Mass incarceration and women: How two Grand Rapids programs help those returning overcome barriers

The statistics are unnerving. According to a 2019 report by The Sentencing Project, The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 655 per 100,000. El Salvador comes in second with 618, Rwanda third with 434, and Russia fourth with 318 (less than half that of the USA). A few hours to the east or north of us, Canada has a rate of 114. Mass incarceration in the United States is an epidemic eating away at our communities, especially communities of color — including those right here in Kent County.

“Mass incarceration in Michigan is pretty significant. Michigan has one of the largest per capita prison populations and some of the longest serving sentences,” says Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “This stems from the residual effects of [1996 Michigan] tough on crime [legislation]. The mandatory minimums on the books have made an interesting impact throughout Michigan and especially in Kent County.”

In 2017, Michigan’s incarceration rate was 607 per 100,000 — 397 in prisons and 210 in jails, approximately 56,000 Michiganders. Grand Rapids Candance Walton was one of them. Today, thanks to the Women’s Resource Center New Beginnings program, she has returned to her community with employment in the food industry and is taking classes at Grand Rapids Community College.

“I’ve learned a lot about becoming self-sufficient, how to return to the workforce, and given a lot of opportunity and help that they provided,” Walton says. “I’m also enrolled in GRCC, taking human resources classes. I feel like I can give back and help somebody else the way the Women’s Resource Center helped me. I think people are more likely to listen and learn from you when you’ve been through some of things that they’ve been going through.”

New Beginnings

Offered to women serving sentences at Kent County’s jail since 2012, New Beginnings sends career coaches and specially-trained volunteer mentors into the jail to provide employability assessments, life skills development, and individual employment plans. The program also connects the inmates to community partners offering help. The Kent County Department of Corrections refers participants to the program.

The CLEAR women's group.“The program starts in the jail. We begin that work in partnership with Kent County Department of Corrections 90 days before release and support them 12 to 18 months or longer after release,” says Sandra Gaddy, CEO of the Women’s Resource Center. “We give an opportunity for that one-on-one mentorship support and individual employment support while they are there in jail.” 

Mentors meet with the women in three different jail “pods” as well as within its sober living unit.

“Women face a lot of barriers to employment already. Women of color face more. Women who have been in jail, they have a whole other set of barriers,” Gaddy says. “Being able to work with them and help them get acclimated back to the community and the workforce is incredibly complicated.”

In addition to barriers to finding employment and housing, women with criminal records have to surmount issues like getting custody of their children back and finding childcare.

“Women with a record have added stigma in society that men do not have,” Gaddy says. “They are treated more harshly. ‘You’re a woman. How did you end up in jail?’ There is harder treatment, criticism, and shame around that.”

According to Gaddy, the New Beginnings program was created at the request of the Department of Justice because Grand Rapids was among the top six US cities with the highest recidivism rates, i.e., people going back to jail or prison after having been released. After researching the issues, WRC tailored a program to fit the women incarcerated at Kent County jail. Because of New Beginnings’ success, other communities routinely reach out to WRC for help in starting similar programs. 

GRPD Officer Ruth Walters helps CLEAR a path

Another program, CLEAR (Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice, Rehabilitation) provides a weekly support group for Grand Rapids-area returning citizens. A collaboration between the Grand Rapids Police Department and Michigan Department of Corrections, CLEAR connects law enforcement, community resources, and returning citizens with the goal of easing that transition after release. Officer Ruth Walton saw that women returning to their communities had more and different needs. So, she started a separate women’s CLEAR support group.

“CLEAR gives them support and walks the process with them because some of them haven’t done that and it’s a little scary,” Walters says. “It’s an opportunity to develop a different support circle. We give a lot of support on life topics, scenarios. Other ladies at the table who have been successful give feedback.”

A meeting of Ruth Walters' Clear Group.Walters believes that lack of housing makes reentry even more difficult than lack of employment. 

“Many times, women are the sole custodial parent of a child. Some of them have family that lets them have time to get out and acclimated. Others, as soon as they come out, they are back with their kids,” she says. “Many shelters and half-way houses don’t have accommodations for kids.”

With skyrocketing housing costs, finding an affordable home is the first challenge. The next is finding a landlord who will rent to a felon.

“We’ve learned to work the appeal process that apartments have in place but often it comes down to that affordable piece. I’ve advocated for quite a few of my ladies who are doing well … so I can say that they will make a good tenant,” Walters says. “If they can’t get somewhere stable, they are going to end up right back where they were. They need that piece.”

“Where they were,” back in prison — those are the more common words used for recidivism, a term which can be interpreted in different ways. The most widely assumed meaning is: a person commits another crime and ends up back in jail or prison. However, the term also encompasses people who are sent back to jail or prison for the same crime because of parole violations. 

People are also sent back if they do not have the financial means to pay court costs, fees, and other financial obligations of their sentence. In other words, many people who end up back in jail are in debtors’ prison. 

More black women are going to prison and jail

“Black women are one of the growing populations both in the prison and jail system. The crimes that we typically see them being charged with include theft, larceny, retail theft, but also driving without a license — 17 percent of incarcerations,” Buddin says. “If you can’t afford to renew your license, then there are fees associated with getting it reinstated and all the collateral consequences that come from that as well. [Some] black women have to choose between driving to go to work to support their families and risking the chances of being pulled over and being jailed. It’s a terrible decision they have to make.”

Employment programs, support groups, and providing more housing options are compassionate vehicles for helping women who have been incarcerated to rebuild their lives, take care of their families, and become productive community members. But they do not address the roots of the problem: legislation that enables mass incarceration; institutional racism that leads to more people of color being incarcerated than whites; and policies that restrict the rights of those who have repaid their debt to society after they are released. 

Candance WaltonWhile deeply appreciative of New Beginnings, Candance Walton agrees that more needs to be done to help people returning to their communities after incarceration.

“I believe there should be some type of program where if you have a felony [conviction] that they will give you a second chance,” she says. “I’ve experienced employers who will hire me [and] make a conditional offer. Then, they learn [my] background and I’m disqualified.” 

Walton also finds it unjust that state licensing required for many careers is denied to people with a past felony conviction. (Michigan state licensing boards regulate 14 occupational professions under the Michigan Occupational Code.)  Buddin agrees.

“The more we can start to reinvest in our people over prisons, the better our economy is going to be. People with prison records are some of the hardest working individuals, really looking to have employment as a way to sustain themselves and reintegrate,” Buddin concludes. “If we start to use the resources to give back to people in the community and invest in programs that are investing in people when they are coming out, we are going to see meaningful impacts economically and for public safety across the state.”

A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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