Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Home ILLINOIS ‘This is our house’: Reclamation Center in Pilsen connects women leaving prison...

‘This is our house’: Reclamation Center in Pilsen connects women leaving prison to services while providing emotional support

A crowd of parole and probation officers had assembled, filling in couches and chairs around a conference table in the sunny, office space with exposed brick walls and high ceilings in the decidedly hip Lacuna Lofts building in Pilsen.

Colette Payne stood at the stage with a mic in her hand and a wide smile on her face.

“Welcome to the Women’s Justice Institute,” she said, then pausing for a few seconds.

“This,” she said to applause. “is our house.”

Payne, a director at the institute, and the other women there had spent decades inside the Illinois prison system. But on a recent day, parole and probation agents from across the country — including the head of the women’s parole unit in the Illinois Department of Corrections — were at the institute’s newly opened Reclamation Center for a presentation by Payne and other formerly incarcerated women who run the center.

Lynette Faulkner, commander of the female division for the IDOC parole unit, joined the women on the panel. Faulkner’s office, which works with the institute developing approaches and interventions for women leaving prisons as well as gender-responsive training for her staff.

The afternoon was a chance to showcase the Reclamation Center, which offers help to women who have been in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives, helping them with both practical things like housing and jobs as well as emotional support as they seek to rebuild — or reclaim — their lives. The center officially opened over the summer but the panel late last month was the first major public event to be held there.

As the day played out, it also revealed a subtle power shift: A group of women previously deemed to be menaces to society or too dangerous to be free were there to challenge and educate the system about why those labels are misleading, if not wrong, given their exposure to trauma, poverty and abuse. The goal was to inform the system why it needs to change its approaches.

“I never thought I would sit in a room with a commander and a chief and parole agents, and I don’t have any warrants and you’re not arresting me,” said Elizabeth Cruz, a senior advisor at the institute who was released from prison 20 years ago, who was sitting next to Faulkner. “You ain’t offering me a ride in the back of your car, or forcing me in the back of your car. I’m not running from you. I’m not dodging your phone calls. I actually look forward to hearing from the agents and saying, ‘how can I help you?’ What a difference this makes.”

On a recent Saturday morning, folding chairs were arranged in a large ring inside the center in anticipation of a “reclamation circle” about to be held there.

A notebook and index card sat on each, as well as a piece of paper detailing the “5 Rights and Needs” of women leaving prison.

The monthly circles are the heartbeat of the center’s work, providing a place where women who want help can start. Any woman involved in the system — previously incarcerated or pre-trial — is welcome.

This was just the fourth to be held, and staff assembled to run it were not sure how many people would show up. There was an air of anticipation and excitement as they reviewed last minute details like making sure the talking stick was passed to the left, over the heart. The meditation room was also ready in case anyone needed a break.

The circle aimed to get the women thinking about what had led them to prison and what they needed to rebuild a life outside. That work started by reflecting on five rights and needs that were identified in a major report on incarcerated women released last year by the Women’s Justice Institute after a task force of more than 500 women studied the issue.

The report concluded that the women had wound up in prison because they lacked at least one or a combination of five things: safety in relationships, stable housing, economic security, health and wellness and support for their families.

After identifying what they lacked, the women would consider how they’d restore it in their lives. And if they chose to, they’d be paired with a reclamation specialist, who would work with them on everything from their physical, immediate needs to emotional well-being.

The Reclamation Center is designed with an emphasis on both the arts and practical help and action. There is a stage for art performances, where members of a Shakespeare troupe that performs inside the women’s prison in Illinois reunited recently for a performance. There is a letter-writing station for advocacy work.

There are small semi-private workstations where women can connect to the Internet for work or job searches. There are couches to collapse into. A play area for children. There is some office space for social services.

There is a collection of donated items that women might need and a survival fund that can be tapped for help with urgent issues. Any woman who comes to a reclamation circle leaves with a “survival backpack,” which is filled with toiletries.

Art work hangs around the entire space, which also has tall windows and a stunning view of the skyline.

The design aimed to express that no matter the damaging experiences the women have had, they are each other’s best assets, lifting each other up with everything from their art, to their knowledge of navigating life outside prison to love.

“There is so much sadness in the work we do,” Deanne Benos, the institute’s co-founder and a former state corrections official, said, as the circle was getting started. “In all these horrible things that have happened to women, (they) needed to be celebrated. We wanted people to feel special and seen and joyful.”

