Woman Offenders-Upcoming Events-From Violence to Reentry-Interview With Lashonia Etheridge-Bey

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen the program today is Women Offenders. We have an interview with Lashonia Etheridge-Bey; she is with the Mayor’s office on Returning Citizens here in the District of Columbia, www.oc, I’m sorry, orca.dc.gov. Let me give you a bit of background about this extraordinary woman and I think you’ll understand what we’re interviewing her today. Lashonia is a 40-year old Washingtonian who was born and raised in southeast DC. As a youth she made a series of bad decisions that landed her in prison for a violent crime where she spent almost half her life. Lashonia was a teen mom, a high school drop out where she was unemployed and addicted to marijuana. During her 18 years in prison she set out to rehabilitate and reform herself. She received her GED and began pursuing a college degree. She has been employed on a full-time basis, like I said; she’s enrolled in college. Last April she was hired as the Staff Assistant for the Mayor’s office on returning citizens, and like I said before, she’s in the process of completing her second year at Trinity University where she’s pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in Human Relations. We have Lashonia here for a specific reason. Every year we’d have a series of reentry events and three this year. We’re focusing on women caught up in the criminal justice system and I’ll have the information about all three in the show notes. Lashonia is responsible for two, she will be speaking at the other on Tuesday, February 4th, the gender specific reentry conference at One Judiciary Square. That will be in the show notes, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. And then we have women’s reentry forum done by my agency, Court Services, a super efficient agency. I can’t—Lashonia, I screwed up the name of my own agency, Court Services, an offender supervision agency on Saturday, February 8th from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. And then on Thursday, February 27th, the reentry forum, The Breakdown of the Black Family as a Result of Incarcerated Mothers. Lashonia, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Thank you for having me.

Len Sipes: All right. That’s a huge introduction. You’ve spent half your life in prison. You came out. There was a film about Lashonia that I thought was extraordinary. And that will also be in the show notes, done by a person who’s been at this microphone before. A film, about a 15-minute film on your life and it struck me that your life has been a profoundly painful, profoundly difficult; you have heaped a tremendous amount of blame on yourself in the past. You have had to deal with animosity from your own children when you came out, you have two. The process of coming back out, reestablishing yourself, it was very, very honest, honest portrayal of who you are and what you are. Tell me about who you are and what you are.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Well, first and foremost, I’m a resilient woman who has had to overcome a lot of difficulties in my past, mainly my own challenges have been being destructive, being angry, being violent, being addicted to drugs. So I’m a woman who has had to face all of those obstacles and overcome them and I’m also a woman who’s continuously working to progress in terms of rebuilding my life. I’ve only been home for two years now. So pursuing my degree, I’m building my career, seeking to reestablish myself within my family unit and just taking it one day at a time.

Len Sipes: When I watched the video two things came at me pretty clearly. One was the level of self-blame that you have heaped on yourself and number two, you’re involvement in physical fitness activities. You are very fit and so exercise is part of your rehabilitative process.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes, definitely. I always say that when I became incarcerated I attacked myself physically, mentally, spiritually and psychologically because I engaged in a lot of therapeutic programs. I was in a residential trauma program. I exercised. I pursued academic endeavors. I did everything that I could to rebuild myself in every aspect. So exercise has definitely been a huge coping skill for me and a way for me to deal with the challenges that I face whether it be challenges in school, challenges in my personal life. I love to run; I love to do strength training and all those things to help me get through those challenges.

Len Sipes: The crime that you were involved in, in Southeast DC was a very violent crime.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes.

Len Sipes: So you went to prison for that. You spent half of your life in prison for that very violent crime but, again, I go back to how your own self-perception, the video is stark, the reality is certainly abundant in terms of how you felt about yourself. So where did all those feelings come from?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I mean, you called it self-blame but the fact of the matter is that despite the fact that I was responding to my circumstances and I pretty much built an image and a reputation and started to display behavior that I thought I had to display in order to survive in my environment. The fact of the matter is that I’m still responsible for the choices that I made. So even the violent acts that I brought on other people and in addition to the violent acts that was brought on myself, I put myself in those positions by the choices that I made, the people that I chose to be around, how I chose to respond to potential danger in my neighborhood. So I was never—I’ve always been one to just be responsible for my actions because I know at the end of the day everybody has a choice regardless of what situation they find themselves in. There are a lot of people that grew up where I grew up at who didn’t choose to become violent and commit crimes as a result of their environment and I did.

