Fighting for Freedom

Print Friendly

From The Philadelphia Citizen:

Christina Wall spent 19 months at Riverside Correctional Facility for a first-degree felony. While she was in prison, she met with many different organizations that promised to help her re-enter society when she’d done her time. When she got out in June of 2015, Wall, a first-time inmate originally from New Jersey, tried to get in contact with all of these groups.

Only one gave her the time of day: I’m FREE, a woman-focused therapeutic group working to keep female  former prisoners from returning to jail.

Wall says representatives from I’m FREE met her with a bag of toiletries, some clothes and a winter coat—the simple basics she needed to get through her day. And they’ve been with her every step, first as she enrolled in one of their six-week reentry counseling programs, then as she had a mini-meltdown or two during the intensive program while readjusting to life on the outside.  I’m FREE gave her more than a way to healthily reevaluate her life—it gave her a group of people who she could talk to about her concerns and her fears of reintegrating, and people who would listen.

Wall, who currently lives in a therapeutic residential environment, is now a volunteer with I’m FREE, running the same clothes donation program that benefitted her when she came out of Riverside. She has found a sense of sisterhood with the folks at I’m FREE, whose name is also its mission: Females Reentering Empowering Each Other.

“The difference between I’m FREE and other programs,” says Wall, “is that they’re just there for me when I need it.”

I’m FREE is one of few reentry programs that cater specifically to female former inmates, who are almost as likely to reoffend within four and a half years as their male counterparts—75 percent of female compared to 80 percent of male ex-convicts. And female offenders are the largest-growing prison population, growing by 3.4 percent each year from 2010 to 2013.

Renaya Furtick Wheelan, who co-directs Philly’s I’m FREE program, says much of the problem with female repeat offenders can be traced back to the fact that most have sustained the kind of abuse that can’t be fixed with just a job, a car or a place to lay their head. They need special, one-on-one care. According to a study by the Correctional Association of New York, 82 percent of female convicts suffered sexual or physical abuse as children, and 75 percent have suffered severe physical abuse from a domestic partner as adults.

Enter I’m FREE, which focuses on treating the underlying issues that cause women to reoffend most, like early-life trauma. “I call these women my sisters,” says Furtick Wheelan. “I realized that there were women in the system who were fractured, broken, not dealing with the issues that led them into the system. It just became more a need of unconditional love.”

I’m FREE offers seven-week classes to inmates and averages about 20 participants per class, primarily operating out of Riverside Correctional Facility. Furtick Wheelan says that over 400 women have taken part in I’m FREE’s programming while incarcerated, and that dozens keep in touch with the program upon release, with several taking advantage of their post-release services. In this way, I’m FREE follows what is considered best practice for re-entry programs—beginning in prison, and continuing outside.

Read the full article here.