Not Your Average Graduation

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Our justice system has always fascinated me, so when that topic intersected with my mental-health beat, allowing me to tell a really important human-interest story, I couldn’t have been happier.

Basically, I was invited to cover a graduation ceremony. Now you might think, hmmm, that’s a pretty routine story. But in this case it wasn’t. The graduation celebrated the achievements of 45 women who had served prison time and then completed a program that helped them re-enter society after their time in prison, jail, or on parole. (Read the original story here.)

The program, called Women Returning Home, is the joint effort of two Chicago area organizations: Access Community Health Network and Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. It helps women transition back into their lives by providing medical and mental health services, job assistance, educational opportunities and help with court procedures and child custody. 

I don’t think most people give a lot of thought to the challenges former inmates face when they are released from jail, because people who have been incarcerated generally carry a stigma no matter their crime or what they have done to better themselves. What I learned from speaking with the women who graduated is that many of them never felt as though people had faith in them, or that they were capable of success because of their record. But the program gave them hope and new opportunities – all the graduates I interviewed were visibly proud of their accomplishments and excited to tell me about their new jobs, education programs and the housing they secured. It gave them a sense of stability and integrity, which I believe will really help these women, and others who participate in similar programs, to assimilate successfully back into society and stay on the path toward a positive future.

As the commencement speaker Divine Pryor told me, “Our work really has to do with humanizing a population that has been de-humanized, a population that’s been demonized, a population that’s been degraded, and actually portrayed as a population that’s not worthy of being treated the same way as other citizens that have not broken the law.”

Pryor himself was formerly incarcerated and he has since dedicated his life to learning about criminal justice, particularly re-entry, and has opened the first academic center run by formerly incarcerated professionals called the Center on NuLeadership at Medgar Evans College of the City University of New York.

While much of what I heard while interviewing people for this story was inspiring and positive, I also learned some staggering facts. Psychologist Doreen Salina, who did research on 283 women at Cook County Jail, said that nearly 90 percent of the incarcerated women had some form of mental illness, and that it is most often trauma-induced. She said that mental illness often leads them to drug use, which leads to incarceration – meaning tons of mentally ill women are landing in jail every year instead of rehab. With mental-health budget cuts in Illinois and around the nation, “I believe that jail is the new psychiatric hospital,” Salina said.

The statistics are scary. But, with programs such as Women Returning Home and experts like Divine Pryor and Doreen Salina out there, there is hope for a future where people who are incarcerated can get the help they need in and outside of correctional facilities.

- blog authored by Kelly Doherty

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Comments

Wow, this is a very moving story of compassion and love. I salute people like Divine Pryor and Doreen Salina. After watching movies like the Shore Shank Redemption and the Reader, one appreciates just how difficult it is for a former inmate to return to normal life. It is heart breaking to see that their fear of freedom is so much greater than their fear of living in prison. Thanks for sharing the plight of prisoners and making us aware that they deserve second chances.

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