Len Sipes: But let me ask you a series of basic questions, substance abuse?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes, I was addicted to marijuana and I had just began to smoke PCP around the time when I was convicted of this crime.
Len Sipes: When did you start doing drugs?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I started doing drugs I guess when I was about maybe 15, 16.

Len Sipes: Okay. How was your family life?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: My family life, I was pretty much raised by a single parent mom. My dad was always in my life, but my parents weren’t together. And I had a host of older siblings who were in and out of prison on drugs. I didn’t really have a lot of positive role models. My mom, obviously working and trying to take care of us, didn’t get an opportunity to really raise us and teach us the way I’m sure she would have liked to been able to. But I pretty much was drawn to the street as a result of that. And I grew up in a really tough neighborhood. I went to Hart Junior High, so all of the projects were surrounded by that school, that school was surrounded by all of the projects in that area, so—

Len Sipes: But the self-directed anger that I saw on the video, which again, we’re going to put the address of the video in the show notes, that came from where? I mean, there’s a certain point where it shows you coming out of prison. And it shows you reuniting with your kids, the difficulties of reuniting, the difficulties of getting out, the difficulties of going through all the things that you’ve gone through, but one of the things, the stark things, not to beat a point to death, was the self-directed anger. That you really had a lot of anger inside of you that you expressed to others when you were on the street and that you’re, you know, were expressing towards yourself when you got out. Where did all that anger come from?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I don’t know if it was necessarily anger that I was expressing. I just pretty much built an image because I had to respond to the violence in my neighborhood. So it was either you’re going to fight back or you’re going to get beat up.

Len Sipes: Right.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: You’re either going to fight back or you’re going to run and I wasn’t raised in a family that allowed me to run home and run in the house and lock the door when somebody’s chasing me.

Len Sipes: All right. So what you’re saying is violence and the street culture was of a very logical process, a very logical decision based upon what was happening around you.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Definitely. It was what I was taught. It was what I was prone to do because for me it was a survival mechanism.
Len Sipes: For so many women that I’ve talked to before these microphones, they have been sexually violated, they came up in single-family households. I’m not asking whether you were or whether you weren’t. Substance abuse was very common. Most of the women that I’ve talked to who have been caught up in the criminal justice system, it is a real struggle in terms of who they were at the time of that crime and can you talk to me about that. Am I right or wrong?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes, fortunately for me I haven’t had that experience of sexual abuse and physical abuse in my family and growing up, but I did notice when I was incarcerated that the vast majority of the women that I was incarcerated with had that issue and had that trauma that they was dealing that lead them down that path of drugs and crime. With me, my trauma was violence. You know, violence inside my home, violence outside of my home and mainly the violence in my community. It was kind of like survival of the fittest. And like I said, I built that image to protect myself and at some point I had to live up to that image. And I was put in a position where I did something that cost someone dearly and I had to pay for it.

Len Sipes: But the process of—I’ve been to more than a couple women’s groups and I hear two things. I hear, again, just a lot of, you know, anger at the world, anger at themselves, anger at their families, anger at their friends. But, you know; now they have to deal with all of this coming out of the prison system. And there’s a certain point where I find that, and the research backs this up, that women do better than men coming out of the prison system. They do better in terms of rehabilitative programs. They do better in terms of recidivism than men because a lot of women come out and say to themselves, all right, this is my one shot. I have no other choice. I’ve got to make this work. I’ve got kids. I’ve got to reunite with my kids. I’ve got to establish a life for myself. Women have a tendency of making it work at higher numbers, better numbers, greater numbers than males caught up in the criminal justice system. But there’s still an unrelenting anger towards themselves and towards the world around them that they have to deal with before they get into prison, what brought them into the prison system and afterwards, right or wrong? Be honest.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Again, for me anger has not necessarily –

Len Sipes: Not necessarily for you, but for everybody.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Well I can’t speak for those other women. All I can say is that for me the thing that motivated me to get caught up in the life of crime that I was caught up in was more so pain and fear.

Len Sipes: Okay. All right. Most women coming out of the prison system have kids, correct?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yeah.

