One hundred years ago, making the papers for criminal activity was sometimes the only evidence a woman even existed. These women didn’t have Melissa Gonzalez, a woman making living history at Network Support Services. The model they employ is unique – it is one that supports the idea that reentry begins on the inside – not upon release, but before release. It is a therapeutic community that prepares individuals during their incarceration with life skills that will help them navigate the world outside upon release – a world that (especially for those who have served 10 or 20 plus years on an indeterminate life sentence) is nowhere near the world they left behind upon incarceration.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative , the United States is one of the top incarcerators of women in the world. Currently, 231,000 women sit behind bars, at least half of which are single mothers.
THE COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES OF INCARCERATION
Coming from a family impacted by the criminal justice system, Melissa attended law school with a clear intention to study criminal law. Throughout her law school career, she saw the failures of our criminal justice system play out in real-time while working in several public defense organizations. This is where her passion for advocacy rose to an even higher, more profound level. Through the representation of clients, her knowledge of substantive law increased as well as her knowledge of its applicable shortcomings. Melissa realized very quickly the deleterious effects of having a criminal record and the limitations it places on the lives of those who have one — limitations that play out like a domino effect. Known more formally as “collateral consequences,” these repercussions affect a convicted person’s employment and business opportunities; others deny access to government benefits and program participation, including student loans, housing, contracting and other forms of participation in civic life. Those that have seemingly paid their debt to society by serving their sentence are released into a world with little to no resources with which to start anew. These obstacles come together to form the recipe for recidivism – leading some individuals to return to life choices which lead to their incarceration.
IT ALL STARTS WITH THE BREATH
Working with individuals that are within 6-12 months of their release date, Melissa works to prevent these collateral consequences from becoming the road back to prison by assisting them in finding viable options for employment, housing, and health care. Offering more than just institutional support, Network provides workshops in leadership, anger management, and mediation so that the women not only survive but thrive in this new world they are entering.
Outside of her work with Network, Melissa is also actively involved in policy advocacy through her participation in Advocacy Days lead by organizations such as Releasing Aging People from Prison (RAPP) and art, law and activism programs developed by Columbia Law Schools Center for Institutional and Social Change. She also has had the opportunity to sit on panels discussing alternatives to mass incarceration, including the annual Beyond the Bars national conference held at Columbia University.
If you are like me and want to learn more from Melissa’s brilliant mind, you are in luck! Currently, Melissa and a colleague are working on developing and launching a vlog/podcast (afterburn.guru) that centers around the current socio/political climate and its effect on marginalized communities with an emphasis on the impact of this dynamic on the legalization of marijuana on federal and state levels. They will focus on conversations around what it means for those communities most affected by its criminalization and what it means for those very same communities now that we are standing at the precipice of its legalization.
Learn more at: afterburn.guru
FROM HISTORY TO HERSTORY
Did you know that in the last 3,500 years only 0.5% of all recorded history is about women? You can thank historian, Dr. Bettany Hughes, for giving us this enraging number as a starting off point. At High Herstory, this is our battle cry and the inspiration behind our TV series and our podcast launching this month! We must begin to tell and record our own histories. I’ve been a pest to librarians, scoured the internet, and driven around this country reading old newspapers and talking to the oldest women I could find to hear unknown stories. It has empowered me to hear them all.
I’m so thankful there are intelligent women like Melissa in this fight, and I hope this story will help add another point to the statistic that haunts my dreams. I encourage you all this month to speak to your elders on the phone, listen and empathize with the women in your lives, and ask for a story. You will likely learn something, laugh, and feel inspired.
Co-founder Mercury Road Media & High Herstory
Kendall Watkins is Co-Founder of Mercury Road Media, LLC, a female-led production company focused on telling unearthed, inclusive stories about women via branded content, films & series. As an award winning writer/director, Kendall has worked with brands like, Penguin Random House, OMI Industries, Clarkson Potter, Tinder, Conde Nast, Bridal Musings, and Hudson Hemp. Her viral videos have received press from Refinery 29, Forbes, Buzzfeed, Bustle, MSNBC, and Yahoo. The High Herstory TV series she co-created and directed will launch in 2020!