In 2015, Alena Jones and Nekoma Burcham were named NEXT Fellows by the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, a special interest fund of Central Indiana Community Foundation. Jones and Burcham are co-founders of an initiative, scheduled to launch in 2018, that gives female returning citizens, ages 18-24, the tools they need to be successful and self-sustaining. Women’s Fund has committed to incubating the project for two years and providing significant support for eight years, allowing time for thoughtful research and development.
The Marion County Reentry Coalition (MCRC) is a group of professionals, policymakers, agencies, justice system employees and other stakeholders in Marion County working to reduce recidivism in Indianapolis. I was fortunate to attend the group’s annual conference on Oct. 17 at IUPUI. This annual conference aims to build professional and community capacity on criminal justice and reentry issues.
At the conference, I felt privileged to moderate a breakout session panel titled, “Women in the Criminal Justice System” featuring experts Pam Ferguson, deputy warden of Rockville Correctional Facility; Carlette Duffy, a program manager working with reentry grants for the City of Indianapolis; and Dr. Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, professor of criminal justice and gender studies at IU Bloomington. The panel focused on the unique needs and risks of women involved in the criminal justice system, the importance of programming that focuses on those risks and needs, and the role that various key factors such as trauma, relationships and children play in women’s pathways into crime.
Our conversation was centered around what it means to have gender-responsive programming that focuses on the specific needs and risks of women and mitigates risks in a way that makes sense given women’s lived experience and unique histories. Gender-responsive programming focuses on relationships, wraparound services and dealing with personal internal issues (such as trauma) in order to help reentering women cope with everyday life.
Those things, in a nutshell, are the core of the work we hope to do with the NEXT Farm Initiative a program of Women’s Fund of Central Indiana.
My co-fellow, Nekoma Burcham, and I have researched these issues, particularly in relation to returning citizens, over the past two years through the NEXT Fellowship, which asks, “How can we serve women ages 18-24, who are experiencing a host of challenges, as they find their way to long-term economic independence and security?”
We hope to answer this question with the NEXT Farm Initiative – a comprehensive solution that will provide wraparound supports to young women exiting incarceration and support them in working to become economically independent and secure. The conclusions we’ve drawn from our research about how to approach a solution align with statements made by the panel discussion at the conference. For a woman to be successful, she must start with herself and meet her foundational needs – safety, self-awareness and social capital. In other words, she must know that she is not in danger of being harmed; she must know that she has a roof over her head and food to eat for the foreseeable future; she must understand her own emotions, processes, talents and triggers; and she must have people on her team who are willing to help her meet her needs and goals. Running our program in the context of a small, residential urban farm provides a holistic way to teach mental health, coping skills, and the base skills you need to know to be successful at any job. We also think it’s powerful that, while they’re with us, women who have previously been regarded as a problem by the community will have the power to work on a problem facing our entire city: lack of healthy food access. With the NEXT Farm Initiative, instead of being seen as a problem, these women can be part of a solution.
For women who are 18-24 and returning to the community after a period of incarceration, support and opportunity are especially relevant and critical. Reentry can be overwhelming, and returning citizens are often under-resourced while having to meet a number of high-stakes requirements. The number of incarcerated women has risen 700 percent since 1980 and continues to rise. Incarcerated women are disproportionately affected by trauma (98 percent) and poverty (60 percent). That is why we think that a program focused on helping women achieve economic independence through foundational care and services, as well as education and career programing, makes the most sense when applied to women who are returning to our community with all too few supports and even fewer resources.
As we look towards launching the NEXT Farm Initiative and accepting our first cohort of participants, we hope that the gender-responsive, community-connective programming we’ve developed to serve young women who are reentering will begin to make a difference in what they think they are capable of by giving them the support they need to succeed.
It was a delight to be able to attend the conference, and particularly to work with the “Women in the Criminal Justice System” session panelists and attendees to share information, resources and hopes for the future.