Len Sipes: And it’s very difficult, I mean, the average person coming out of the prison system has a very nasty background. They don’t have a lot of skills in terms of going out and getting a job. They have to deal with all of the issues that they have to struggle with personally. Mental health amongst women coming out of the criminal justice system is very high, mental health problems, higher than any other group. Substance abuse problems very high. They come out and they’re being reunited with their kids. They come out and they’re trying to find employment and they’re trying to find a way of sustaining themselves. It’s almost impossible to put all that together, is it not?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: It’s definitely a huge challenge. It makes me think about Zora Neale Hurston when she said that women are the mules of the world because in addition to trying to find your place as the matriarch of your family and rebuild your family unit, you’re also trying to rebuild your personal life and gain employment and maybe pursue your academic goals. And women, I think one of the biggest differences with men and women is the need to be safe. I’d like to think that men coming out of prison regardless of how much time they served are not struggling with whether or not they feel safe in an environment that has left them vulnerable and allowed them to be so severely hurt and afraid in the past. Then going in to a system that has further damaged them and further degraded them and coming home, I think that the need to be safe, the need to be a mother, the need to be, like I said, the matriarch of their family, the need to become independent but yet still establish healthy relationships. I don’t think that men, who are returning from incarceration experience that personal trauma that women experience.

Len Sipes: Most women coming out of the prison system have looked at me and said it’s almost impossible to do all this. It is almost impossible to do all this and people need to understand that regardless of how motivated I am not to go back, it is almost impossible to pull all of this off.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I would agree.

Len Sipes: And, statistically speaking, it’s correct.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I would agree and I’m one of those people who believe that I can do anything. I’m really convinced that if I put my mind to it I can do it. However, I would have to agree that in terms of me rebuilding my life and, you know, pursuing my academic goals and pursuing my career goals, those things have come easy for me, but the challenge has been rebuilding my personal life and my relationships. I mean, you’re only one person and there’s no way you can spread yourself that thin and put the necessary energy into all those different areas and be successful in every one of them.

Len Sipes: But isn’t it amazing where, two things, and they’re contradictions, almost impossible versus women do better than men coming out of the prison system. So almost impossible turns into possible turns into success for literally hundreds of thousands of women coming out of the prison system every year. How do you come—how do I or you or anybody else come to grips with that, almost impossible yet most women seem to find it in themselves to create a successful life after prison.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Resiliency. And I think the women that do become successful at reentry are the women that find a healthy balance between being a mother and being a nurturer and having healthy relationships and building a healthy personal life and doing those other things in terms of career and education. My director always says, and I’m always glad when he says it so that I don’t have to say it, as a man he always says that when women come home the first thing they think about is their children, but when men come home the last thing they think about is their children. And obviously that’s a blanket statement, maybe it’s a stereotype, who knows, but the fact of the matter is that men don’t necessarily have to allow that—don’t necessarily have that challenge of how am I going to rebuild my family, how am I going to regain my position in my family. Men don’t necessarily face that challenge, they can do all that other stuff, whereas, women they try to do it all.

Len Sipes: When I talk to my wife about it she simply says, well it’s simple, Leonard, women are better—smart than men. We have, ladies and gentlemen, Lashonia Etheridge-Bey. She is with the Mayor’s office on Returning Citizen Affairs here in the District of Columbia, www.orca.dc.gov. She and we are doing three events dealing with women caught up in the criminal justice system. Tuesday, February 4th, Gender Specific Reentry Conference, One Judiciary Square from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00. And then my organization, Court Services, an Offender Supervision Agency, and this time I said it without screwing it up Lashonia. Women’s Reentry Forum at the Temple of Praise, 700 7th Avenue from 9:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon, always what I consider to be an extraordinary event. And Thursday, February 27th, Reentry Forum, the Breakdown of the Black Family as a Result of Incarcerated Mothers, Union Temple Baptist Church, 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. I’ll have all of these issues in our show notes. And, you know, Lashonia, this is just an amazing transformation for you, but it’s not just an amazing transformation for you, it’s an amazing transformation for literally tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of women coming out of the prison system every year. Seven hundred thousand people leave the prison system every year. Heaven knows three to four times that number come out of jails. So, and the research is clear, that the women do better if though they carry greater burdens. And both of us, I think, suggest that it’s because they come out having to take care of kids, 80% of people coming out of the prison system have kids, correct?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes.

