Rebecca Morgan is a human resources associate at Televerde, a marketing company in Phoenix that has a partnership with the Arizona prison system. She is also a convicted felon, but no one would guess that after having a conversation with her.
“People hear ‘prison’ and they just think of what they saw in the movies,” Morgan said.
Arizona’s female prison population has increased by 60 percent in the last 10 years, according to a report by the Women’s Prison Association.
Marie Sullivan, the President and CEO of Arizona Women’s Education and Employment, Inc., said this increase can be partly attributed to a higher rate of prosecution for drug-related crimes, which usually have a mandatory prison sentencing.
Whether or not the crime is drug related, women who are reentering society after prison face different challenges than men do.
Men can usually find jobs in construction or other labor-intense areas of employment, Morgan said. These jobs pay well but are not an option for women.
Sullivan said over time, employers have become stricter about hiring people with a felony conviction. Arizona Women’s Education and Employment, Inc. offers assistance with the job searching process, which has been made even more difficult by the economic recession.
“Women get very easily discouraged,” Sullivan said. “Rebuilding the self-esteem is critical.”
Morgan said many employers might not be aware that they receive a tax benefit for hiring people with a felony conviction. She added that women in transition after prison can be ideal employees because they are in such need of work.
“They’re really going to value that job,” Morgan said.
Securing a job is not the only challenge women face with re-entry into society. Shawn Lamb, TOPS Manager at Televerde, said women often experience sensory overload after living such a structured life in prison.
“There are cars moving, people moving, there’s color. Even the TV is sensory overload,” Lamb said, adding that women in transition often have trouble making everyday decisions since they had minimal options in prison.
Morgan said her biggest challenge was the “reality check” of having responsibilities again, such as keeping a job and paying the bills.
Sullivan said women also suffer from tremendous guilt, particularly if they have a family.
“They are guilty they turned their back on their kids and were not around to see them grow,” Sullivan said.
Lamb said being reunited with children can be overwhelming for women, especially on top of the stress of finding a job and sometimes even a place to live.
“It’s a ripple effect of things that will happen,” Lamb said.
In the three years she spent incarcerated, Morgan said she was able to see her daughter every weekend.
“I was very lucky because I had a lot of family support,” Morgan said. But each situation is different. “I’ve heard some real horror stories,” Morgan said.
Sullivan said that Arizona Women’s Education and Employment, Inc. also provides assistance with the family unification process. In addition to teaching parenting skills, AWEE plans parent-child events such as picnics and holiday parties. These occasions give parents the chance to demonstrate that they can support their children, Sullivan said.
Another important part of the reentry process is interaction between women with similar experiences.
“I can’t stress this mentoring stuff enough,” Sullivan said, adding that AWEE has found women to be much more successful when they work together.
AWEE is one of the largest programs in Arizona that offers resources to the increasing number of women reentering society after prison.
“This is becoming a big challenge for the community,” Sullivan said. “It can be a long term problem if we don’t deal with it.”