Supervision of Women Offenders

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Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to the radio version of D.C. Public Safety. I am your host, Len Sipes. At our microphones today is Tosha Trotter. Tosha is a Supervisory Community Supervision Officer, and Henrietta Meeks. Henrietta is currently under supervision of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. We’re here to talk about an upcoming conference on women offenders. And to Tosha and Henrietta, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Tosha Trotter: Thank you.

Henrietta Meeks: Thank you.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Henrietta, we’re going to start with you. The whole concept of women offenders is an interesting topic, but 95% of the research and 95% of the media coverage is on male offenders. Women offenders don’t get a whole heck of a lot of coverage. I’ve read research where female offenders have higher rates of substance abuse, I’ve read research where female offenders have higher rates of mental health problems, I know of issues-when I worked for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, I sat down with a bunch of women offenders one day and they were telling me to a large degree, and it was sort of shocking, that they prefer to stay within the prison system rather than go back to the community. In some cases it was the safest place they’ve ever been, they got three hot meals a day, they were learning a trade, they were getting their GED. They found more comfort within the correctional setting than they did in the home setting because of the violence directed towards women and the fact that so many women are involved in criminal activities because of quote unquote “male influences”. Have any response to all that?

Henrietta Meeks: Well first of all, when a woman thinks that way, her self-esteem is low. And you’re saying that the rate is high simply because women have a tendency to have someone to guide them, and they’re highly emotional people-we are highly emotional people. Love plays a part whether it be a real love or a fake love. They want to belong, they want to be loved. So it’s easy for someone to entrap them and take over their mind and their spirit and tell them things because of the love issue.

Leonard Sipes: But I don’t want to be politically incorrect here in terms of talking about female offenders because I’m just telling you the stories that they told me. I have no idea if it applies to most women offenders, but certainly that was an issue that they put on the table, that they’re so much not a danger to society-society’s gotta deal with them in one way, shape, or form. In many cases it was running large amounts of drugs from the Florida area to New York City, they just happened to be caught in Maryland. So that was their story, I don’t know how true it is, but certainly that was their point of view. Henrietta, you’ve been around for how long-you’ve been under supervision for how long?

Henrietta Meeks: I’ve been in the system over 20 years or so.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, what’s your background in terms of your crime background and-

Henrietta Meeks: Drug-related.

Leonard Sipes: It’s all drug-related. What sort of drugs?

Henrietta Meeks: Heroine, crack, transporting-whatever.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Been involved in anything else? Shoplifting, assaults?

Henrietta Meeks: No.

Leonard Sipes: Trafficking?

Henrietta Meeks: No.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. You’ve been in prison-I remember interviewing you for a television show, you were in prison several times, right?

Henrietta Meeks: Yes I have. I started this prison time in the early 80s. I’ve done things but charges were dropped, but this one charge that I’m currently under supervision started in 80.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Henrietta Meeks: And over the period of time I should have came off parole in 2000, but by me violating-the back number comes forward.

Leonard Sipes: Yeah.

Henrietta Meeks: And I add time to it.

Leonard Sipes: How did you violate?

Henrietta Meeks: Not complying with the rules.

Leonard Sipes: What rules did you not comply with?

Henrietta Meeks: Not checking in, giving up clean urine, not keeping a job.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Henrietta Meeks: And eventually going back out.

Leonard Sipes: How are you doing now?

Henrietta Meeks: I’m doing superb.

Leonard Sipes: Why are you doing superb?

Henrietta Meeks: Because I had to unlearn and relearn the things that were taught to me-the bad seed things, you know, we have a ethic of code on the street and you’re brought up that and you believe that. Until I got serious with myself and decided that enough was enough and got therapy, went and started talking to my PO, and started looking outside of myself and started reaching for help-see, I was one that kept everything bottled up inside of me and thought I could do it on my own.

Leonard Sipes: Now I could go on for the next five years about the code of the street, which I have been questioning since I’ve been involved in the criminal justice when I was at age 18, but I want to focus more on you and the problematic issues. You’re under the supervision of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, you came out of prison so are you a parolee?

