Late last spring, after the state’s fiscal crisis resulted in the elimination of the full-time position of Coordinator of the Women’s Mentoring Program for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, conversations began between the RIDOC and its community partners about how best to keep the reentry-focused program going. “The Family Life Center was a natural choice to run a Women’s Support Group and use the present mentoring group as its core,” notes Assistant Director of Rehabilitative Services Roberta Richman.
About 50 people attended an annual July cookout open to all formerly incarcerated women and interested women in the community. Since then, the Center’s Intake Specialist, Jocelyn Hernandez, has coordinated a Women’s Support Group which meets at the FLC’s Broad Street headquarters on the third Tuesday of the month from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. Many of the mentors and mentees attend, but it is no longer a mentoring program, and no new matches are being made. The purpose of the group is to establish a forum for formerly incarcerated women and other committed women from the community to meet in the context of a safe, supportive environment where concerns can be discussed and encouragement provided. A theme-oriented group discussion is followed by a communal supper and open discussion. Life skills training, advocacy, and recreational activities are also planned as opportunities arise.
Last month, participants discussed the importance of registering to vote, and the difference between the candidates in the upcoming election. “I let them choose the topics,” notes Jocelyn. “That way they’re more engaged and feel like it’s their group.” One upcoming guest speaker with be the Rev. Janice Thompson, ACI chaplain and pastor and president of River of Life Ministries, a service provider for ex-offenders. Rev. Thompson will speak about housing opportunities available through the ministry for formerly incarcerated women with children. In November, the group will hold a potluck Thanksgiving meal at an off-site location.
“It’s structured without being rigid,” notes Brother Everett Muhammad, who runs a similar program for men at the FLC on the last Friday of the month from 6 – 8 p.m. “We’re looking for natural relationships to form, not necessarily a strict mentor/mentee situation.” He’s found that sitting around the table as a group works a lot better than the previous one-on-one model.
Assistant Director Richman says, “I see this as a direct spin-off of our efforts to transfer long-term support for ex-offenders to communities.” She goes on, “This is a great model for how the community can contribute to prisoner reentry efforts, and the Family Life Center is a wonderful example for agencies and community partners.”
“There was genuine concern among women who had been part of the Women’s Mentoring Program over the years when the coordinator’s position was eliminated,” notes Corrections Director A.T. Wall II. “We too were concerned about seeing the program and the great work put into it by Judy Fox move forward, but we knew we no longer had the resources to commit to a full-time paid position devoted solely to its operation. We held meetings with the mentors, RIDOC staff, and our partners to come up with best solutions, and we are pleased to see the Family Life Center taking on this important work and keeping the connections alive and growing. This is as critical to our prisoner reentry efforts now as it always has been.”
Women who are currently in prison learn about the program through the inmate newsletter, their counselors, discharge planners, and through word of mouth. “It’s one more avenue of support we encourage them to take advantage of when they leave,” notes Assistant Director Richman, “hoping that the relationships and connections it fosters will help women succeed when they return to their communities so they remain on the right path and out of prison.”
Members of the community who are interested in learning more about the Women’s Support Group are encouraged to call Jocelyn Hernandez at (401) 781-5808, ext. 100, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the Men’s Support Group, call Brother Everett Muhammad at (401) 781-5808, ext. 112.