At about 10:45 a.m., Payne called the group to circle.

“Ok!” she called out. “Ya’ll beauties ready?”

Some 25 women turned out at the center that morning, a number that seemed to both overwhelm and thrill the staff, who ran out for a few boxes of coffee to add to the capacity of the office pot.

Included in the group was Amanda Bermudez, 30, who for the past five years has been dealing with the fallout of a robbery conviction.

Bermudez’s crime, she said, was influenced by the physical and mental abuse she suffered and also because she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Trying to manage her sobriety, find stable housing and meet all the conditions of her parole proved too much, she explained in a follow up conversation, after the circle.

She lost bed space at a Chicago area halfway house twice, she said. Once because she admitted she had consumed alcohol in the week before arriving, Bermudez said, and then again because she was 30 minutes late for one of the daily calls required to reserve her spot on a wait list.

This led Bermudez to call former friends who were still using. While she wound up with a place to stay, she said she relapsed.

Bermudez also knows there are some employment agencies she can’t use because of her background, yet another obstacle for her to overcome.

Her struggles are not unusual, Benos said.

That is because many social-service organizations dedicated to helping people transition out of prison are bound by the kind of bureaucratic requirements that Bermudez faced. And while rules and requirements are understandable, the restrictions can prevent some people from succeeding, especially if they have little resources to begin with.

The organizations need to serve many people at once, both men and women, and also don’t provide the kind of emotional support women need. Many women have reported feeling like those organizations are simply an extension of prison, Benos explained.

“It is transactional,” she said, meaning they rely more on compliance checklists instead of personal relationships.

In June, shortly after Bermudez faced a court sanction for violating terms of her release from prison, her Illinois parole agent suggested she contact the institute. The agent told her about Cruz, that she had also served time and was in recovery and was heading up a new effort to help released women.

Bermudez will be meeting with Payne at the end of September.

“It’s a safe environment. You feel wanted and you feel comfortable and you can be yourself,” she said.

When asked what she meant by wanted, Bermudez thought for a minute.

“Wanted, as in like you actually have a purpose,” she said. “You mean something to somebody.”

On the day of the panel discussion at the center, Cruz announced to the group that she was celebrating 20 years out of prison.

“I am so grateful and thankful to be here,” she said. “My incarceration was devastating and horrible. It was traumatic. I had trauma coming into prison and I had trauma leaving, and I wasn’t well when I got out. My mental health was worse.”

The Women’s Justice Institute study released last year showed that an overwhelming number women enter prison having experienced some sort of physical or sexual abuse. Many are mothers. They have experienced poverty and lack access to housing. They are at risk for addiction.

These conditions remain when they leave, and coping with them is sort of thing that can easily prevent them from not returning to a safe, healthy place to live or find a job, Benos said. They often can’t afford transportation to get to court-mandated appointments, for example. All of this puts them at risk of the court imposing even more restrictions or even returning a woman to prison for the violation.

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Since 2020, a federal grant to Cook County Health, along with private donations, has funded an effort between Cook County, the institute, IDOC, Cook County Jail and Haymarket Center to offer more coordinated support to women who are facing these kind of struggles, Benos said.

Cruz, 42, who is a lead coordinator for the program, works directly with Faulkner and her parole agents, who work in Cook County.

“My hope as I do this work is that I can continue to inspire and encourage women, and I want them to leave me better than they came. Working with the agents, it has been really possible,” she said, motioning toward Faulkner. “Attitude reflects leadership and leadership reflects attitude. I am astounded at the love and support that the agents have for the women … all because their hearts are pure in wanting to help.”

The Reclamation Center program ended with a performance by Chicago “raptivist” Bella BAHHS, who warned her audience that any police or parole agents — anybody from the legal system — should get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“BAHHS – that’s Black Ancestors Here Healing Society,” she said as she launched into “O.G.,” a song that honors her mother, grandmother and aunts. “Not bars. Not police. Not prisons. Not parole officers. We keep us safe. We protect us.”

Faulkner, the head of parole, remained in the audience with her team as the crowd got into it, doing a call and answer with BAHHS on her hook, “Mama was an O.G.”

“We walked out singing,” Faulkner said later of listening to the lyrics. “I think we are successful in our unit because we do listen. I’m looking at the story through her eyes. That way I am not blind to what by what she felt and saw.”

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