Politics: Women Leading Charge on Reentry in Philadelphia
Ask Sisters Returning Home founder Peggy Sims (below) why women are the leaders in reentry in the city and she will say that it’s because they believe in their fights.
And often those fights are for women who are returning to their communities after incarceration.
Sims is just one of the female leaders in organizations including Pennsylvania Prison Society, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), and the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition that assist women who are released from prison.
Often, these returning citizens leave the facility and go back outside with only a bus token.
“Reentry is not cookie cutter,” said Pam Superville, the client services manager for the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services (RISE).
Superville said her organization points people toward the Fair Chance Hiring Initiative, which gives returning citizens the chance to find work. If the office approves an employer, clients who go through RISE get an extra $5 to their paychecks.
“Many people break the law, not all of us get caught,” Superville said. “Everyone comes with different needs.”
Numbers on Reentry
Source: The Philadelphia Reentry Coalition/”Calculating a Unified Recidivism Rate for Philadelphia “
According to the The Reentry Coalition’s March 2018 report, more than 24,000 people came home to Philadelphia from some form of detention in the years between 2012 and 2015.
Nearly four out of five people who returned in 2015 came from a facility in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP), according to the report. Of this group, more than two out of five are African-American.
What Women Are Doing
John E. Wetzel, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, asked Sims to create a program for women coming home. As a result, Sims began the Sisters Returning Home program in Germantown.
Services for the women include resume building, financial literacy and referrals to addiction counseling.
“The main point is not punishing, but really truly trying to educate them to help them get back to where they need to be,” Sims said.
Dorothea Cox, the nonprofit’s intern, said that working with the women made her want to do more.
“Sisters Returning is a good place, and there’s always places to go give, and everyone supports each other,” Cox said.
Alissa and Corrin
Corrin Furman and Alissa Bonnarito are finding the support they need at Sisters Returning Home.
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Furman (above) came to Sisters Returning after going through different state programs.
“Just because I have a past, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a future,” Furman said.
Both of the women wish that more women have the support system they have with the program.
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Bonnarito (above) came to the organization to find more opportunities.
“It’s really good, I feel really comfortable here,” Bonnarito said.
Issues Returning Citizens Face
After the 2009 Second Chance Act Prisoner Reentry Act, which gave grant money to nonprofits and governments to help those coming out of prison ease back into society, cities including Philadelphia created programs to assist the effort.
While resources exist, but there aren’t any resources to get rid of the stigma of having spent time in prison.
Without a criminal record, it is easier to get a job or find housing. Depending on the crime, some real estate agents refuse to rent to returning citizens.
Housing creates a problem for people who transition and have an addiction. The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) does not allow tenants to do drugs while in their homes. Homelessness is a risk, and without housing, there is a chance that returning citizens go back to prison.
Jobs create another barrier.
“Having a record is the biggest problem for Philadelphians,” said Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director and managing attorney for the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who has 30 years experience in employment law.
Fast food chains like McDonald’s hire returning citizens, but workers in these jobs make minimum wage. According to Dietrich, it is also easier for male returning citizens to find work than women.
“Here’s what I noticed, what I’ve seen,” Sims said. “I know families miss the person and want to throw them a big party.”
But Sims has another request: “I always educate families… have a job waiting for them.”
For many returning citizens, the outside can feel like the inside. Men and women leave facilities with only the clothes they had when they came in for booking.
The advocacy work of many female leaders in the city is changing the conversation about the outlook on reentry.
“We have to meet them where they are at,” Superville said. “There are different barriers that our clients face.”
-Text, images, and video by Jaya Montague.