By Zsana Hoskins,
Special to the AFRO
Life After Release, a local women-led organization dedicated to serving formerly incarcerated citizens and their families held their annual beach retreat from June 23 to June 25. The event took place in Ocean City, Md.
Qiana Johnson, the founder of Life After Release, said the retreat was inspired with the goal of alleviating stress caused by long court cases and the obstacles that incarceration can bring upon families.
“It was such a toll for the two and a half years I was incarcerated–my mother cried every day, my kids cried every day. So what we decided last year after COVID was ‘Hey, why don’t we just take everybody to the beach?’ We went to the beach, and it blossomed from there and turned into this beautiful retreat,” said Johnson.
Coordinators and attendees expressed a deep appreciation for the weekend getaway. Leara Davis, a volunteer and first-time mother, said her experience at the retreat was “eye-opening, freeing, and loving.”
“It was an amazing experience to be around majority African-American people that are all coming together as a community. It was nice to be around people who understood struggles that we all are going through–to share stories. It was like building a family almost,” Davis, a first time attendee, expressed.
Davis’ story is a testament to the impact of the work Life After Release and their partners are doing. She began volunteering with them in January because of the support they gave her when she was incarcerated.
“They filled a courtroom for me, and it made me say, ‘Wow, I need to do this for others. I want to join them and help someone else who’s in my position. Their presence made a big difference in the outcome of my case,” said Davis. “It means everything. I don’t really socialize with a lot of people. So to be with a group of people that I don’t feel like I have to be shy around, or I have to hide things that I’ve went through because I don’t feel like they’re going to judge me.”
The influence of this program is not just for those who participate. For Johnson, this retreat has also been impactful in many ways. Johnson recalled a memory that reminded her why this retreat is necessary.
“Last year we had a young woman and the week before we went on the trip she was sentenced to five years. After they took her out of the courtroom and the kids saw her going away, the kids didn’t think about or understand their mother going away. But what they did understand was that they were going to the beach the next week,” said Johnson. “That was so impactful for me because we were able to provide them with a little tiny bit of relief and hope that they didn’t have before.”
Johnson wants the retreat to be bigger and better in the upcoming years.
“We are actually considering turning this into a conference later on down the line—a conference of directly impacted people where we can not only go to the beach but actually have guest speakers, workshops, and things like that,” said Johnson. “We want to make it longer and more impactful. We want to make people more accessible to the people that need them–judges, lawyers, post-conviction workers.”
LaKeasha Coley, was also a formerly incarcerated mother and first time attendee at this year’s retreat who reflected on some of her favorite moments from the weekend.
“It meant a lot. Being on house arrest, I don’t get to go out. I don’t get to leave the house unless I’m working. So being able to go out to the retreat was a vacation for me–it was a vacation within a vacation because I was able to leave the house and then once I got there, I was able to enjoy myself,” Coley said about her time in Ocean City.
Johnson stressed the importance of having a space for those directly impacted by incarceration to fellowship, exchange information about cases, and get to know one another without having to worry about meals, money, or other stressors.
“You don’t have to be ashamed of what’s happening to you and your family–to sit down next to someone and break bread next to someone that is going through the same exact stuff as you. And you can just take a little bit off your chest because now you don’t have to keep it bottled in.” said Johnson. “We’re removing barriers for people to be in raw, honest communication, love and compassion with one another. That impacts me and makes me feel so good,” Johnson said.
This event was completed with the support of several organizations.
“We partner with other organizations like Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, Outward Justice in Baltimore. Our partners also bring their loved ones-from Maryland, DC, and Virginia,” said Johnson. “We’re really partner-heavy because we know that we can’t do this thing by ourselves. There’s so many great organizations that are out here actually doing the work. It’s important to understand that there’s people out here in this world that want to support the radical rest and rejuvenation and help building community.”
Johnson also emphasized the Hyattsville Mennonite Church funded this year’s retreat and has been supporting this cause for the past few years. Life After Release is working to implement additional programs for incarcerated individuals.
“We’re just not here bailing people out. We put them into programming to help them on a path of self-determination. One of the programs that we put them into is the Participatory Defense Program to help them with their case. Another program that we put them into is the Justice and Liberation program, where they get a stipend and financial literacy and credit workshops,” said Johnson.
Life After Release is now located in Suitland, Md. and is a part of the Creative Suitland Collective. Johnson urges anyone who may have skills that would be beneficial to the community or those who want to donate items or monetarily to reach out via their website, www.lifeafterrelease.org.