Henrietta Meeks: Yes, sir.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Now what do you think of programs for women offenders? Before we started the program we talked about the fact that most people basically say, ‘hey, you’re a con.’ I mean, let’s be honest, a lot of people-you talk about ex-offenders, you talk about people who have done prison time as far as they’re concerned, you’re done. You’ve had your one or two chances and they don’t want to hire you, it’s difficult to get into school. Is that true or not true? And if that’s true, what are the special issues for women offenders?

Henrietta Meeks: Well it’s true because society thinks we’re the scum of the earth and that we never can be rehabilitated-that’s what society thinks.

Leonard Sipes: But you’re doing well now.

Henrietta Meeks: Yeah because-

Leonard Sipes: Why are you doing good now?

Henrietta Meeks: –you have people that reach out to us and see things in us and want to help us and that means a lot to us.

Leonard Sipes: Who are those people?

Henrietta Meeks: The parole people, people that have jobs that take a chance on us.

Leonard Sipes: All right, are you working now?

Henrietta Meeks: Yes I am.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. I’m not asking you for the name of the company but what sort of work are you doing?

Henrietta Meeks: I was the management in deli.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Henrietta Meeks: And I’ve been working on this job over 19 months.

Leonard Sipes: That’s great. Are you clean?

Henrietta Meeks: Yes I am.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Now we drug test you extensively so it’s not just we’re taking your word for it.

Henrietta Meeks: No.

Leonard Sipes: So you’re clean?

Henrietta Meeks: Yes I am.

Leonard Sipes: So you’re clean, you’re working, and now you’re a taxpayer-

Henrietta Meeks: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: –instead of a tax burden.

Henrietta Meeks: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: And how does that feel?

Henrietta Meeks: It feels good. It’s not that this is the first time in my life that I’ve been a taxpayer, but this is the first time in the years I’ve been under supervision that I decided to give myself a chance and became honest with myself.

Leonard Sipes: What are the issues for women offenders as we approach this conference? What can you share with your listeners as we approach this conference that will make a difference in the minds and hearts of people? I mean, there are-like for instance, women have kids and women are the primary caretakers of kids. Now 70% of all of our offenders have kids, but it’s-regardless to how you feel about it socially, the vast majority of the caregivers are women.

Henrietta Meeks: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: So you come out of prison-you’ve got kids to deal with in many cases, correct?

Henrietta Meeks: Yes. Well with that issue women have to understand that they can’t be guilt ridden-that they really have to reach out and ask for help. Because we are caregivers, we feel like we got all the answers because we had to take care of being that role. But now we have to step back and ask for help. Like I said, emotional plays a lot on us and we don’t want to feel like we’re weak, but we are the weakest species.

Leonard Sipes: Well the big issue I think for me is this whole concept of you’re out of prison, you have kids-either you’re going to continue to commit crime on the street and you’re going to continue to be either A: a danger to society or B: a burden to society-or you’re not. It doesn’t really slice both ways-either you’re in the game or you’re out of the game; either you’re clean or you’re not clean; either you’re raising your kids or not raising your kids. And I think what our listeners need to know is what happens if you come out of prison, if you have drug treatment which CSOSA has and the District of Columbia government has, if you have vocational training, which CSOSA has, if you have a placement in jobs, which CSOSA has-again, in conjunction with the District of Columbia government-if you have anger management, if you have those sort of programs, if you have supervision, if we hold you to your nose to the grindstone in terms of supervising you in terms of drug testing you, does all this help? Does all this make a difference in the lives of women offenders?

Henrietta Meeks: It helps because it gives them a guideline. It helps because they are walking a straight line. It helps because it gives them some stability. It helps us because we can see through the fog. It’s all about caring. You have all these programs, but if you don’t have the people that care that runs these programs and if you don’t be sincere with yourself and say, ‘enough is enough,’ nothing’s going to click anyway.

Leonard Sipes: I understand that. I understand that and you and I have had that discussion before, the whole concept is when do you make that choice in life because all the programs in the world aren’t going to make a difference if you’re determined to stay in the game.

Henrietta Meeks: When the compulsion and obsession has been lifted, when you have put someone other than yourself there to say, ‘I’ve got to do this,’ when you can stand on a solid foundation and don’t go for anything-you have to put your past behind-work on your past, but still put it behind you and look for a better future in a day.

