Looking at returning citizens from a place of dignity and love.
Transitioning from incarceration back into the community is traumatic. According to Dr. Rolanda Spencer, author of the book, Reexamining Reentry, formerly incarcerated persons are returned back into society without critical services to assist in restoring their mental and emotional health so that they can fully participate as whole and healthy community members.
“There’s a critical part of the process that is ignored,” says Dr. Spencer. “There needs to be some type of intervention before they even return home that offers them the support to heal from the trauma of incarceration, and additional support to cope with the trauma of getting treated like a criminal once they come home.”
While many reentry programs focus on male detainees reintegrating back into society, they ignore female returnees, and the highly unusual, and often extremely complicated negotiations they experience. Therefore, the media makers of this project propose a six-month project that will produce a 12-segment podcast around Philadelphia women who are going through the process of re-entry or recently returned.
The podcast, Being Beloved, narrates the experiences of these women through a series of interviews. Included in the interviews will also be women who are involved in re-entry and restorative initiatives as they help guide those in the process of reintegration.
Using our solutions-based journalism, our discussions will focus on how interviewees work to restore and repair themselves as they navigate a critical next chapter in their lives. Additionally, the aim of the project is to provide an honest, but transformative lens in the lives of the women who must work through a complex and challenging reintegration. Of other importance, the significance of the podcast is that it contributes to the dearth of media stories centering re-entry focusing on women, and from an angle of agency and transformation.
A CASE FOR PHILADELPHIA WOMEN
While women who are incarcerated are significantly lower than their male counterparts, studies show a 50 percent faster increase than men from 1984 to 2015 (The Sentencing Project, 2015). From 1978 to 2015 the female population in jails went up by 834 percent (Servon and Esquire, 2022). Most of those who go to jail are mothers, and often the sole or a significant provider for their families. According to a 2017 report by Philadelphia Corrections, incarcerated mothers average 2.4 children.
A September 2022 WHYY news story reported that Philadelphia Corrections announced plans that there would be a reorganization of its women’s populations due to the increase of female inmates. The city is one of 10 major metropolitans that lack the services needed to care for the specific needs of women transitioning back into society. For example, a study by Scroggins and Malley (2010) evidenced that Philadelphia transitional programs often lacked the ability to provide transitional housing and transportation for women who had to return to a geographically expansive urban landscape.
Additionally, those detained also show a range of mental, medical, financial, familial and emotional issues. Philadelphia Corrections also reported in 2017 that 64% of women who were incarcerated had a chronic illness. More problematic, women are usually incarcerated for non-violent offenses that are often “survival crimes” connected to taking care of their families or close ties. However, when women leave detainment, they take with them experiences that root them in severe trauma. In many cases, their history of stress begins before incarceration.
Of other importance, the women return to homes in financial distress, while also grappling with the limited employment options they have as formerly incarcerated persons (Servon and Esquire, 2022).
In Dr. Spencer’s research, she says that the most significant adjustment is dealing with a shift in identity. Not only are you framed differently from the lens of society, but also personal ideation morphs. Consequently, the issues that arise with the stigma of incarceration become more complicated when navigating the daily hurdles of reacclimating back into society. Dr. Spencer emphasizes that women and the community must renegotiate the new ideations around these women as they attempt to do meaningful work they carried out before they were imprisoned.
BEHIND BEING BELOVED
The podcast’s name, Being Beloved, has two meanings. One, it is the quest to be fully embraced and loved back into the community after incarceration. The second meaning is taken from Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved, which explores an enslaved woman who escaped bondage with her children, but was caught. Rather than return back to the brutal chattel system of American slavery, she killed one child and attempted to murder a second. For her actions, she was incarcerated. Though she was never deported back to plantation life, she had to deal with the stigma of her criminal offense when in the community. Her ordeal resulted in profoundly deep mental health issues and severe isolation.
We see many parallels of incarcerated women and the character Beloved in Toni Morrisons’s book. In the case of Philadelphia, a city that has failed a Black community that has contributed to its development, and now has some of the highest levels of urban poverty in the U.S., it also shows a gross racial wealth gap. Therefore, the stories of these women must be told, and we are committed to the process of healing.
While the podcast opens the space to all women, we will intentionally hold space for Black and Latino women, who are the growing population in jails.
Regularly facilitating the interviews will be Dr. Spencer, a sociology and justice studies professor at Xavier University. Joining her will be Dr. Kaia Shivers, a media studies scholar and ethnographer who teaches writing, journalism and food sustainability at New York University. In the series, we interviewed women on location in Philadelphia. Throughout the segments, we will invite local scholars, social workers, activists and newsmakers to assist in the sensitive, yet liberating discussions.
All the podcasts will be audio, while those interviewees who felt comfortable, segments were video-recorded for distribution too. Overall, our goal is to provide a template on how to wrap stories of love and power around the most vulnerable populations. Included, the podcast will be distributed to reentry programs who are interested in sharing it with their community.