Author’s note: This post discusses domestic violence and incarceration.
I first met Sharon Richardson when my service corps group went on a site visit to her place of work, STEPS to End Family Violence, where one of my fellow corps members also works.
STEPS is a holistic program providing services for victims of gender-based violence, with a focus on prevention, intervention, and policy advocacy. Sharon welcomed us with a sunny smile and a batch of delicious food from her catering company, Just Soul. While we inhaled the homemade mac and cheese and candied yams she had cooked for us early that morning, Sharon shared with us her story and her work assisting women who, like herself, are survivors of both domestic violence and incarceration.
Criminalization and imprisonment of abuse survivors recently entered the spotlight as Marissa Alexander’s case caused a rightful uproar, but Alexander’s and Richardson’s cases are not rare. Various studies reflect that the significant majority of women in prison are survivors of intimate partner violence – often imprisoned for defending themselves against an abuser, for committing a crime because of an abuser’s coercion, or for engaging in illegal activity in order to survive. As the Correctional Association of New York writes:
“Too often, the system responds to such women solely as perpetrators – not survivors – of violence, sending them to prison for long periods of time with little chance for parole. In addition, because incarceration further destabilizes already marginalized communities, it ultimately perpetuates the conditions in which violence against women thrives.”
After hearing Sharon speak, I continued reflecting on her powerful story. So last week, I returned to STEPS to learn more about her experience and her perspective on the intersection of intimate partner violence and incarceration.
Sitting in her cubicle, surrounded by various folders and scraps of her job as a busy Reentry Specialist, we chat about how she got involved in this work. “I came home from prison in May 2010,” she tells me. “Sister Mary Nerney, who is the founder of STEPS to End Family Violence, got connected to me through the courts when I first got arrested in May of 1990. And she just stuck by my side the entire time that I was incarcerated. She… was a bridge over troubled waters, helping women like myself understand me, understand domestic violence, understand what life looks like afterward.
“[Nerney] had always talked about doing a reentry program. When I first came home I worked for my church… as a reentry [specialist], and so I learned a lot of the groundwork as far as what reentry is all about. I worked for the church… and then I started working at STEPS. So we created this reentry program, and I’ve been overseeing [it] ever since.”
Sharon tells me her story with an ease born of practice; she shares her story often and generously, touching a broad audience. Through her work, she hopes to help others do the same. “I believe in the second chance,” she tells me. “And I believe in miracles, and I believe that women coming home can use their life and their experience to create a dynamic moving forward… not just for them, but for other people.” Storytelling creates a space “where the people who weren’t ever incarcerated could feel—” she pauses to find the right word— “a softness toward us.”
Through her church, Sharon has been an essential part of several productions giving voice to individuals with histories of incarceration, as well as to their families. She also acted in a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues featuring women with histories of incarceration. She dreams of a larger platform. “I think that formerly incarcerated individuals are not paid for acting out their real life stories. [I think about] actually putting that into film, and allowing women to create their own space, their own production, their own film, their own documentary, whatever it might be, and then… we might get a little something that will help towards getting housing, taking care of our families and children, or whatever [our needs] may be.”
Sharon’s dreams are not simply dreams; she has a habit of making them reality. Aside from working full-time at STEPS and part-time at the Healing Communities Network, last year she also started a nonprofit called Reentry Rocks, through which she plans to provide support groups as well as opportunities for formerly incarcerated women to share their stories creatively – through dance, theater, and more.
Through Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship program for people with criminal histories, Sharon also created her catering company, Just Soul. “My business was about people, my business was about love, my business was about how to bring all of that together, and that’s how Just Soul was born.” She hopes to engineer a collaboration between Just Soul and Reentry Rocks, providing nonprofit clients with employment in the catering business as well as using Just Soul funds to support the work of Reentry Rocks.
Whether we’re talking about Reentry Rocks or Just Soul, we keep finding our way back to the importance of the story. “I do an event, I tell my story, I get paid for my services… and I leave people with not just their mouth watering, behind the banana pudding and the macaroni and cheese, but I leave their hearts dripping and their eyes dripping with tears at the story of how I came to be where I am right now. And that in and of itself is amazing. I’m so humbled by my life right now, because I never saw any of this coming. All I saw was the bars and the 20 years I had before me.”
“[Sharing our stories] allows the community at large to be more forgiving, to be more understanding, to embrace us just a little bit more when they realize that we are harmless… We shouldn’t have to come home after being in prison and be punished because we’ve been punished.”
She tells me about the dangerous silence that she sees embedded in many cultures and traditions, including her own family history: secrecy around suffering, around incarceration, and certainly around domestic violence. Breaking that silence by sharing individual stories creates space for individual liberation, communal recognition and connection, and ultimately systemic change. “If you would just sit with us for a moment and allow us the freedom to tell you the truth of how this crime came to be, there would be less incarceration. The amount of time given to an individual would be lessened, I believe.”
Since the time of her sentencing in 1990, Sharon says, she has seen progress. She speaks with pride about the Violence Against Women Act and about the greater number of reentry services and family support services now available now for those in prison or returning home. There’s still much to be done, but she hopes and believes that we are moving in the right direction. “I think in the next five or ten years we’re gonna be amazed. I would be surprised if we weren’t amazed. I do see something coming, and I just hope it breaks the barriers down for those who are coming home. Because we need to have jobs, we need to go to school, we need someplace to live.”
Asked what people can do who are not already involved in this work, she implores: “People who can: Donate to organizations who are doing the work. Do your research first, and [donate] at least once or twice a year if you can, or if you know someone who can. The other thing [you can do] is to go to some seminars and find out about reentry. You can go online, Google it, see what’s coming up – show up! And see what reentry is all about.”
Most importantly, she exhorts allies, “Whatever area you’re interested in, try to meet some of the [affected] people, because there’s nothing like it. It’s one thing hearing [second-hand] stories about the lives of women, domestic violence, sexual assault, trauma – but there’s something else about sitting in the room with them.”
COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF SHUTTERSTOCK.