A small house in Crystal buzzed with activity. I could not believe the number of people who came to my newly purchased home to clean ceilings, paint walls, and fill the home with love and care for its future residents. From the day I started working a professional job in 2017, I had been saving to purchase a home — not for myself, but for women, like me, who would be transitioning from the justice system and working to recreate their lives.
My story is like many Black youth in America. I was raised by a single mother working to make ends meet as a teacher in Mississippi. We struggled to escape the impact of poverty and systemic racism. In my adolescent years, we moved to Minnesota. My mother suffers from diabetes and needed medical attention from Mayo Clinic related to a foot amputation.
I was angry about the move, nervous about my mother’s health, far away from extended family, and surrounded by less than supportive influences. At age 15, I was involved in a physical altercation at school that led to three felony charges. I was tried as an adult and placed on Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction, with a sentence of 86 months. The court ordered me to complete a year-long rehabilitation program in Texas. Eventually I was sent to a transitional home for girls in southern Minnesota. I felt like my life was over before it had even begun.
During my time on probation, navigating the criminal justice system, there were times I knew how lucky I was compared to others. I had an amazing probation officer who wanted me to be successful. She helped bring the right people into my life who I could trust when the challenges of living with a criminal record were the most difficult.
In Texas, I learned about responsibility and remorse in a structured juvenile justice environment. We had daily group sessions, reflected on our crimes and ways we could have avoided our situations, and explored what we were feeling at the time we committed our crimes. I learned how to take control of my emotions.
My time at the transitional all-girls group home helped me gain life skills and find a felony-friendly job and housing, but my time there was not a great experience. As the only Black girl at the home the majority of the time, I experienced isolation, discrimination, and racism, including in the wider community.
People who ran the home also did not know what it was like to have hair and skin like mine. My hair is kinky curly, so that requires certain shampoos and conditioners that were not provided. At school, people were afraid to get to know me.
After I was convicted, many people shut me out. I needed people around me who would get to know me as an individual — get to know my true heart and who I am. Crime does not make you the person you are. Thankfully, supportive people did not see me as my criminal history but genuinely cared for me.
It was that experience that made me decide that someday I would operate a transition home where women of color feel safe and valued, and where everyone is treated equally.
Ten years later, with a college degree in human services, business administration, and project management; an expunged record; and a job at a Fortune 500 company, I was able to purchase the home and make that dream a reality.
Black Butterfly is the name of my transitional home. It offers structure that I learned in Texas, like curfews, sobriety, and being accountable. We have spiritual mentors who volunteer to help the ladies stay on track. We welcome women who are in the criminal justice system and are in substance use recovery. We value relationships with community partners, mentors, churches, treatment centers, Department of Corrections staff, and volunteers. Weekly meetings are used for bonding time and creating a loving environment.
We discourage the “poor me as victim” mentality, and talk about accepting responsibility for our behaviors.
We also aim to lead by example. If you are open and honest and transparent about your life, others will be transparent too. We have deep, real conversations at Black Butterfly. We say “I love you” regularly. Some people do not have a good family dynamic, and can feel lost and alone. I have learned that when someone shows that they care, it can move mountains.
We opened our doors in April 2021. We have housed about ten women since then at various times. To live here, women have to be sober and want to become self-sufficient. They pay a room fee, which requires them to work and pay bills, but it is not market rate — you can still save and live comfortably. Women can live here up to 18 months while in transition.
I am new to this work, but people know I am serious. I bought the house and decorated it with my own money. We do not receive government funding. When I started, I did not know how I was going to do it, or if anyone would help. After I started working on it, volunteers came from all over to help me get it ready. We pulled up the carpet, did the floors, and gutted the bathrooms.
In January 2022, the organization became a 501c3 to enable more people and foundations to support the mission. A board of directors helped me select a house manager. We have had tough cases and work together as a team. Our goal is for people who live here to not relapse, and to have the tools and resources they need to transition successfully into the community.
I wish more people would be involved with this work and understand that people who commit crimes need help. We are not monsters. It takes a village, especially for those who grow up in poverty. We can all fly.
From Prison Policy Initiative: “The key role of reentry programs and services in the success of people released from prisons and jails cannot be overstated. People returning to their communities from even relatively short periods of incarceration often have acute needs related to health, employment, housing, education, family reunification, and social supports — not to mention challenges obtaining essential documents like birth certificates, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses or other identification. The service gaps between these predictable needs and the resources available to people in the critical time period following release contributes directly to both early deaths and the cycle of re-incarceration (“recidivism”) for far too many people.
“In 2019, we wrote about the extreme gap between needed and available reentry services for women, who report a higher need for services than men, but who are frequently overlooked in reentry programs targeted at the much larger population of incarcerated men.”
There are about 900 Minnesota women released from prison each year.