Ex-of­fend­ers get new look for new chance

Pro­gram aims to help women re­leased from prison re­build their lives

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY LYNH BUI lynh.bui@wash­post.com

It was tempt­ing for the women who came out to the Tem­ple of Praise church in South­east on Satur­day to fo­cus on the clothes, the shoes, the ta­ble full of makeup with a rain­bow of blush and eye shadow laid out be­fore them.

But for many of the women, the real gift — the re­build­ing of their lives af­ter serv­ing in prison — started months or even years ago. And it started from the in­side, be­fore they at­tended this week­end’s con­fer­ence de­signed for fe­male of­fend­ers reen­ter­ing so­ci­ety.

Lav­erne New­man got a dash of mas­cara added to her lashes Satur­day morn­ing af­ter pick­ing out a do­nated tan pantsuit to take home. The makeover would serve as a good “ego booster.” But New­man, 54, said she went to the con­fer­ence be­cause she wanted to be­come more in­de­pen­dent af­ter spend­ing 13 months in prison on drug pos­ses­sion charges.

“Women like me, some­times we go through a lot of things as chil­dren, like abuse,” said New­man, who started drink­ing when she was 6, af­ter she was mo­lested. “It leads us down the wrong path be­cause it’s a way of numb­ing our feel­ings, but we’re not bad peo­ple.”

New­man and about 400 women got new suits for fu­ture job in­ter­views, ca­reer tips, re­la­tion­ship ad­vice and other so­cial ser­vices at the “Life­time Makeover” reen­try sym­po­sium hosted by the Court Ser­vices and Of­fender Su­per­vi­sion Agency for the District of Columbia. The fed­eral agency over­sees adults on pro­ba­tion, pa­role and su­per­vised re­lease in the District.

This week­end’s con­fer­ence is one piece of the agency’s strat­egy to de­crease re­cidi­vism among fe­male of­fend­ers.

Agency Di­rec­tor Nancy Ware said they be­gan to fo­cus on fe­male of­fend­ers about a year ago be­cause they have many unique needs and ex­pe­ri­ences com­pared with male of­fend­ers. Fe­male of­fend­ers are more likely to have suf­fered from phys­i­cal abuse, iso­la­tion and low self-es­teem, she said. Th­ese chal­lenges haunt them as they em­bark on ev­ery­thing from start­ing new re­la­tion­ships to job hunt­ing.

“They don’t feel like they have any­thing to of­fer,” Ware said. “We want them to have a bet­ter success story to tell.”

At any given time, the agency over­sees about 16,000 of­fend­ers. Of those, about 1,200 are women.

Much of the con­fer­ence fo­cused on build­ing healthy re­la­tion­ships.

Ber­nadette Davis, 55, said she “med­i­cated” her feel­ings for 10 to 15 years to cope with a vi­o­lent re­la­tion­ship.

“All my self-worth was drained from me,” said Davis, who was ar­rested on drug pos­ses­sion charges.

Call­ing her­self a “func­tional ad­dict,” Davis said she held down a job as a le­gal sec­re­tary while abus­ing sub­stances on the week­ends to deal with de­pres­sion. But get­ting ar­rested was a “wake-up call.”

Davis said she learned to re­build her self-es­teem and tell her­self she was “wor­thy and an im­por­tant cit­i­zen in so­ci­ety.”

But “I had to sur­ren­der to get my life back,” Davis said.

Davis’s mes­sage of em­pow­er­ment has just started to click for Aishia Smith, 32.

Smith changed from jeans and a black sweater into a co­ral busi­ness suit with a skirt and blazer Satur­day, show­ing off her trans­for­ma­tion along with oth­ers at the con­fer­ence.

“I feel like a busi­ness lady,” Smith said af­ter don­ning her new out­fit. “I’m a so­phis­ti­cated woman.”

Smith, who started drink­ing and abus­ing drugs when she was 8, said she went to the con­fer­ence to re­con­nect with so­ci­ety and to be­come a “young lady.” Smith just started work­ing at DC Cen­tral Kitchen and dreams of be­ing a chef.

“I have a lot in me I was hold­ing back,” said Smith who was re­leased from prison last April. “I needed help deal­ing with what’s go­ing on on the in­side.”

PHO­TOS BY MARK GAIL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

ABOVE: Aishia Smith has lip­stick ap­plied at the “Life­time Makeover” reen­try sym­po­sium hosted by the Court Ser­vices and Of­fender Su­per­vi­sion Agency for the District of Columbia at the Tem­ple of Praise church. LEFT: Lav­erne New­man, left, and Smith model the out­fits that they would wear in the fash­ion makeover por­tion of the sym­po­sium. The con­fer­ence is one piece of the agency’s strat­egy to de­crease re­cidi­vism among fe­male of­fend­ers. About 400 women got new suits for fu­ture job in­ter­views, ca­reer tips, re­la­tion­ship ad­vice and other so­cial ser­vices.

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