Women Offenders-Our Place DC-DC Public Safety

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– Audio Begins –

Len Sipes: From our studios in Downtown DC, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Tara Lihn Leaman, who is the Deputy Director of Our Place DC is by our microphone today. We’re here to talk about part of the request by the way of several listeners, we’re here to talk about not only Our Place DC, which I consider to be one of the best all purpose wraparound places for women offenders in the United States. It is an extremely comprehensive program with a stellar reputation, but also to talk about the status of women offenders throughout the country who are called up in the criminal justice system. And Tara, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Thanks, Len, for having us. And good morning to all of our listeners out there.
Len Sipes: Okay. Our Place DC is the telephone number and I’ll be repeating this throughout the program 202 548 2400; 202 548 2400. The website, www.ourplacedc – one word – ourplace.org. And Tara, one of the reasons why we wanted to have you on the program today was to talk about the status of women offenders, but first our usual commercial that our regular listeners are quite familiar with; ladies and gentlemen, thank you, we continue to go upwards in terms of the amount of requests that we get on a monthly basis. We’re way beyond the 120,000 now, and we really appreciate all of the suggestions, all of the comments that you make and please keep them coming. It is DC Public Safety at media – m-e-d-i-a.csosa.gov. You can get in touch with me via Twitter at lensipes twitter, slash lensipes or my email directly at Leonard.sipes@csosa.gov. And back to our microphone with Tara Lihn Leaman. One of the things that we talked about before the program, Tara was that there really is a difference between male and female offenders, especially when they come out of the prison system. Women offenders have higher rates of substance abuse per U.S. Department of Justice research. The same research, women offenders have higher rates of mental health problems. Women coming out of the prison system are not just on their own. They have, in probably 70 to 80 percent of the cases, children that they are responsible for. So they’re not just reentering for themselves, they’re reentering for their children. And finally the research showed – what was that final point that I was going to make? Completely slipped my mind. So we’ll go ahead and discuss what we have thus far and put it in context of Our Place DC, which I really believe is a wonderful opportunity for offenders coming out of the prison system to get all these wraparound services that you offer. So we’ll start off with what is My Place DC? I’m sorry, Our Place DC.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Thank you. Well, Our Place DC is the only community based support and resource center for formerly and currently incarcerated women from the District of Columbia. The mission of Our Place is to support women who are or have been in the criminal justice system by providing the resources they need to maintain connections with the community, resettle after incarceration and reconcile with their families. We help women remain drug and alcohol free, obtain decent housing and jobs, gain access to education, secure resources for their children and maintain physical and emotional health in an effort to lead women and families to self sufficiency.
Len Sipes: And the bottom line behind all of that is that all of the issues that we talk about for reentry, people coming out of the prison system, whether it be mental health, whether it be substance abuse, whether it be finding a place to live, whether it’s being reunited with her children, with talk about being in a safe place, all of that happens at Our Place DC, right?
Tara Lihn Leaman: It absolutely does happen and since 1999 we have served over 5,000 women needing those services. First and foremost the employment and housing services are often the biggest hurdles to women and families that we serve, must leap over coming out. So we have a substantial employment program that includes employment counseling, employment assessment, employment follow up and also, of course, employment job placement.
Len Sipes: And the women that I’ve talked to from your center that I’ve encountered throughout the years, one of the things that I hear consistently from them is that they, at Our Place DC, they feel safe. They feel safe, they feel embraced, maybe for the first time in their lives. And people listening to this program, if you’re not familiar with reentry, everybody needs to understand that we ordinarily send a former offender to over here for job placement and we send them over there for mental health treatment and we send them over there in terms of housing. So the person has got to be traveling from place to place to place. You have a comprehensive wraparound service.
Tara Lihn Leaman: We do, Len. And it really begins at our nerve center, which is our drop in center. And the drop in center is safe, it’s drug free and it’s a nurturing place. When I say safe, because most of the women that we serve are also survivors of domestic violence, it’s a women only safe space.