Len Sipes: Okay. When you came home and after watching your extraordinarily honest video, your kids were not kind. Even though you had a real good relationship with them and even though they visited you in prison, there’s a certain point—you said that you thought you were going to escape the dilemma of the kids dumping on you for being in prison. And even though they weren’t—they didn’t do it when they visited you, when you came back out it was a different set of circumstances, right?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes. And I think that maybe to some extent they were empathetic towards my situation. So they were just nice to me when I was incarcerated. They never expressed anger or were ornery towards me. And in my son’s defense, he is just the most optimistic person I know and he has not expressed any harsh feelings towards me or been, you know, mean to me since I’ve been home. And I think that that has a lot to do with the gender dynamics as well because boys just love their moms for the most part. The biggest challenges have been with my daughter. She’s the older of the two and she has her own children, her own family, and her own challenges.

Len Sipes: She felt abandoned by you.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yeah, she felt abandoned.

Len Sipes: And she told you as much.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Mmm-mmm. She felt abandoned and we had one incident where she expressed some really harsh things to me and it was difficult. I got through it, I guess. I wasn’t really expecting it, but when it happened I just—I took it and I kept it moving.

Len Sipes: A woman coming out of the prison system has got to say to herself, you know, I’ve got to deal with mental health issues, not unusual, substance abuse issues, not unusual. We talked about it before in terms of sexual violence or violence in general in your case. So we have to deal with all that and then we’ve got to figure out how am I going to find work and I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to reunite with my kids and I’ve got to figure out a place to stay and I’ve got to deal with a lot of legal issues. And there’s a certain point where this is just too frickin overwhelming to comprehend.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: And so I run.

Len Sipes: So what?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I run.

Len Sipes: You run. You do run. How many miles a day?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I just run three miles a day only in summer and spring though.

Len Sipes: Just.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Cause I don’t run in the winter time, it’s too cold.

Len Sipes: The video shows you doing pull-ups and everything else. I mean, that’s your—that’s how you deal with it, how do women when they sit down after the first week or two or three and it really—all of this really sets in—how does a woman get up and go.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: And I have to admit to having a strong support system. I think I’ve really been blessed to be living in the District of Columbia, born and raised. And I thought when I came home I was going to relocate cause at the time my daughter was living in Richmond. But they say if you want to get a good laugh tell God your plans because my relocation was denied and my daughter ended up back home in DC and I’m back home in DC and I’ve had a phenomenal support system from Reverend Cooper, the people I met at the Reentry Sanction Center, even Nancy Ware, Cedric, you know, everybody has just always—

Len Sipes: The Director of CSOSA and the Associate Director of CSOSA.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes, supported me in all of my endeavors and Director Thornton, giving me the opportunity to be the Staff Assistant at ORCA.

Len Sipes: The Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizens, yeah.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes. Everything that I have been, you know, my support system and I have to admit, you know, even I have some family members who are there for me, but my support system has been community leaders and that’s been my rock.

Len Sipes: What does that mean to you to have the support of everybody?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: It’s meant everything to me. It’s the reason why I’ve made it, you know. You asked me how do you get up every day, you get up every day cause you know you’ve got people that believe in you, people that call on you and people that expect you to show up. And, you know, being spiritually grounded, being a member of the  [indiscernible] of America and being able to, you know, when I first came home I was so busy trying to get my life in order I might have went to the Temple a handful of times. And since 2014 has come in, you know, I’ve been attending my meetings more regularly and just getting the nourishment that I need to face this daily drama that I’m living.

Len Sipes: So it’s faith in the fact that significant others have come to your rescue and have been your mentors and who have encouraged you to stay on the path.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes.

Len Sipes: Okay. Is that available to every woman coming out of the prison system?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: I’d like to say yes if they’re open to it.

Len Sipes: We do have a faith based reentry program here under the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency and lots of churches, even and Mosques and Synagogues beyond that, participate in program for people coming out of the prison system. So it’s there but I’m not quite sure the average woman coming out of the prison system feels that. I’m not quite sure they share that experience with you, am I wrong?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: There are some—there’s a chance that some women may not be aware of the resources that are available to them and there’s also a chance that some women may not be open to that support. They have to be open to it. You know, I met Our Place DC staff members when they first opened up back in who knows what year it was, 2000 maybe, 2001, 1999, I don’t know. But some of those staff members who are no longer with Our Place.

Len Sipes: It’s a tragedy that Our Place is closed.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Are still in my support system.

