JERSEY CITY, NJ - Under the leadership of former NJ Governor Jim McGreevey, the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) is spearheading a program to fight stigmas, oppression, and sexism by giving formerly incarcerated women access to the resources and opportunities that they deserve.

On Tuesday, NJRC launched The Women’s Project, a program designed to administer integrated health care services, better work training, and employment opportunities for women formerly incarcerated at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. The nearly day long conference took place on Facebook Live and was hosted by McGreevey, chair of NJRC.

Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, explained that women are among the fastest growing cohort of people being imprisoned and are the most vulnerable individuals that fall into drug addiction, abuse, and mental health issues upon their release. She also noted that the NJRC recently published a report exposing the profound emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility experienced at the hands of the prison guards. The Women’s Project is working to aid women in their trauma recovery and help them reintegrate into society.

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New Jersey Reentry Corporation The Women's Project Health Resource GuidepdfThe conference was divided into three components focusing on medical care, behavioral health, and employment. Elected officials that participated in these panels include Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver; Senators Loretta Weinberg and Sandra Cunningham; Assemblywomen Eliana Pintor Marin, Yvonne Lopez, Angelica Jimenez, and Shavonda Sumter; and Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill. First Lady Tammy Murphy was featured as a keynote speaker.

The medical panel, consisting of 16 different healthcare professionals and public officials, focused on the importance of creating a synthesized and synchronized healthcare program for justice-involved women. Dr. Akash Shah, medical director of NJRC, worked on the NJRC report and explained healthcare systems need to recalibrate in order for these vulnerable women to receive the care they are entitled to.

“Two-thirds of women report a substance use disorder, one-third of women report a mental health condition, two-thirds report a physical health condition, and 10 percent of women are pregnant upon incarceration,” he says.

Toni Bolton, a formerly incarcerated woman, and an NJRC participant, explained that healthcare in the prison system is nearly nonexistent. This can cause untreated issues to go unresolved, creating massive health problems later in life. Another NJRC participant and justice-involved woman, Dianthe Brooks, emotionally detailed that she had health conditions before she was incarcerated that were left untreated by the prison healthcare system.

“I have an autoimmune disease, I was in prison for 16 months, I never saw a rheumatologist the entire time I was there, the medications that I take daily were not provided to me when I was inside” says Brooks.

The behavioral health panel, which comprised of 15 members, focused specifically on mental health and addiction in formerly-incarcerated women. NJRC participant Carmini Lalu explained that while incarcerated, she developed depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and received little to no care for either disorder. Once reentering society, she had no guidance or resources to help her navigate treatment.

“We have to bring awareness to this, we have to educate the public, we have to get the help, we have to have more programs, we need more knowledge of it,” says Lalu.

In response to discussion about the stigma attached to addiction and the failure of the prison system to address mental illnesses, Governor McGreevey explained that policy solutions need to start behind bars and continue once incarcerated individuals are released.  

“We need to have an integrated healthcare plan, preferably one that starts behind the wall,”McGreevey said. “NJRC needs to provide for every woman to have an integrated healthcare plan on medical, mental, and addiction treatment.”

During the employment services panel, participants examined the struggle of obtaining steady employment upon reentering society, as well as the necessity of financial literacy for former inmates. NJRC participant Rashida Smith, who found her current job through NJRC’s training, explained that even when justice-involved individuals seek out work, they often get turned away due to their past conviction(s).

“I had a door slammed in my face when I was hired by a company” she says. “When I had a background check come back and they found out that I had a conviction, and they fired me.”

According to Lieutenant Governor Oliver, engaging with the private sector to eliminate the stigma attached to formerly incarcerated women is imperative to help reduce employment roadblocks.  

Congresswoman Sherrill noted that she would be interested in looking into set-asides for job training programs that hire women who have been previously incarcerated. The House of Representatives recently passed a large infrastructure bill that would help create jobs and stimulate the economy, and this could be a great opportunity to get justice-involved women employed, she said.

“We could almost tell when somebody is going to successfully enter the community when they got a good job,” Sherrill offered.

In addition to the panels, three keynote speakers discussed the various aspects of The Women’s Project and their importance to the community. Dr. Chris Pernell, chief strategic integration and health equity officer at University Hospital, presented on the importance of trauma-informed care; Francine A. LeFrak, president of Francine A. LeFrak Foundation and Same Sky Foundation, discussed the importance of employment on women’s safety, health, and self-confidence; and First Lady Tammy Murphy examined systemic racism in the maternal and infantile health crisis.

In reflecting on the significance of The Women’s Project, Senator Cunningham advises that the first step in supporting these women is by remembering our shared humanity.

“We all make mistakes in life, there is no perfect person,” she says. “So therefore if you made a mistake, it does not mean you don’t deserve to feel better about yourself, that you don’t deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”