Op-Ed

Going to prison is not the end of these women’s compelling stories. There’s so much more | Opinion

Portrait of Michelle, by photographer Maggie Steber, is a part of the exhibit “The Art of Compassion” at the Coral Gables Museum.
Portrait of Michelle, by photographer Maggie Steber, is a part of the exhibit “The Art of Compassion” at the Coral Gables Museum.

“I want people to open their eyes. We are people, too. We were born into society and we belong in society. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Jackie is a formerly incarcerated woman. I met her and other women like her as a volunteer with LEAP. The organization provides 300 hours over eight months of in-prison rehabilitation for women in Miami. Jackie served two and a half years for drug trafficking, a crime that she says she didn’t have a part in other than being in wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong man. In going to prison, she had lost everything that had made up her life.

The women I met are mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Any one of them could be my neighbor, my cousin, my coworker or my friend. So many of them had been victims of sexual and physical trauma when they were young.

Culturally, we tend be unaware or fearful of people who have been in prison. As a Miami-based photographer dedicated to using photography and narrative for social justice, I knew that focusing on these women would my next project — and the museum exhibit “The Art Of Compassion” was born. The exhibit can be seen at the Coral Gables Museum through Sept. 23.

Unfortunately, society has paid little attention to the fact that women are being incarcerated twice as fast as men. A new report from the Sentencing Project shows that between 1980 and 2016, the number of women held in American jails and prisons increased by more than 700 percent. The pathways to prison and the issues facing women are different than those facing men. The impact of incarceration on the children that women are forced to leave behind is devastating. Why aren’t these women’s stories being told?

The increase in women going to prison can be traced to changes in state and national drug policies that mandated prison terms for even relatively low-level drug offenses, changes in law-enforcement practices —particularly those targeting minority neighborhoods — and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.

The fire in my belly for this project comes from knowing for certain that seeing and getting to know these women changes the way we can think about them, which improves their chances of becoming successful members of society. The second thing I know for sure is that rehabilitative programming makes a difference. Women who go through LEAP’s program don’t tend to return to prison. The rate of recidivism for graduates is under 5 percent after three years. Nationally the statistic is more than 70 percent.

Funding for post-incarceration housing, therapy and services is crucial for these women. If their basic needs — housing, work and support — are not met, we cannot expect these women to succeed.

Hear from participants, including the curator, photographers and women profiled, were touched by their involvement in “The Art of Compassion,” at a panel discussion to be held from 7-9 p.m., Thursday, July 25 at the Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Avenue, Coral Gables.

Starr Sariego is a Miami-based photographer who uses her work to tell the stories of underrepresented populations, especially women.

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