Len Sipes: That’s one of the things that bothers me very deeply. Cause not only did I give money to Our Place DC and for people living outside of Washington, DC, Our Place DC was a comprehensive soup to nuts agency that dealt with every conceivable need a woman could have coming out of the prison system legal, being reunited with the kids, healthcare, substance abuse, mental health, sexual violence, it didn’t matter, they took care of it and they’re no longer here. And I don’t want to say that everybody else has picked up their pace, but, you know, there’s a lot of agencies here in the District of Columbia that really do support the reentry processes, are they not?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: There are a lot of agencies. Our agency, obviously, is a District Government agency that’s responsible for men and women returning from incarceration. And I think that we have developed a really—we’re spearheading a really great effort to do more for women returning from incarceration as a result of the void that has been left by Our Place. My director has allowed me and supported me as I have developed The Wire, which is Women Involved in Reentry Effort and that’s a network of women who have successfully reintegrated into the community who have pledged their support to women who are currently incarcerated and women who are returning from incarceration. And we want to be mentors, we want to establish family reunification activities, we want to help raise awareness within the community about the needs of the women returning from incarceration. And we want to work with children who have mothers in prison who are facing the difficult task of just existing, striving, building life skills and things of that nature. So a lot is happening despite the fact that Our Place has closed and I just love the way you put it because, I mean, Michelle Bonner, the Our Place attorney was there with me at my initial hearing. Our Place was the reason why I was able to see my children once a year when I did see them, when they would come up to Danbury, Connecticut or they would come to Hazleton, West Virginia. And like I said the Our Place staff, even those who no longer work for Our Place are still a huge part of my support system. So that organization was just awesome in the support that they provided for women.

Len Sipes: We only have three minutes left. If these programs did not exist, if the faith based mentors, if the offices like yours in terms of all the other volunteer organizations did not exist, if there was no support mechanism at all for women coming out of the prison system, what would happen?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: It would be tragic because recidivism would rise. Children would be further traumatized by the fact that their moms would come home and very likely go back. I mean, not only would it just drain the system itself, but so many women would be hurting and suffering so much without the support services that we have right now.

Len Sipes: When you’re talking through this program, and I always like to use the term Mayor of Milwaukee, I don’t know, it just rolls off the tongue nicely, or the aide to the Governor of Hawaii, when you’re talking to them about women reentry, what must they think about, what must they keep in mind?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: The children. I think that if everybody in America could keep in mind that when women are incarcerated they’re not just incarcerated women, they’re incarcerated mothers. Most of them are the primary caregivers for their children when they become incarcerated. So the children are then abandoned and pretty much left on their own to raise themselves. Even when they have a caregiver it’s not like having your mother, it’s not, you know, I have one young man, his mom is serving 30 years in prison, he hasn’t seen his mom in seven years and he was raised by an uncle who loves him dearly. And he said to me, I asked him how does he feel and he told me he couldn’t name—I gave him a piece of paper with a bunch of feelings on it, I said pick one. He said I feel all of them. I said well just pick—just tell me, pick one or two of them. He said I feel miserable. Fifteen years old. You know, it’s like he feels like his life is over. His life is just beginning. You know, and he’s suffering and paying for what his mom did. So I think that if people remember the children, support the children and support the women when they come home then we can help break that cycle of crime and incarceration.

Len Sipes: So the bottom line if we want to end the crime problem that we have, if we want to deal with the pain, I mean, I’m not making excuses for women being caught up in the criminal justice system –

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Right. Right.

Len Sipes: But there’s real pain, there are real backgrounds in terms of substance abuse, in terms of mental health, in terms of sexual violence and there are real kids associated with these women. If we want to put a stop to all of that and help everybody gain a good footing in life then they have to support reentry programs for women.

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: Yes. You said it.

Len Sipes: That’s the bottom line, is it not?

Lashonia Ethridge-Bey: You said it.

Len Sipes: All right. I’m going to give a long close to the program, ladies and gentlemen. I have just been just really pleased with Lashonia’s performance today and her willingness to be so honest. I really appreciate it Lashonia Etheridge-Bey, Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens, www.orca.dc.gov. Again, the three events, Thursday—Tuesday rather, February 4th, Gender Specific Reentry Conference, One Judiciary Square, 10:00 to 3:00. Saturday, February 8th, Women’s Reentry Forum Lifetime Makeover, Temple of Praise, 700 7th Avenue, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and Thursday, February 27th, Reentry Forum, The Breakdown of the Black Family as a Result of Incarcerated Mothers. All of these will be in the show notes. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]