry and workforce development ecosystem.