Why We Do What We Do
We serve the incarcerated and returning citizens because we passionately believe no matter what mistakes people have made, they can positively transform their lives and regain respect for their dignity and humanity. We also believe that engaging with the incarcerated emulates the life and models faith teachings to love and accept our neighbor, appreciate the diversity of each individual, have compassion for the disenfranchised, and lift up those who are impoverished in body, mind, and spirit.
- We believe that mentors and expert teachers are the key building blocks for helping women succeed in life beyond the prison walls.
- We believe in human dignity.
- We believe in second chances, and if given enough support, treatment, and accountability, people can break the cycle of crime and incarceration.
- We believe that when we are a catalyst for change in individuals’ lives, we are changing our communities, the society, and the world.
- We believe in justice that restores and heals.
Society would say we have picked up murderers, rapists, mafia and gang members, addicts, child molesters, and thieves, but we say we have picked up your neighbors and returning citizens who are ready to transform their lives.
Simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken, and we do too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
Bryan Stevenson, from his book, Just Mercy
Here is the story of a fictitious woman whose tale is compiled from our many experiences with women reentering from prison. We will call her Tonya.
The day Tonya is released, she realizes she has no official ID card, home, job, transportation, food or clothing – except Department of Corrections issued pants and shirt or the clothes on her back when she entered the Boulder County Jail. Tonya can’t succeed without an official ID besides her prison ID. Upon release, she feels overwhelmed and afraid of failing. Her money won’t go very far and she questions whether or not she can make it in such a fast-paced world.
Beyond basic survival needs, Tonya is overwhelmed with the sheer number of decisions she has to make. She has not made more than twenty decisions a day in prison. Even ordering from a menu is overwhelming. The first time in a restaurant with a menu and stainless steel flatware is jolting. For a long time, she has only eaten the food given her using plastic utensils.
Tonya needs transportation and housing. If Tonya is lucky enough to have been issued Regional Transportation District (RTD) credits, she will have a ticket to ride the bus. But she will still need to figure out how to navigate her way around town. She may not be near a bus stop or understand the bus lines and how to get where she is going. If she doesn’t have a bus pass, she will have to walk or hitch everywhere until she can find a form of transportation.
Where will she go?
Where will she sleep, and keep her stuff? Under a bridge? At her old boyfriend’s place or her old friends and family? Most likely these relationships have long since become toxic or unworkable. There are no shelters in Boulder County for women to live during this transition when she will need to find a job, get mental health and addiction treatment, unlearn old behavior patterns, stay sober and meet probation/parole requirements. These are all important steps on the journey to creating a new life, but without a place to live, everything is much more difficult. A woman can live on a church floor when the thermometer dips below 25 degrees. She can only stay there one night at a time, leaving by 8:00 am in the morning. If she is lucky, she will only be with other women. Too often her shelter will put her near men who may trigger of past trauma or feel unsafe. She might stay at a cheap motel.
Tonya’s basic survival need is to find a job. Most jobs are listed on computer websites, and Tonya will not have kept up with computer technology while incarcerated. She will have to find transportation to a library or employment service to get access to a computer where she could easily become discouraged trying to navigate computers and websites. Most job applications require a permanent address and phone number, not to mention proof of identity; but she has not obtained any of these. She has a felony on her record and will be lucky to find a felon-friendly employer who has posted a job.
Thoughts of going back to the former life linger. That life, though illegal, provided her with the basic necessities of food, clothing, housing, transportation and spending money. Tonya also knows that if she makes contact with her old social network, she can access substances that will numb her fear and anxiety.
Within three days, Tonya’s $100 is gone. Day labor and other jobs are not panning out, and she can no longer afford to stay in the Lamplighter Motel. Tonya will most likely end up in a homeless shelter, selling herself, dealing drugs or on the streets again, fighting to survive and out of trouble. She has a 49 percent chance of recidivating even if all the necessary resources are aligned for her, but they are not. Nor does she have a supportive environment or network of people within her sphere of influence to encourage, affirm, and hold her accountable. All she knows are obstacles to success and the harsh realities of her “second sentence.”
Tough choices have to be made. Does Tonya stay with another offender offering shelter even though it violates parole? Does she give into the temptation to turn one trick; or make one drug deal to earn money for a bus pass and clothing? Does she steal food to satisfy her hunger? Does she befriend her old acquaintances for acceptance and sustainability?
Between the social stigma attached to incarceration, homelessness and poverty, the servicing gaps in housing and the community’s attitude of “not in my backyard,” it is understandable how so many people return to prison despite truly high aspirations of success and sheer determination to succeed. When you have no place to live or means for obtaining a job that ensures a place to live, it is no wonder that prisons have been characterized as having revolving doors. Individuals are broken and communities are fractured as the doors keep revolving.