“The Ill Was Done to Them”
In conjunction with Coby Kennedy’s Summer 2021 exhibition Kalief Browder: The Box, Pioneer Works, For Freedoms, and Negative Space presented Beyond The Box, a four-part program series that considered the realities of mass incarceration through the lens of art and activism. Over the course of four weeks, Broadcast will release Beyond The Box’s accompanying video series, each paired with a newly commissioned text that further elaborates on the thematic pillars charted by For Freedoms: Awakening, Listening, Healing, and Justice. Below, Abigail Glasgow considers Awakening in the context of alternatives to incarceration.
Whenever I mention the concept of Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI), the response, for the most part, is disbelief (or, the accusation that I’ve been liberally brainwashed): “How exactly would that work, and wouldn’t that just encourage folks to commit more crimes since there’s no accountability?” Of course, this doesn’t surprise me; this country has socialized us to believe those who commit crimes are inherently bad and “deserve” the punishments that, for the most part, are the penmanship of old, white men clinging to their power (looking at you, the 1994 Crime Bill).
But here’s the thing: ATI programs exist—and they work. I’ve witnessed it directly since joining New York’s Women’s Prison Association (WPA) which, since 1845 (yep, over 175 years), has been moving toward a world where carceral punishment ceases to exist. “Instead of looking at what you’ve done, the question should be what has been done to you,” says Lisa Osborne, Program Manager at WPA about how the team approaches systems-involved women, a term referring to women impacted by incarceration and other systems of oppression. “These women are mothers, and sisters, and daughters, and aunts, and grandmothers,” she continues. “They didn’t do the ills of society, the ill was done to them.”
As the oldest organization in the nation dedicated to systems-involved women, WPA emphasizes community-based solutions that keep women in their communities versus caging them. “We specialize in working with survivors of trauma and recognize that an individual’s past experiences can contextualize their current involvement in the criminal legal system,” says the Director of Alternative to Incarceration Programming, Miriam Goodman. It’s for this reason that this team of ATI case managers has spent years working to encourage the District Attorney and New York City judges to refer clients, consequently redirecting the legal system from charging a woman with incarceration to instead keep her within her own community, with her children if she has them, in school, employed, and so forth.
“I have not met anyone yet who was a better version of themselves after incarceration, including myself,” shares ATI case manager LaDeamMa McMoore. According to McMoore, the work that goes into these alternatives provides support systems that many individuals haven’t had—from mental health support and job training to navigating housing and HRA benefits. And this lack of support is glaring: 86% of women in jail report experiencing sexual violence before arrest; 80% are mothers; and nearly two thirds of women detained in local jails are women of color. WPA has designed their ATI program to address histories of trauma—from surviving domestic abuse to sex trafficking coercion—mental health needs, substance use, parental stress, and other factors that so often lead to systems involvement.
Here’s how it works: each ATI participant works with her case manager on an individualized plan, setting goals for the course of her time within the program. Osborne says that WPA’s ATI program is not “cookie cutter,” but instead focuses on “getting an idea of who this woman is.” Even more importantly, this plan is driven by the participant as an expert in her own life. “We ask the participant what she wants for herself academically, emotionally, professionally, socially, and so forth so she can have the best life she wants to have,” Osborne emphasizes. In other words, ATI is not about imposing an arbitrary societal measure of success, it’s about meeting women where they are. Want to finish your GED? There’s a referral for that. Don’t know how to get your next meal? A case manager can connect you to a local food pantry. Need support in getting to your next interview? The ATI team provides free MetroCards. For Osborne, the key to WPA’s ATI programs is that case managers are showing up for participants knowing they are healing, not expecting them to be fully healed.
The result of this holistic, human-centric partnership is one where systems-involved women are learning what Osborne calls “new survival skills.” “These women have lived their life thinking about how to stay alive, avoid abuse, keep their children—all on a day-to-day basis,” she adds. “We’re addressing their trauma and working with them to find new ways to cope—ways that not only improve quality of life, but show our participants that they are worth it.” Participants need only check in with their case managers once a week to share their progress; otherwise, they are empowered to pursue the benefits of ATI however they choose. And many, even when their court mandate expires, voluntarily continue to work with WPA to forge the paths they see for themselves.
And, like I said, this method works. 90% of WPA’s ATI participants have not been rearrested, compared to the 30% of women released from jail within three years. But, because the system disproportionately targets people of color, women, the economically disenfranchised, and survivors of violence, recidivism in and of itself should not be the exclusive measure of success. Given that lack of affordable housing, livable wages, quality education, and ample mental and medical health resources inform someone’s involvement in the criminal legal system, Goodman argues that ATI is also reevaluating how we as a society measure success. “When someone engages with us, when someone enrolls in a GED program, when someone gets a job—these are all successes,” she reiterates.
WPA is one of many organizations that is pushing forward the agenda for alternatives to incarceration. Not only do these programs save individuals from cages, sleeping in their own fecal matter, and death sentences (see: the 16 deaths that have occurred in the custody of New York’s Department of Corrections this year alone), but they save the city hundreds of millions of dollars (yes, you read that right). New York City spends $178,092,480 to house 320 women in a jail annually, which translates to $556,539 to incarcerate one woman for one full year. Moreover, this number doesn’t account for the many other costs that come with incarceration, like communication (phone calls where 15 minutes can cost up to $1 in New York, gas for long-distance drives), family trauma (children of incarcerated parents have an increased likelihood of systems-involvement), and loss of income, to name a few. So, ATI programming gives folks the resources they should have received in the first place.
With the $556,539 to cage one woman, WPA could, according to their estimates, provide 118 women with ATI. For the numbers-fanatics, that comes down to $4,715 to offer one woman WPA’s ATI program, thus connecting her to workforce development training (think: résumé-building, paid internships, employment-focused workshops, MetroCards for interviews) which costs $4,360; ongoing, comprehensive case management for $4,579; unlimited legal consultation for $839; and safe and stable housing for her and the children for $36,523. Basically, if imagery of individuals sleeping in their own fecal matter or being subjected to abuse inside state facilities does not compel our society to change the way we respond to crime, perhaps money will.
“We envision a society where our approach to incarceration is reimagined,” says Caryn York, WPA’s newest Executive Director. York spent the last ten years leading Baltimore’s Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), where she where she led successful statewide legislative advocacy campaigns to eliminate employment barriers and decriminalize poverty and race including, but not limited to, bail reform, banning the criminal history question on college and job applications, increasing access to food stamps for folks with a drug-related criminal legal record and expanding access to paid sick leave. As an expert in economic justice, York believes that ATI programs are “critically important to reducing our jail populations and increasing our investments in human capital, particularly investments in those whom society has comfortably forgotten and relegated to economic despair.”
Ultimately, the case for Alternatives to Incarceration isn’t a difficult one. It’s financially effective and, most importantly, begins to shift the ways in which our system thinks about solutions—primarily by prioritizing basic human needs that have not been met. Like McMoore says: “Every successful person that leaves our program is a reflection on what we can be as a society.” ♦
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