From the rise of unlikely celebrity advocates like Kim Kardashian to a mass release of women prisoners in Oklahoma, there’s a movement building to get women who don’t pose a threat to society out of prison. But life after incarceration is no fairy-tale ending: What happens next?
For starters, work is hard to come by.
At over 27 percent, the rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated Americans is significantly higher than the country’s was at the height of the Great Depression. That’s according to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, the first to estimate unemployment for the five million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States. The study’s authors attribute this disproportionately high rate of joblessness to structural barriers such as employer discrimination. The data is even more grim when you consider race and gender — unemployment rates among black former prisoners are higher than those of their white counterparts, and higher for women than men. The most disenfranchised group is formerly imprisoned black women, who have a staggering unemployment rate at nearly 44 percent.
Those figures are discouraging, but there are bright spots. Here are the personal stories of two previously incarcerated women now leading highly successful careers by any measure, doing work that was motivated and informed by their experiences as prisoners.
Topeka K. Sam
Topeka K. Sam calls herself an anomaly.
The 43-year-old is college educated, has a tightknit and well-resourced family and a network of friends. She is also a former federal inmate; she served over three years on a nonviolent drug conviction.
“I knew that when I came home I would have a fairly easy transition because of the support system that I had,” she said in an interview with The Lily. The prospects of a smooth reentry set her apart from many of her peers in prison.
She realized early on in her entanglement with the criminal justice system that she would devote her life to the plight of women prisoners. While awaiting trial in jail, she began asking fellow inmates who were dealing with substance abuse disorder why they turned to drugs.
“One woman told me that her father was raping her and told her to take heroin and the pain would go away,” she said. Other women told her similar stories of trauma that lead them to rely on alcohol or narcotics. Just months earlier, Sam said, when she was dealing drugs, those women could have been her customers.
She wanted to devote her life to helping women in disadvantaged positions like her fellow inmates and perhaps her former customers.
Upon her release in 2015 she hit the ground running — she wanted to devote her life to helping disadvantaged women like her former inmates. To rally support for her vision, she started writing grants (with the assistance of friends and mentors). She applied for and received a prestigious fellowship at Columbia University which she segued into hosting symposiums about women prisoners across the country. As more people saw her speaking about her experiences, she said, “the more people would help.”
In less than five years after her release from prison, Sam has amassed a laundry list of accomplishments. She founded The Ladies of Hope Ministries, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides services including housing, counseling and education to women coming home from prison. She’s spoken at The White House on multiple occasions, delivered a TED talk and hosted her own talk radio show on SiriusXM. Last March, she delivered the keynote address at a symposium hosted by New York Magazine.
“I’m impacting the lives of women and girls,” she said, “teaching them to use their voice to enact change.”
Next, Sam is planning to focus her efforts on raising funds to expand her projects. She isn’t ready to release details, but told The Lily that she’s working on a business that will employ formerly incarcerated women to make “goods and products” with some high-dollar brands, and a concert series with “big names.”
“I remember the choices I’ve made, the impact that they had, and use that to inform how I move forward,” Sam said, referring to how her earlier days selling narcotics brought her to where she is now. “Everything I do is going to have some social impact.”
Journalist Keri Blakinger, 35, announced to her more than 17,000 Twitter followers last month that she would be leaving the Houston Chronicle for a national gig as a staff reporter at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative outlet that focuses on criminal justice. In the cascade of accolades and well-wishes that followed, New York Times Magazine and Propublica’s Pamela Colloff — among the country’s premier investigative journalists — wrote perhaps the most on-point response: “If you hear a low hum in the distance, it’s the sound of Keri papering the nation’s prisons, jails & law enforcement agencies with public record requests.”
Blakinger’s work is informed by the time that she served in prison. While an undergrad at Cornell University, Blakinger struggled with depression — she attempted to take her own life by jumping off a bridge — and was addicted to drugs, including heroin. During her senior year, she was arrested with six ounces of heroin and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison (she says, and has written, that her sentence was light because she is white and Ivy League educated).
After she was released in 2012, she completed her degree and started to write for an alt-weekly in Ithaca, N.Y., the city where she was paroled. A few years later, while working at the New York Daily News, Blakinger realized her experience in prison could actually be an asset.
“I knew what was believable and what really could happen in New York prisons,” she said in a recent interview. “I realized this was a world that I was connected in and realized that I could tell these stories in a way that hadn’t been told.”
She started at the Houston Chronicle as a general assignment reporter in 2016. About a year later, the reporter who covered death row retired, so her editor asked if she’d like to fill the gap alongside her other duties. “I have a slightly obsessive personality. If you tell me to cover something a little bit, I’m going to cover the f--- out of it,” she said.
Her source pool quickly widened, and people tuned in to criminal justice issues across the country (including myself) eagerly followed her increasingly prolific deep dives into the Texas prison system. Her stories had an impact. She wrote about the pervasive rates of inmate suicides; the Houston jail launched a suicide hotline. She profiled a public defender crowdfunding books for her clients; the jail lifted limits on books and started a book club. And, in perhaps her best known investigation, her reporting revealed that inmates without teeth were receiving cups of blended cafeteria food rather than dentures. The state started to print 3-D dentures for inmates.
“I got a flood of letters from guys who were trying to get teeth for years. That’s amazing, to get a letter from someone thanking me for getting teeth,” she said.
Blakinger is very open about her felony conviction, and has turned it into a professional strength — an experience that runs counter to those of most formerly incarcerated people.
“It’s easier for someone who is educated and benefited from privilege in other ways to be open and have it held against you less,” she said of her time in prison “I hope that as more people are more open, it can affect all of us less.”