Imagine this: You have been in an abusive relationship for several years. With no experience, you struggled to find a job to support your family so you have been earning your income as a prostitute. You’re a mother and have been battling addiction for as long as you can remember. You were recently arrested and have just been sentenced to the county jail for prostitution. You enter the system and find yourself struggling daily with depression and damaged self-esteem. Your world feels as if it has been hopelessly turned upside down. How will you ensure that you do not re-enter the system after your release? Will abusing drugs and alcohol continue to be your vice? Will you ever be permitted to see your children again?
Then, your cellmate tells you that the jail has a program offering free counseling for the incarcerated. You attend a single 60-minute session and after a year, you are attending regularly. Your counselor helps you slowly rediscover your confidence and sobriety and inspires you to work to get certificates in vocational skills.
Eventually, you are released from the jail and routinely reach out to your counselor for support. You relapse, but you do not want to hinder your progress so you re-enter the rehabilitation program at your own will and find sobriety once again. Your determination provokes a job offer at a local company and, as a result of your progress, you are finally reunited with your children.
This story reflects one of many success stories that the MAYA Organization has witnessed since the foundation of their Counseling for Incarcerated Women Program (video) in 2014.
Me and You Always
The MAYA (Me and You Always) Organization is a first-time Mary’s Pence grantee located in Pittsburgh, Penn. MAYA was originally founded in 2009 by Tomilyn Ward, Executive Director, with a mission to provide counseling and support for pregnant or adoption-seeking women and their families. Ward established the organization shortly after adopting her daughter, realizing that her daughter’s birth mother was not receiving any postpartum and post-adoption support. Ward became the birth mother’s only support system; she contacted social workers and an attorney to help during this sensitive time. She began doing research in graduate school and found that, more often than not, birth mothers do not receive follow up from adoption agencies post-adoption.
Ward started to follow up with birth mothers in MAYA who had given their child(ren) up for adoption and learned that many of them were or had been in prison and consistently recidivated—which means they re-entered the criminal justice system. As Ward continued to research this issue, she learned that 95-percent of incarcerated women are separated from their children. That same percentage of incarcerated women have also been victims of abuse. This inspired her to establish the Counseling for Incarcerated Women Program at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).
This program has provided over 1,000 hours of pro bono counseling services for trauma and addiction thus far. They have utilized their Mary’s Pence grant to fund needs such as purchasing clothing for the women in the jail, housing and foster care resources, and rehabilitation services.
Advocacy Influencing Justice
Those in the criminal justice system have been systematically silenced and degraded. Many of the women in the system, many are survivors of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. These women are more likely to engage in negative, self-defeating behaviors which can drastically amplify mental illness.
Ward considers the most important element of the Counseling for Incarcerated Women Program to be advocacy. “We do whatever is necessary to ensure women are heard,” she said as she reflected on a situation where a schizophrenic woman was jailed without her medications for six weeks. Ward and her team worked tirelessly, reaching out to doctors, local law enforcement and jail officials, and were able to help provide the woman with her medication.
With advocacy comes the need to accept all women, and hear them without judgment. This is important in breaking the cycle of women who are victims of abuse becoming prostitutes and entering the criminal justice system. MAYA provides resources for these women to reestablish their self-esteem. They counsel women by recognizing signs of abuse and reducing violent tendencies, that many victims often redirect on their own children.
MAYA supports women inmates seeking recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, recognizing that relapse is a part of the recovery process. They support the women as they work to stay clean and break habits, and encourage positive decision-making and consistent therapy attendance. Notably, women are able to continue attending counseling at the MAYA offices after their release for as long as they need.
The future for MAYA is bright, as they continue to grow in size and funds. They are actively reaching out to better serve and involve the community by showing the impact of their work. “We are absolutely community-centered,” said Ward. They hope to continue to influence systemic change and social justice for women by expanding their programs in the Pittsburgh area and eventually beyond.
By Maggie Singerhouse, Development and Communications Intern, 2016