Leonard Sipes: Tosha Trotter, Supervisory Community Supervision Officer-Tosha, you and I have been talking about women offenders for quite some time and it’s a bit of a tragedy in my own personal estimation. Again, I’ve been around women offenders throughout my career and they’re different from male offenders. And the difference is that I don’t see a lot of women caught up in the criminal justice system as being a danger to society. We have to do something with them-they’ve been charged with a crime, they’ve been found guilty of a crime, but many instances I see women offenders especially as being quote unquote “salvageable.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but what’s your reaction to all that?

Tosha Trotter: Well I think the women offenders think it’s a different-you have different issues from the men offenders. And a lot of what we do in our office is we actually talk to the women. There’s so many other issues that a lot of the men don’t deal with. Men can go to prison and leave their children home with the baby’s mother or their mother, but the women still have this responsibility, ‘these are my children,’ and even when they come home from prison, they still have a responsibility to take care of their children. You know, just like Ms. Meeks was stating, welfare is not easy to attain, then trying to receive some type of certification, some type of education, some type of program to take care of your children, but you still gotta feed your children. So there’s a lot of other issues that you have to deal with with women that you don’t have to deal with with men as much.

Leonard Sipes: And okay, stereotypes away-and I’ll get phone calls on this one, many men basically walk from the kids and women offenders can’t walk from their kids. I mean, even when they’re in prison, the women offenders that I have talked to are just emotional wrecks because their kids are in the community-they are locked up. I don’t get that sense of, ‘I’m wrecked,’ from male offenders. Now how stereotypical am I being and how correct am I being?

Tosha Trotter: Well I think that that’s changing some. I think that a lot of men are being more responsible for their children now. But I do think that there is the issue that the perception that the mother-the women should have the children or should take care of the children, but I do think it’s changing.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. If we provide programs, and this is the heart and soul of the reason why we’re having this conference on women offenders, and it’s the heart and soul of the discussion across the board-if we provide programs for women offenders, as I said before, they do have higher rates of substance abuse than male offenders, they do have more problems with mental health issues than male offenders. If we provide the mental health treatment, which we do here at CSOSA, if we provide drug treatment, which we do here at CSOSA in conjunction with D.C. government, if we provide educational services, if we provide employment services, does it make a difference in the lives of women offenders?

Tosha Trotter: I think so. Yes, I think it does. Like Ms. Meeks was saying, it kind of gives them a way to see through the fog where they can actually see, ‘this is attainable, I can do this, I can possibly if this person will hang with me,’ A lot of it also is building trust. Like Ms. Meeks was stating, when she initially came into the office, she had to build a rapport to be able to talk about a lot of the issues that she had so that we could get the services that she needed. And that’s not always easy, especially if for years you’ve covered things up, you don’t want to talk about things. With the women there’s usually a lot of sex abuse, there’s a lot of emotional abuse.

Leonard Sipes: Which is documented by research.

Tosha Trotter: Yes, and a lot of that is covered up with using drugs or finding a man that’s no good for them, or they get into domestic violence situations and it kind of just gets worse.

Leonard Sipes: And I don’t mean to be overly stereotypical here, I’m not creating a blanket excuse for women offenders-you do the crime, you do the time-it’s just that simple. Nobody’s going to excuse women offenders from a violent crime or from drug trafficking. Nobody is going to do that, but yet there issues with women offenders that are deeper and more profound and more real, than there with male offenders. And I think that’s what we’re trying to address in this conference and that’s what we’re trying to get to in terms of this program, that there are differences and somehow, someway, society needs to understand that if the programs are there, not just the supervision, because we do supervise the dickens out of our offenders.

Tosha Trotter: Yes we do.

Leonard Sipes: We do supervise them-we have more contact with our offenders than the vast majority of parole and probation agencies in this country.

Tosha Trotter: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: We have drug testing that is tough-I mean, there’s a lot of it. So when I asked Henrietta how she was doing in terms of her substance abuse issues, we’re not taking Henrietta’s word for it, we’re really drug testing. So we’re holding them accountable, but without the programs I think the women are going to linger, I think the women are going to continue to reoffend, I think the women are going to end up in prison. With the programs I think a substantial proportion of them, not all, but a substantial proportion of them are going to become taxpayers not tax burdens.

