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Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

Not your average graduation as women move on from troubled pasts

by Kelly C. Doherty
April 29, 2010

WRH grad

Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

The Women Returning Home graduation was held at Cosmopolitan Community Church on Chicago's South Side.

WRH grad reception

Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

Family and friends of the 45 graduates were in attendance for  the special day.

mental health chart

Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

Statistics source: Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, “Mental Health Issues in the Criminal Justice System.”  Doreen Salina, director of mental health for Women's Justice Services, Cook County Sheriff's Department, was the lead author of the 2007 study.

WRH substance chart

Kelly Doherty/MEDILL

Statistics source:Journal of Offender Rehabilitation: “Mental Health Issues in the Criminal Justice System.” 2007, study by Doreen Salina, director of mental health for Women's Justice Services, Cook County Sheriff's Department

Smiling proudly in her blue graduation gown, Latess Drummer discussed her accomplishments, future plans, and thoughts on the day. 

“I’m just happy and overwhelmed with joy that I graduated,” Drummer said.

Drummer, 33, wasn’t talking about a high school or college graduation though. She is one of the 45 women who have graduated from the Women Returning Home program, the joint effort of Chicago organizations - Access Community Health Network and Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. All of the women who participated in the first annual graduation have been drug-free, are employed or in school and have not returned to jail for at least six months, said the Access program staff.

The program, which originated in 2008, has helped over 450 formerly incarcerated women re-enter society by providing medical and mental health resources, substance abuse treatment, educational or employment aid, and support to help with legal responsibilities such as court appearances, probation or child custody.  It also includes a weekly support group, called the Winner’s Circle, where the women can come and talk openly and bond.

Kischa Hampton, who manages the program for Access, said that it is mainly targeted toward minority women on the West Side of Chicago, who have been incarcerated in Cook County Jail or are on parole or probation.  The women must be within 24 hours to two years of their release from incarceration.

“A lot of these ladies are single parents, have been addicted to drugs for a long time and when they come out of jail they’re scared, they feel like they don’t have anywhere to go,” said Carmelita Tunstall, a case manager for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities.

Tunstall works with women who have a history of substance abuse and arranges treatment plans, writes letters of recommendation to judges or law enforcement officials, and follows up to make sure they are successful as they move through the program.  The only requirement for women to enter the program through her organization is that they have nonviolent offenses and are dealing with substance abuse issues, Tunstall said. The majority of the women participating overall have been in and out of jail multiple times, generally for drug-related offenses, Hampton said. 

Hampton and Tunstall make presentations to the women and staff in Cook County Jail as well as parole and probation officers to educate them about resources that can make the transition back into the community easier and safer. When many of the women return home, “unfortunately sometimes it’s in the same community where a lot of their criminal activity was taking place,” said Hampton. Therefore, the program works to place the participants in alternative housing to help them with a fresh start.

In addition to all the necessary resources that the Women Returning Home program provides, they have also added some fun and camaraderie into the mix.  This summer they will sponsor a softball team for the women, the first of its kind in Chicago, Hampton said.

Commencement speaker, Divine Pryor, was in the shoes of these women 20 years ago, and said he spoke to them about “overcoming obstacles, their confidence and self-esteem, and knowing that they have within themselves the power to overcome. What they’ve already overcome and what they’ve already gone through is a demonstration of what their ability is.”

Pryor was released from prison in 1990, having earned five years of higher education while there, and went on to get his doctorate in criminal justice.  He is now the executive director of the Center for NuLeadership at Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York.  It’s the first academic center developed by formerly incarcerated professionals and strives to influence the discussion surrounding reform in the criminal justice system and re-entry, Pryor said.

He explained that programs such as Women Returning home are extremely valuable and necessary because most people who are released from correctional facilities face an intimidating number of challenges and are often suffering from psychological and emotional trauma as well. They have difficulty with upward mobility and landing secure jobs and housing due to their criminal records and, therefore, often end up back in jail, Pryor said.

“Our work really has to do with humanizing a population that has been dehumanized and actually portrayed as a population not worthy of being treated the same way as other citizens that have not broken the law.”

In terms of incarcerated women the larger issue at hand is that a majority of women in correctional facilities suffer from mental illness, said Doreen Salina, the director of mental health in the Department of Women’s Justice Services at the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. 

Salina explained that their mental illness is often what leads to incarceration.

“Clinically, it’s very clear to me that traumatic events, primarily sexual and physical abuse, drive the substance abuse of these women which then increases the incarceration rate.”

A lack of mental health services and recent budget cuts in the state and throughout the nation only makes matters worse, Salina said. “I believe that jail is the new psychiatric hospital.”

But early intervention can help interrupt the cycle, she said. The Women’s Justice Services Department at Cook County Jail was developed about 12 years ago and focuses on gender-responsive treatment, said Terrie McDermott, executive director. Of the 900 or so women in the jail, about one-third receive treatment in the department, which works to stabilize them while in custody and then often transitions them into a furlough program and into Women Returning Home. McDermott said in order for women to receive treatment within her department, they must be nonviolent offenders with a background of substance abuse. Due to budget regulations, only about 300 women can be treated at a time, she said. 

Salina conducted a study on 283 women in the Women’s Justice Services program between 2004 and 2007 and discovered that 90 percent of them had mental health conditions, primarily trauma driven.  She said many of them had suffered physical or sexual abuse or witnessed horrific events in younger years leading to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and bipolar disorder.

“The earlier one intervenes in mental illness and substance abuse, the better the outcome. If we could do that as a society, I don’t think we’d have that high rate of arrest, recidivism and warehousing in prisons and we’d save money for other causes,” said Salina.

In Chicago the jail’s Department of Women’s Justice Services is working to help women within its walls while Access and Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities work to help them return to society after their release.

Women Returning Home graduate Roberta Thomas, 54, said her experience “gave me more courage and direction to keep moving forward.”