Aishia Smith strutted and bounced on stage in a coral suit, beaming a sweet smile while her long braids swung behind her. The 32-year-old D.C. resident had plenty to be happy for. After enduring a life of sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcohol addiction and serving a year in jail, she is celebrating a new stage in life and is engaged to be married.
“It’s going great because I’ve been clean now, it’s been a year,” Smith said. “I was introduced to the Women in Control Again (WICA) program. It had a lot to do with me becoming a renewed woman; I’m on the right track.”
Smith was one of the hundreds of people, mostly women that attended a Women’s Reentry Forum at Temple of Praise Church in D.C. on February 9. The annual forum is sponsored by the Court Services and Offender Supervisory Agency (CSOSA) to bring attention and support to the special challenges women face when returning to the community after incarceration.
In recent years CSOSA has reorganized to place emphasis on gender-based reentry issues with programs such as WICA because women need a structure and support system different from men to reduce recidivism.
“Much of this is about empowerment and helping them to realize that they have power within themselves, and we want them to believe in themselves,” said Nancy Ware, CSOSA Director. “Women have very unique needs, with children, child care [and] special behavioral issues. We’re trying to get back on our feet, trying to deal with our families [but] many times women are the central support to a family.”
The event featured panel discussions on building healthy relationships, a fashion show and an address from keynote speaker Kemba Smith. Smith is a motivational speaker most noted for being incarcerated while attending Hampton University in 1994 on drug charges related to her allegedly drug-dealing boyfriend. She served 6 1/2 years in a federal prison before President Clinton pardoned her in 2000.
“Even though my case was highly publicized, there were still challenges I had to deal with emotionally and relationship wise,” Smith said to the crowd. About the reentry forum she said, “It’s just beneficial overall to our community because I came out, other women will come out and they’re going to be your neighbor or working with you. We need to provide them the support they need to get back on their feet.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2009 women made up 18 percent of the correctional population which includes prisons, jails and those under community supervision. Women make up 6.7 percent of the state and federal prison population, and their incarceration rates are rising. In 2007, BJS reported that the rate of female prisoners rose at a rate almost double of male prisoners; male prisoners increased at a rate of 2.7 percent while females rose at 4.8 percent.
Women also vary greatly in the types of offenses for which they are charged in comparison to male prisoners. 25 percent of women are sentenced for drug crimes, 29 percent for property crimes and 37 percent for violent crimes.
Complicating the challenges of imprisonment, women have higher rates of HIV infection, mental health issues and staggering rates of sexual abuse. More than 57 percent of women imprisoned have reported experiencing sexual abuse before entering state prison versus 16.1 percent of males. Additionally, 69 percent of women reported that the abuse occurred before they reached age 18, according to 1999 statistics from BJS.
LaVerne Newman, a WICA program participant and ex-offender, shared that she became an alcoholic by age 6 after her uncle would force her to drink and began molesting her at age 5. After the alcohol came drugs, which she used and sold, even teaching her sons how to sell drugs, she said.
“I’ve been an addict a long, long time,” Newman said, but she joyously continued, “This is the best I’ve felt at 54. I’m thinking positive; my whole frame of mind has changed from what I used to be. I’m like a brand new person.”
The WICA program helps women with a combination of psycho-educational and therapeutic methods to help high-risk offenders with substance abuse and mental illness. WICA staff is specially trained for women’s behavioral issues, and the program targets women with fewer than six months left under community supervision.