Tosha Trotter: Oh I definitely agree with you. And you were saying earlier about 95% of resources go to male offenders, and I think that’s probably because most of the male offenders have the most violent crimes. Women, it’s more drug issues, they put themselves in bad situations and they get involved with the criminal justice system like you were saying, getting involved with the wrong guy and they have to take the heat for something that he’s doing. But a lot of the women, once you get-build a trust with them and they understand that you really are there to help them-we have a lot of resources. We can send people to anything that they’re interested in, we can send them if that’s what they want to do. So I think that does help when there is some type of light that they can see, ‘I can get out of this.’

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Henrietta, back to you. How does a person cross that line? One of the biggest issues for those of us for community supervision, for those of in the criminological community, is the fact that so many of the people that we talk to who are doing well are older offenders. They become sick and tired-they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, I’ve heard that about a thousand times. And then they’re open to drug treatment, then they’re open to therapy, then they’re open to being helped, then they’re open to discussing their own issues. So how-considering we have all these programs for both male offenders and female offenders, how does a person-how does a women offender make the break from the past? What causes that person to make the break from the past?

Henrietta Meeks: I don’t know what causes them to make a break from the past, but with myself-

Leonard Sipes: Yeah.

Henrietta Meeks: –I had health issues.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: And I didn’t want to end up and wind up dying in prison.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: So I just made a conscious decision that there’s gotta be a better way of life than this. I’m a good person, I did rotten things.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: So I got started as well. And then I had to get help from doctors outside of CSOSA too.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: Because I found in the end that as a child I was deeply traumatized.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: And I stuffed it and never talked about it and that kept hanging inside of me and that’s why I did a lot of the things that I did, because I didn’t want to really deal with it.

Leonard Sipes: A lot of women offenders talk about that. Some of the women I have talked to come from very, very, very difficult backgrounds and there is a lot of sexual abuse of women offenders, women caught up in the criminal justice system, and a lot of sexual abuse happens fairly young.

Henrietta Meeks: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: And sometimes I wonder what we’ve done to ourselves as a society to create a situation like that. Is that part of the reality? The research says it is part of the reality.

Henrietta Meeks: It is.

Leonard Sipes: The research says that most women offenders come from histories of sexual violence.

Henrietta Meeks: Sexual violence.

Leonard Sipes: Physical violence.

Henrietta Meeks: Physical secrets. See, like I told you, in the day, we’re talking then and I’m bringing it up to now, it was always taught to us-we had unhealthy teachings. What happens in the home stays in the home, you don’t take it outside the door. You die with your boots on. You don’t snitch. You know, all this old dumb stuff-and that’s seeded in you.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: And you want to tell somebody, you want to go to somebody, you want help, but you can’t get it because you’ve been taught this unhealthy thoughts. But until you start looking at yourself and saying, ‘this is what kept me sick from day one.’

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Henrietta Meeks: ‘I need help.’ Until you come into that awareness of yourself and reach out ask somebody to help you to help get better, then you stay stuck.

Leonard Sipes: Tosha, I want to go back to you for sort of a wrap up in all of this. Okay, can we really reach that deeply into the hearts and minds of female offenders? We can provide drug treatment.

Tosha Trotter: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: We can provide educational programs, vocational programs, we can find them a job-what Henrietta mentions is well documented by the research. Can we really reach down to that women offender as deeply as we need to be to help that individual fully recover?

Tosha Trotter: Yes, I think we can-I think we have to. You know, like you talked earlier about the mental health services that we offer in our agency, a lot of it is just being able to come into the office two, three times a week and just talk about some of this stuff. As CSOs-as a supervisory CSO, and I have the CSOs on my team, we would go to the home, we would get to know the children, we would know whether they’re going to school, whether they’re involved in programs. We would be a support to the women offender and not just as a probation officer or parole officer just monitoring what they do. We have to get out there, we have to help people. We have to help people through that situation so that when they get out of it, they can go ahead and live like everybody else, but they have to get past that. And to get past that is difficult and that’s why we have so many services in the district to help people.

Leonard Sipes: Tosha Trotter, Community Supervision Officer-Supervisory Community Supervision Officer, and Henrietta Meeks, you’ve been at our microphone before. I thank you both for being at our microphone today. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Len Sipes. Our website is Have yourself a very pleasant day.

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