What It Takes to Get Women Out of Prison—and Stay Out

The rate of women in U.S. prisons is growing faster than men. But in New Orleans, one group is successfully tackling sentencing for drug use and sex work.
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Executive Director Deon Haywood sits with Women With A Vision staff: (left to right, front) Desiree Evans, Michelle Wiley, Mwende Katwiwa, Deon Haywood, (left to right, back) Raven Frederick, Nia Weeks, Dianne Jones.

Photo by Laura McTighe, Women With A Vision. 

This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.

Forty-four-year-old Dianne Jones of New Orleans says she’s 30, and will always be 30. It’s not that she’s afraid of getting old, or lying about her age. Thirty is the number of years she was sentenced to serve at a Louisiana prison in 1993. It is also the number of years her 27-year-old son was sentenced to serve for armed robbery in 2006.

“It’s like a pain that we thrive off of, because you know 30 years is something that I can’t believe. It’s a mark on me,” says Jones. “Once I had it, now my kid has it.”

Jones has been in and out of the Louisiana penal system since age 14, when she was arrested and sentenced to two years for stealing a car. The final straw came in January 2014, when she served a weeklong sentence for marijuana possession at Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail for New Orleans. The jail’s “tent city,” now torn down, was assembled in 2006 as a temporary holding facility for prisoners after Hurricane Katrina. “A week in hell” is how she describes her time in the leech-infested tent with about 200 other women.

When she was released at one o’clock in the morning, Jones says, she had determined that that would be her last time behind bars. “Imagine how scared I was, as a woman walking the streets like that by myself at that time.” Jones says she doesn’t want any other woman to be in that position. So for the next year and a half, she volunteered with groups that helped ex-offenders—mostly men—and worked to start her own program to help women transition back to regular life after prison. Then she came across Women With A Vision (WWAV).

Jones has been in and out of the Louisiana penal system since age 14.

“It’s a place where you can get whatever you need,” she says of the social justice nonprofit, which specializes in helping marginalized women of color. “And if they don’t have it, they can point you in the direction to somewhere that does.” WWAV staff estimates that the group has helped more than 120,000 women since its grassroots beginning nearly 30 years ago. Its work has focused mostly on “harm reduction”—reducing negative consequences of drug use—as well as improving awareness of health issues, but recently has expanded to decriminalizing sex workers. In the past five years, WWAV has helped to launch a legal campaign and diversion program to help sex workers caught up in the criminal justice system avoid jail.

Because the population of women in U.S. prisons has been increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men since 1980, that work is increasingly needed. Only 5 percent of the world’s female population lives in the United States, yet it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. And the problem doesn’t affect everyone equally. The Racial Justice Improvement Project—an initiative of the American Bar Association in collaboration with WWAV—found that women arrested for sex work in New Orleans are predominantly people of color.

A Relentless Advocate

WWAV was established in 1989, when a small group of African American women in New Orleans teamed up to do something about the growing number of Black women with HIV. The founders, each with a background in either social work or public health, took to the streets to distribute literature to women who weren’t getting information about HIV/AIDS education and prevention. In their early years, they averaged roughly 5,000 encounters a year, distributing needles and condoms to women who were at high risk for infection.

"It's a place where you can get whatever you need."

While the group continued with their traditional outreach, their focus shifted to an antiquated state law that placed sex workers, most of them women, on the sex offenders list. The law harshly punished sex workers for what it called “unnatural carnal copulation,” which included oral sex. Being on the list made it nearly impossible for the women to get jobs, keep their homes, or take care of their children. WWAV helped to launch a campaign called the NO Justice Project to overturn that law. After a five-year struggle, they won their class-action lawsuit—filed with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Loyola University’s Law Clinic—and in 2013, more than 800 women were removed from the list.

The following year, the group shifted their focus again, this time to reforming the parish’s diversion program. The New Orleans district attorney’s office had run a diversion program for years. But that program had long been seen as racially biased, and lacked transparency. It was unclear what were the requirements or qualifications to enter the program, since they were based solely on the discretion of one individual from the DA’s office.

So WWAV, along with a team of community stakeholders including the DA’s office, collaborated with the Racial Justice Improvement Project to revamp it. They found evidence that African Americans, though the majority of the population in both the city and its jails, were less likely to go through diversion and avoid incarceration than their White counterparts.

“Think about that for a second,” says Salma Safiedine, director of the Racial Justice Improvement Project. “There were more African Americans that were being picked up for crimes. There were more African Americans who lived in the jurisdiction. Yet, there were more Whites in the diversion program. That just doesn’t make sense. So, that discretion wasn’t necessarily a good thing. And so what we wanted to do was target it.”

The group shifted their focus again, this time to reforming the parish's diversion program.

After that realization, WWAV partnered with the Racial Justice Improvement Project to create their own diversion program, Crossroads, for women facing misdemeanor prostitution and drug charges.

Women admitted into the program must attend a mandatory weekly in-person counseling session with a case manager at WWAV. After a certain number of weeks, the women and their case managers will meet with the DA’s office and try to get their cases dismissed. Since June 2014, when the pilot program was implemented, 155 women have been deemed eligible, with 80 of them completing the program successfully.

In the meantime, Jones continues to make a difference in the lives of the women who come looking for help. “Women can come [here] and feel safe, and not feel judged,” she says. But, more importantly, they can get what they need to help them stay out of jail. Jones had no computer skills before the training she received at WWAV. And now she’s studying for her high school equivalency exam so she can continue her education. On top of that, in July the organization hired her as an outreach worker.

“They said, ‘For all the work you do, somebody should be paying you.’”