Len Sipes: It’s a sexual – and that’s the issue that I forgot when I was doing my introduction, the majority of women, again, per U.S. Department of Justice research, has basically stated that they were sexually abused in their younger years. Or they’ve been sexually abused at some point throughout their lives. Now, think about that. A lot of the women that I’ve encountered in my 40 years within the criminal justice system, they’re pretty hard. They’re drug addicted. They’re struggling with mental health issues. They’ve been on the street doing a lot of crazy things. And that’s something else I want to talk about because some of the women I encounter are not a danger to society at all. They got caught up in drug transportation at the “request of a significant male figure”. But we’ll talk about that a little bit later. And the point is that hard edge that comes with many of them, I think the basis for that is sexual violence at a young age. So they don’t trust anybody. They don’t trust – Lord knows that they don’t trust the system. But they trust Our Place DC.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, some of the women have absolutely been survivors of domestic violence. And I would go to say that the majority of the women at some point in their lives have been abused quite often by someone that they trusted. And so absolutely the women know about Our Place and we are fortunate to have wonderful relationships with folks actually working inside the prisons. So we go to the prisons and we do pre-release workshops, both at the prisons where there are the highest number of DC women.
Len Sipes: Right. And they’re involved in federal prisons through the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So for those listening outside of the District of Columbia, there is no District of Columbia prison that was closed down. It’s now, as of 2000, the responsibility for incarcerated DC offenders is now the purview of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Right, Len. And you touched upon a really good word which is trust. And because we have these positive relationships with folks working within corrections and we’re able to go in and actually start building bonds of trust with the women that we serve while they’re still in prison. So we hold prerelease workshops, usually there’s a couple of days that we spend, the staff, our program staff go in and do, we have a prerelease packet that we share information, women coming out – what they need to know in terms of housing, in terms of HIV services, in terms of, you know, the drop in services, that could be something as simple as getting an ID or getting police clearance. And so we’re able to start building those bonds of trust with the women on the inside so when they, upon release, they come to Our Place and we already have a good deal of information about what their needs are, what their concerns are and we’re able to address that then and there.
Len Sipes: Now I’m going to go out on a limb here because you and I before the show we were talking and I’ll get emails saying, you know, Leonard, you left leaning liberal you, in terms of talking about the issues dealing with female offenders or with male offenders in general. And I’ve always said, and I’m looking at my watch now and it is 25 of 12. I keep saying, all I’m doing is saying it’s 25 of 12. I’m not leaning right, I’m not leaning left. I’m simply stating what is in terms of the statistics. And they’re good, solid U.S. Department of Justice research in terms of the status of women offenders. But the other thing is that they do better under treatment than males. One of the correlates, or one of the predictors of doing well is being a female offender, not a male offender. I remember when I taught a Job Corps class that the bulk of my really good students were women. Were women, people called women, women offenders caught up in the criminal justice system. You know, women seem to be more willing to cross the bridge to a drug induced lifestyle, a criminal lifestyle, they seem more willing to cross the bridge than male offenders. And that just seems, I’m going by the research, is that right or wrong?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, it depends. And the reason why it depends is that most of the women that we serve have been charged with non violent drug offenses, that’s correct. And the majority of women are mothers. And so it’s really important for us in our services, which the woman lead and carve for us, to be very mindful of gender specific approach to our services. And so by that I man, for example, if a woman that we’re serving is a mother then ,
Len Sipes: And most are.
Tara Lihn Leaman: And most are, I would say over 80 percent are, grandmothers as well.
Len Sipes: Right.
Tara Lihn Leaman: When we’re looking at, for example, legal services, we’re going to more than likely be dealing with family law issues. Whether it’s child custody, it could even be divorce, that’s something that we are, that we are addressing within a gender specific frame. In terms of employment, our employment services, we want to place women who are often mothers at placements where they offer living wage and also benefits.
Len Sipes: Sure.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Health benefits for their children, flexible hours, because if you are a mother you often are going to be the primary caretaker of the kids. So we really want to ensure that the woman’s’ experience, quite frankly dictates the services that we’re able to provide. And we always want to provide services that any one of us on staff would also use. There is not a distinction in our services.
Len Sipes: Now, let’s get down to what I consider the chip on their shoulder the size of Montana, that’s how I describe so many male offenders. And there’s a lot of female offenders that fit that description as well, they don’t trust life. The overwhelmingly majority of, let’s say male and female offenders together, they grow up in households that were dysfunctional. They’ve been, a lot of them have been raising themselves from a very young age and a lot of them, they were very early age of entrance to drug use, alcohol use, very early entry to a lifestyle of crime or being involved in criminal activity. And if you raise yourself and if you associate with your peers who have also raised themselves, you come out of it with this joint sense of it’s me against the world. And so many of the women offenders that I’ve talked to over the course of time they also had this sense of, you know, I don’t trust you Mr. Government Man. And that’s fine. I understand that. How do you break through all that?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, before we break through it, we are always mindful that we are, we have all made poor choices in life. There’s no a person that I’ve met, and I include myself there, that has not made a poor choice. Often the difference lies in the types of support systems we have in place. For example, I was fortunate enough to have a cushion. I was fortunate enough to have someone say, that just ain’t right, you don’t do that.
