Although women tend to make up a small percentage of jail and prison populations, their arrest also tends to have a disproportionate impact on community and family life. According to Prison Policy, most women who are charges but have not been convicted are waiting in jail because they cannot afford bail, and 80 percent of the women in jails are primary caretakers.
Deborah Jiang-Stein was born in a prison, entered foster care for a short period, and then was adopted by English professors. She took ballet, attended Sunday School, and went to theater, dance, and music performances. “Even with all the opportunities,” she says, “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.” At age 12, she learned about her origin story.
When Jiang-Stein’s mother was incarcerated, she had limited choices about placement for her infant while she served her sentence, so Child Protective Services made that decision for her.
“I believe that no matter where we come from or what we have done, it is possible to move through most current circumstances, create an empowered identity, and become a positive force for change,” Jiang-Stein says.
She founded the unPrison Project to organize for transformation. As she points out, having a parent that has been incarcerated can create layers of trauma that perpetuate inequity and injustice, unemployment, and poverty.
Jiang-Stein has been inside 15 prisons to share her lived experience. With a commitment to transformative justice, she explains that it is about repairing harm and working towards a system of change, especially related to women, children, and families left behind.
“For any problem, we have to first recognize it is a problem and then confront it,” she says. “To de-carcerate this country, which imprisons more people than any other country, we have taken the first step — it is finally recognized as a problem. Now to dismantle the root causes of incarceration, we need to pave the way for comprehensive outcomes, alternatives, and systemic changes.”
Anika Bowie spent over 15 years advocating for her family and community who experienced incarceration and the lack of integrated public safety. Her passion for justice led her to run for office in St. Paul in 2020, to engage community in policy change. She now leads Run Like Harriet, for Black millennials seeking “to turn their pain into power” through electoral politics.
Bowie defines incarceration as displacement of people for a far-off notion of public safety. She says women who have been incarcerated can lose custody of their children and spend a lot of resources trying to regain custody.
In 2019, 231,000 women and girls were incarcerated in the United States. Nearly half of these unconvicted individuals were in jail awaiting trial.
Growing up, Bowie realized that incarceration is not about keeping the community safe. “Someone made these decisions — that the best solution for crimes is to separate people. That never sits well with me,” she says.
Sarah King is Minnesota’s Restorative Justice Coordinator for the Department of Corrections. Her graduate studies were in restorative justice. “Data suggests that prison is not an effective deterrent,” she says. “Punishment has existed for as long as humanity has, but so have valuing relationships and repairing the harm caused by wrongdoing. If we are going to punish, then it should be meaningfully informed by those most directly impacted, account for how the community will provide safety for the survivor, and reintegrate the person who caused the harm.”
Unlike transformative justice, which is entirely community-based and functions independently of the judicial system, King says, restorative justice actions work in the community, schools, and pre- and post-sentencing phases toward repairing harm and restoring relationships.
“It is about healing more than punishment and getting needs met for all parties in a victim-centered and trauma-informed way,” King says. “It is about being able to have those conversations, in and out of prison, so they can return to community and families.”
Minnesota’s restorative justice program is 27 years old, among the oldest in the country for a Department of Corrections (DOC). King works with people who are under the authority of the DOC, which includes those serving time in 10 state facilities and those under community supervision.
Although King says not enough people are aware of the option, her team also offers restorative services to survivors of crime upon request. One option is a Victim Offender Dialogue — a form of healing by coming face-to-face with the person who caused them harm. It is also about working with the convicted, “to better understand the impact of the harm they have caused, how to appropriately make amends, and how to prevent future harm from occurring.”
While restorative justice has proven to reduce recidivism, that is not its primary focus. There has been a Restorative Justice 101 curriculum since 2006, written and facilitated by peers in the prison system. Restorative Justice 201 was added in 2017, which goes deeper into reconnecting, accountability, and making amends.
Kelley Heifort is the State’s Community Reentry Director, whose team coordinates pre-release and transition services for inmates. She says each state facility has transition centers that operate almost like a workforce center, offering job search assistance, teaching how to answer questions about felony backgrounds, developing new skills, and resume building. There are conversations about how to access housing, what to know about tenant rights when dealing with unreputable landlords, how to live under supervision, and getting access to identification documents and health insurance.
Other units work with basic adult education, vocational skills, college learning tracks, student loans, and making bridges to resources outside the prison system when released. They provide connections with post-release services.
In the ideal world, she says, there would be additional resources to offer access to substance use disorder treatment that offer more options based on gender and culture.
“You cannot be in school and maintain employment if there is not support for dealing with addiction,” Heifort says. “Not one treatment center works for all.”
Heifort also says that the emphasis on employment and education is great, but “housing stock is tough. Many people are unnecessarily screened out if they have a criminal justice background.”
One program she appreciates for its person-centered approach is the Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji, that works with anyone in the community, and is not tribe specific. “They are doing phenomenal work in the community.”
Additional reporting for this story by Mikki Morrissette. See “Learning to Be an Ally: Crime & Punishment” for more on this topic.