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Domestic violence puts some women on the path to incarceration

Domestic violence is a hot topic right now — a conversation being fueled by what we’ve witnessed inside a fancy hotel elevator and on the stage of the Miss America pageant.

See, it even happens to a football star’s fiancée or a woman with a tiara. This is progress, to talk about the unlikely victims.

Now, let’s talk about women who may not be wearing high heels and evening gowns, make-up or anything but orange. Women in prison.

Most of the women in lockup — about 75 percent — have been severely, physically abused, according to the Correctional Association of New York.

For many of them, the abuse was the very beginning of the events that led to their incarceration. Desiree Pearson, 42, knows this firsthand. She just got out of the District of Columbia Jail in July after doing time for attempted armed robbery — a fate she says was tied to abuse at the hands of a man who hit her and forced her to do things she never wanted to do.

“I just want to get something to get on my own, to sell the house we owned together, to start over,” she tells Katrina Cheshier, who works for a nonprofit called Consultants For Change, Inc. and is helping her practice for job interviews.

“Ms. Pearson, you come to those interviews as the person you are, not the person you were,” Cheshier says.

Pearson is wearing a white straw fedora, bermuda shorts and a daffodil yellow top with butterfly sleeves. She hates that prison orange she was forced to wear – an outfit right out of the acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” — and doesn’t want to go back to it. She vows that she’s going to break the cycle that kept her drugging, getting abused, then coming back for more.

“You put your hands on me now? Nuh-uh. It’s not going to get me down this time,” she said. “I’m not going to get abused this time, I’m not going to back down.”

Across the nation, women are being incarcerated at alarming rates, increasing far faster than those among men. Between 2010 and 2013, the female county and local jail population jumped by nearly 11 percent, which was 10,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In the past 30 years, the number of women in lockup — around 200,000 right now — increased by 832 percent.

Most of them are in their 30s and 40s, nearly two-thirds of those prisoners are mothers, and nearly two-thirds of them are in for drug-related or nonviolent offenses, according to the Women’s Prison Association. So basically, the largest growing prison population is basically a mom whose kid, boyfriend or husband was hitting her and dealing dope out of her house and she got popped for it. Or something close to that.

“Orange is the New Black” fans got a good look at that dynamic in the back story of fictional prison chef Gloria Mendoza, a tough and cool-headed woman in the lockup who was physically and emotionally abused on the outside. She got caught in a food stamp scam she was running to save up enough cash to escape from him.

When Gloria gets out, Arturo won’t be around to abuse her (spoiler alert: he died in a fire). But for most other women, the abuse problem continues after they get out because, in many cases, back to the attacker is the only place to go.

For many years in the District, women who wanted to avoid that situation went to Our Place, DC, a nonprofit run out of a small office in Washington. Many women used their get-out-of-jail bus fare to get to the offices after counselors visited them while they were on the inside.

It was the place to start putting their lives back together, where they could get their IDs, their paperwork, résumés, clothes other than the prison sweats they were released in.

The counseling team traveled all over: to the D.C. Jail; to the prisons in Hazelton, West Virginia; even to Danbury, Connecticut, the setting for “Orange is the New Black.”

But all of that ended last year, when donations and grants dried up and the place cratered.

As I said when I profiled the organization four years ago: “These kinds of programs are the first to get cut from government and donors’ budgets. Especially when you’re dealing with ex-cons.”

One of its last executive directors, Ashley McSwain, kept counseling women even after she left the job. She knew how the system worked, how to get women the help they needed and which employers were good at hiring people with a record.

McSwain kept track of the prisoner logs and intercepted women at the prison gates, getting them straight to a shelter or other safe place before they went back into the danger zone.

Eventually, she assembled a couple counselors and got some funding for a government grant to run her own program, Consultants for Change, that understands domestic violence and jobs and kids and custody hearings mixed with parole officer check-ins. On Monday night, the group hosted an event at Busboys and Poets focusing on re-entry, with stories from the women they have helped as they are released from prison.

“Sometimes, it’s in that hour right after they get out that you lose them,” McSwain said. “If we can just get them and get them somewhere safe, the chances are good.”

© 2014, The Washington Post

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