Len Sipes: Right.
Tara Lihn Leaman: And so when you look at the choices, what we try to model is yes, we’ve all made poor choices, some of us were dealt a worse hand than others, and we want to always be accountable for our behaviors. And mindful of the need to make healthier choices. And that’s what Our Place is about. It’s not – we don’t care where you have been prior to walking through our door. The fact that you made a choice to walk through that door is the first step out of many to making better choices.
Len Sipes: But my question remains, how – I understand all that, and everything you’ve just said is extremely logical. But that doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of taking an individual male or female, who feels that life has not been kind to them and that they survive by this extraordinarily harsh exterior. Breaking through that extraordinarily harsh exterior involves what?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, breaking through that harsh exterior of which most of the women that we serve have that harsh exterior, begins by creating trust.
Len Sipes: Right.
Tara Lihn Leaman: It’s by treating someone that you may, on its face, feel like you have nothing in common with. But after sitting down and talking to them, you actually realize there is more things you have in common than not. And so that’s the trust.
Len Sipes: And that takes how long to break through?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, we have worked with women since the beginning of Our Place, since 1999, who have been serving extended sentences. We accept collect phone calls so we can still have a relationship with a woman who has a sentence of 20 plus years. When the women come, because we’re doing prerelease workshops inside the prison, when the women come out, they know about us. Their bunkee has told them about Our Place.
Len Sipes: There you go.
Tara Lihn Leaman: And so it’s all about those trusts, those bonds of trusts that we work so hard to create while the woman is still on the inside.
Len Sipes: Because you know she’s sitting there for the first week, the second week, the first month, second month saying, all right, but sooner or later some, they’re going to do something. Sooner or later they’re going to do something that’s going to violate my trust. I know that. Nobody, I can’t trust anybody.
Tara Lihn Leaman: That’s , I’m laughing as you’re saying that, Len, because there is this wonderful sister that we met at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia. And we were giving a prerelease workshop there and there were about 75 women who came to our workshop, DC women, and , this one woman got up in the middle of our presentation and was basically, c’mon, Tara, you guys ain’t for real ,
Len Sipes: That’s right.
Tara Lihn Leaman: , I mean, what’s really going on here?
Len Sipes: What is your game?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Exactly. What is our game? What are you not telling us that as soon as I walk into Our Place you’re going to be like, no, we can’t help you. And I said, when you come into Our Place you ask for me. I’m telling you we are going to do to the best of our abilities help you legal, HIV services, we have transitional housing. We have a sixty day transitional home. Healthcare, employment, our scholarship program, our family transportation program, our children services. We, there is no game. And I’m happy to say that once this young woman got released, she came to Our Place, she came our employment, she came to Our Place, she got her police clearance that she needed, her form of official ID that she needed, a voucher, a transportation voucher. And we helped her get her resume together. And she is currently enrolled in a job training program.
Len Sipes: Mmm. I’ve talked to one woman who basically said that Our Place DC is her home.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, we like to think that ,
Len Sipes: It’s their emotional home. They’re in an apartment now. They’re working. They’re reunited with their kids, but Our Place DC, and the people in Our Place DC are her real home, not her second home. It’s her real home because it is the only place, according to her, that she felt safe and comfortable.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Well, that’s really wonderful to hear. And that’s why we exist. And that’s just certainly a tribute to our staff. But I have to tell you, Len, unfortunately not every story is a success story for us.
Len Sipes: Of course not, it can’t be.
Tara Lihn Leaman: And what we do say is we understand that relapse is a part of recovery. We understand that. And as long as you are sober, you are welcome at Our Place. So it doesn’t matter if for some reason you have been re-incarcerated or if years have gone by and you haven’t come to Our Place, you’re always welcome.
