To Avoid Reincarceration, Mothers Need Support and Employment

By Jeanne E. Murray, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity


This Mother’s Day, we want to recognize incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women with children. Women represent the fastest growing population in prison. Over the last 30 years, the female prison population has grown by over 800 percent, and more than 60 percent of women prisoners are parents to children under age 18. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women are likely to have low educational attainment and experience mental health or substance use issues, and many are survivors of domestic violence. These barriers, combined with long gaps in work history and the stigma of a criminal record, can make it difficult for formerly incarcerated women to find and keep jobs once they’re back home. To help these women stay out of prison and successfully reenter their communities, it’s critical that employment services be a part of the programming that formerly incarcerated women receive.

Ardella’s House in Philadelphia aims to reduce recidivism by helping women successfully transition back into their communities. Ardella’s House provides women support and guidance along with addressing their career placement and vocational and educational training needs. This month, the National Initiatives team spoke with Tonie Willis, the Director of Ardella’s House, to discuss the important issues facing women who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated—including getting and keeping jobs.

National Initiatives: Can you tell us about the programming Ardella’s House offers?

Tonie Willis: Sure! The program has two components: one for incarcerated women and one for women who have recently exited incarceration. For women who are currently incarcerated, we offer a twelve week program that includes mentoring, parenting and family reunification, and workforce preparation. For women who have recently exited incarceration, we offer an eight week program that includes career readiness and career search services along with vocational training and GED preparation. The purpose of all of these services is to help women reenter their communities successfully.

National Initiatives: Why are employment services so important for the women you work with?

Tonie Willis: Without employment, there can be a revolving door of incarceration, release, around and around.

National Initiatives: What are some the employment barriers that the women you serve face, and how does Ardella’s House address those barriers?

Tonie Willis: Many women will struggle to find employment with their criminal convictions. We do work with places like supermarkets that place our participants in employment, but this employment might not be able to support the participants and their families. So, we’re actually getting ready to team up with Temple University in Philadelphia to teach our participants how to do business proposals and become entrepreneurs for themselves. We want them to think outside of the box. These business proposals can be ideas that include old family recipes, dog grooming for women who enjoy animals, and so on.

National Initiatives: Your programming focuses a lot on the importance of families in these women’s lives. Can you explain why and what this focus on families achieves?

Tonie Willis: The reunification of families is very important. It is like building a house: without a solid foundation, that house won’t stand. This foundation is families. A lot of women can’t wait to be released. However, when they come home, their families may be very bitter that the women have missed funerals, weddings, birthday parties, and other family events. We work to resolve this bitterness. Every woman also gets a mentor, who is usually a formerly incarcerated woman who has done well post-incarceration. Who better to learn from than someone who has been in your position and has succeeded?

National Initiatives: The majority of women who become incarcerated are mothers. How many of the women that you serve are mothers? For those who have lost custody, is it difficult for them to be reunited with their children?

Tonie Willis: About 75 percent of the women in the program have children, and the majority of these women have had their custody revoked. Their children might have been placed with a family member, or they might be involved in the system. Most of the women think that once they’re incarcerated, they’ve lost their children and have no rights. We work closely with legal rights organizations to let these women know what their rights are where their children are concerned. Within the last three months, we’ve actually begun to work with the children in programming. We bring our participants and their children together at the program. We want a space for the women who are non-violent offenders so that they can be together with their children in a home setting. Why take a woman from her children when she’s a non-violent offender?

National Initiatives: How does employment impact formerly incarcerated women’s relationships with their children and families?

Tonie Willis: When our participants are employed, it also positively impacts their relationships with their families. Usually, there is a trust issue between our participants and their families. So, employment lets the families know that our participants are serious about making a difference in their lives. Employment also makes the women feel good about doing things for their families.

National Initiatives: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Tonie Willis: It is so important to accept these women back into the community, accept them with open arms, and do whatever we can to help them. A lot of these women still need help to get ready for employment once they’re released. They’re still dealing with past traumas or other issues. That’s where we come in, to help set them down that path.


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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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