Former inmates seek help for women like them when they leave prison

Commission recommends steps to improve reentry for women

Rashida Smith spent 17 years in prison.

“While I was in prison, I was called a ‘crackhead’ by officers. I was called a ‘prostitute,’ a ‘ho,'” Smith said. “They weren’t there to build us, they were there to tear us down. And one officer told me one day that it’s to ‘make us stronger.”

Smith was once one of the ballooning numbers of incarcerated women in America. That number is eight times what it was in 1980, according to The Sentencing Project and highlighted in the newly released report, “Commission on Reentry Services for Women.” The project also states that more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child younger than 18.

The report concludes incarcerated women in New Jersey have experienced suffering, trauma, abuse and a lack of services behind the wall. These conditions create substantial impediments to their recovery, rehabilitation, and success post-release. The commission recommends changes in five key areas: employment, health care, housing, family reunification and domestic violence.

Lydia Thornton, who spent four-plus years in prison, founded the nonprofit The Scarlet F. The letter “F” for felon because she says society’s view of a felon is “Once a felon, always a felon.” Thornton says a lot can change if the Department of Corrections undergoes a culture change.

“It also really starts with getting proper mental health services inside, before the ladies come back into society. If you come out as damaged or even more damaged than when you went in, your chances are far less likely to succeed,” Thornton said. “The role of the Department of Corrections, which if you look at their title, corrections, is to improve people and make them able to come back into society as more productive citizens. They’re, by definition if they do that, they would have less recidivism or less need for a Department of Corrections.”

But, Thornton says the report breeds hope because lawmakers are on board and the fix needs legislation and action.

“And when you read this report, this is the beginning, not the end. This is the start of doing things the right way,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

“If we don’t change the way we treat human beings inside our walls, if we don’t look at the fact that they are going to leave and that the goal should be their success, not just, ‘Well, we have a 6% recidivism rate because they didn’t do right.’ Well, what did you do to help them do right?” Thornton said.

“I’m begging you guys to not just do this for show, we have to do this for real, we have to do this for real,” said former inmate Crystal Rella.