Len Sipes: Tara Lihn Leaman, the Deputy Director of Our Place DC, I’m going to give the telephone numbers now and at the end of the program; 202 548 2400, 202 548, 2400. The website is www.ourplacedc – one word dot org. www.ourplacedc.org. I want to continue, Tara, for the second half of the program the – we talk about all of the isms in terms of women offenders. In terms of the research saying that they do have higher rates of substance abuse. They have higher rates of mental health problems. They bring the uniqueness of having other human beings to deal with and be responsible for when they come out of the prison system. And we talk quite frankly and openly about the fact of sexual violence being directed towards so many of these individuals. Now let’s shift gears a little bit. I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for 14 years as their Director of Public Information. And I remember we were talking about the women’s prison in Jessup. And somebody said, you know what? Here’s my opinion, that a third, up to 30 percent of these women, possibly more, could be safely released from the prison system today, as long as they had continuing services; mental health services, employment services, or even GPS monitoring or whatever it is from the safety, a public safety point of view, that if they have the right services they could be released today, it would save the taxpayers of the State of Maryland an enormous amount of money. Women offenders would get the assistance that was necessary for them to make that transition. And it would be a huge win/win for everybody, but politically we can’t do that. But they said that these women were not a danger to society. That these women that they are talking about were acting on the request of a male figure who requested “that they carry a substantial amount of drugs from point A to point B” when they came into Maryland and they were found out and they were arrested for transporting a truckload of God knows what, some illegal drug. So the woman ends up in prison for a long period of time but she is not a danger to society. She was basically told by this male figure, take this from one point in the State of Maryland to another, or take it from Georgia to New York or I’m going to hurt you bad. Now, again, I’m not making excuses for these individuals. I’m not. But that’s true. That happens a lot which, and so many people, so many of the women caught up in the criminal justice system fit that description. They’re not a danger to public safety. They were basically almost a victim, if you will, of this person who said do or I’m going to hurt you.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Absolutely. I mean, and you basically summarized the Kimber Wood story which who I believe President Clinton pardoned several years ago, but yes, some of our women were in that same situation where they were given a choice, you either do this by someone that they thought they loved or something harmful would happen to you. And what their situations have informed us is our need to really examine what a healthy relationship looks like. When we get caught up in that situation do we know what a healthy relationship looks like?
Len Sipes: People who have been abused a lot of times end up with abusive people.
Tara Lihn Leaman: There is a definite cycle, absolutely. And there’s lots of studies that confirm that. Mm-hmm.
Len Sipes: Right. So they end up with this abusive person out of some sense of love. And this person understands that he is just manipulating the individual and sends her out to do his bidding. Generally speaking not a violent crime, generally speaking transporting drugs.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Right.
Len Sipes: Or hiding a gun.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Non violent drug offenses. Absolutely. And I also want to make sure for our listeners that these types of relationships involving domestic violence abuse are not just heterosexual in nature. We also work with women who are in same sex relationships that also have been survivors of domestic violence. More than likely wouldn’t do the same things that we’re talking about. Do this or else.
Len Sipes: Right. Right. So it is , there’s a certain point where it just paints a sad picture. And, again, I’m totally, for the people who are going to write in and say that I’m leaning too far left, I understand that you do the crime, you do the time. I understand people need to take responsibility for their own decisions and I support that. And I believe that people should, under certain circumstances, serve long and harsh terms of incarceration. But nevertheless, you know, in the State of Maryland, we said we could let a third of the people in the Maryland prison system for women out tomorrow as long as they have the right services, they would probably not present a public safety issue. Now, it’s inevitable that one or two or three or ten or twelve or a dozen are going to go out and get right back involved in the lifestyle, I mean, that comes with the territory when you make those sorts of decisions. There’s nothing bulletproof, foolproof about dealing with offenders, former offenders, and taking risks. But nevertheless that was our assumption.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Absolutely. And DC being Maryland’s sister jurisdiction right now the council, I think, council member Phil Mendelson, who is the chairman of the Judicial system of the Public Safety Committee, they are entertaining an idea of releasing some folks earlier that have participated in programs preparing for their release.
Len Sipes: Right.
Tara Lihn Leaman: But let me just get back also to the numbers, because you mentioned the numbers, recently the peer center on states talked about how in New York, I believe that one dollar of every 15 dollars is spent on correction. In New York $40,000 dollars a year is spent on corrections, $15,000 dollars a year is spent on treatment. So in this environment of the so called scarcity of resources, where folks are being incarcerated instead of getting treatment, even the numbers favor getting treatment.
Len Sipes: Well, right. What they’re saying is that if we invest enough money, the research teams should be pretty clear on this from a cost effective point of view, and we have the PEW(?) foundation to thank for this and Adam Gelb’s organization as well as the Washington State’s Public Policy Institute where they’ve been able to prove, conclusively, that these programs save taxpayers an enormous amount of money. And probably do a better job of dealing with public safety than simply incarcerating them without services, right?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Absolutely. And I was reading an article, Gene(?) Healy, who is one of the Vice Presidents of all places, the Kato Institute in the Washington Examiner yesterday talking about how he thinks reforming the drug policy, particularly as it relates to decriminalizing certain substances, makes a lot of sense.
