Karen Shain, our Criminal Justice Program Officer, was invited to keynote the Solano County Women's Re-Entry Achievement Program (WRAP) graduation. Below is the transcript of her speech.
Congratulations! This is a huge achievement! Going through any kind of program and coming out the other end is always an achievement.
Starting a program while you are in jail and following all the rules and regulations of the jail system in addition to attending the programs, working, getting housing, reunifying with your family — this makes you all achievers and I hope you are all so proud of yourselves. I am in awe of each and every one of you.
The burden of poverty
I come to you from the Women’s Foundation of California. We are a statewide foundation that is dedicated to achieving economic security for California’s most vulnerable women and families. California has a huge poverty rate. We also have the highest incarceration rate in the country. We know that these two facts are not disconnected, that high poverty inevitably leads to increased incarceration.
Before I was at the Foundation, I worked at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC). In fact, it was through my work with LSPC that I had the privilege of visiting with women at Solano County Jail who were part of WRAP and I had the opportunity to speak at an event that you held during the Christmas holiday season one year.
The past is behind you
I am a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, a worker, a partner, an advocate. These are things that I do that I am proud of. I’ve been known to tell a lie now and again, but I am not a liar. I refuse to be defined by the things I’ve done that I am not proud of, and I strongly urge you to do the same.
No one wants to be remembered or identified by the worst things we did or the worst things that ever happened to us. We all want to be identified by our strengths and our dreams.
I say this because if I have one word of advice for you this afternoon, it is that you insist that you not be called out of your names. You are not offenders, former offenders, repeat offenders or even former prisoners. You are women who are returning to your community with real skills and real understandings and real needs and dreams. You are returning residents and it is our job to welcome you back home.
Define your own future
You need housing, jobs, childcare, access to education, mental health and substance abuse services. Ironically, those are exactly the things that are hardest to come by during this difficult economic time. Services that you need, that will help you to succeed, have been drastically cut over the past five years. And even though the economy appears to be improving, even though our state is experiencing the first economic surpluses that we’ve seen in many years, those services that would most help you are not being restored.
It is a sad state of affairs when the only way you can get drug treatment in many of California’s counties is to get arrested and access those services while you are in jail. It is sad that many our our jails and prisons have become the largest mental health facilities in our state.
And so I leave you with this . . . congratulations, keep strong, work hard, give back, kiss your babies — and don’t let anyone define you by your past!