Len Sipes: And Kato, by the way, is a conservative think tank.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Exactly. So getting back, this is not a left or right issue. It is reality.
Len Sipes: Well, I get the newspapers clippings every day throughout the country. And the states can not afford to do what it is they’re doing. And they’re looking for a “better way” which is one of the reasons why PEW is involved in the business and the sentencing projects are involved in the business. But there is, the states are basically saying we can no longer afford to do this level of incarceration. We’ve got to look for alternatives. And again it’s not a political philosophy, it’s the state’s basically saying we can not afford to do this. And just in case the listeners don’t know, and the listeners throughout the world, I don’t know if they’re going to have a frame of reference here, but for the first time in my 40 years we’re laying off police officers, we’re laying off correctional officers, we’re closing prisons and we’re laying off parole and probation agents because the states simply can’t afford to keep these people on. So we have a fiscal crisis at the state level. The states are trying to cope with this by making better decisions in terms of how they manage their offender population and that’s why I brought up the Maryland situation of years ago, but we simply said, ah, we let 30 percent of the women offenders go and if a couple of them go out and do something wrong it’s our heads on the chopping block, why take that risk?
Tara Lihn Leaman: Right. And not only are those cuts being made at that level, but then you also have cuts being made in terms of the services being offered to women and men who have spent time in prison or are currently incarcerated in terms of employment services that are being cut as well. So it begs the question, what does rehabilitation look like?
Len Sipes: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I wanted you on the program today, because Our Place DC is probably the only entity that I’m aware of. I’m quite sure there are more out there, that even for male or female offenders, it is a complete wraparound service. You walk through that door, you know, you get all the services you need. Not necessarily at that physical location, but it’s all right there. I mean that doesn’t even happen here. To my knowledge it doesn’t happen anywhere but Our Place DC does that and there are so many hardened women with considerable criminal backgrounds that I talked to that are now taking care of their three kids and they’re now tax burdens, I mean, now a taxpayer, not a tax burden, and those three kids are now being loved and taken care of by their mother. Now that is a huge win/win for our society at large.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve worked with several mothers to help them regain custody of their kids that they were obviously not with while they were incarcerated. So the services that one can get at Our Place include, but are not limited to the following: the drop in center, as I mentioned earlier, we have clothes. Clothes for women that again, anyone on staff would wear. We’re not going to give you something that we wouldn’t wear.
Len Sipes: Right.
Tara Lihn Leaman: ID, birth certificates, police clearance, tokens. We also have a phone, fax and computer for women who would like to set up an email account, check email. Our HIV/AIDS services includes onsite counseling, testing and referral.
Len Sipes: Which is a real problem over here in the District.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Absolutely.
Len Sipes: And throughout the country.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Absolutely. You know, probably a lot of folks have seen some of the abysmal statistics coming out of DC regarding HIV/AIDS, AIDS and the fact and the reality is that African American women primarily through heterosexual sex are ,
Len Sipes: Are catching HIV.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Exactly. At an extraordinarily high rate. We also have housing. I mentioned our transitional housing program we have, speaking of HIV/AIDS, three beds are reserved for women who are HIV positive, one bed is not. It’s a sixty day transitional housing program. We also offer housing case management. Our health care, we provide mental health services and substance abuse treatment through our consultants that we have on staff. Licensed nurses on staff. Legal services, direct representation, community based legal education groups and also not just a direct services, but also the advocacy part. For example, we are the only organization that is tracking and monitoring the conditions of release of DC women from the correctional treatment facility. Employment, as I mentioned before, career planning, placement assistance, training and education ,
Len Sipes: That’s an amazing list.
Tara Lihn Leaman: , scholarship program. We have a scholarship program for kids whose mothers are currently incarcerated or have been formerly incarcerated.
Len Sipes: But all this is on the website, right?
Tara Lihn Leaman: All this is on the website, exactly.
Len Sipes: We have to close the program.
Tara Lihn Leaman: Okay.
Len Sipes: We’re running late on the program. Tara Lihn Leaman, she is the Deputy Director of Our Place DC, 202 548 2400. These numbers and contact points will be in the show notes; 202 548 2400. The website, www.ourplacedc one word, if you will dot org. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We are extremely appreciative of all the feedback that you’re giving us and all the suggestions for the show. We got three suggestions for the show for women offenders and that’s why we’re sitting here with Tara Lihn Leaman. You all have yourselves a very pleasant day.

– Audio Ends –

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