(NewsNation) — The number of women behind bars is skyrocketing. Over the last 40 years, the ranks of incarcerated females went up by more than 475 percent, according to The Sentencing Project. But the problems for inmates don’t end in the cell. When they are released, they encounter a unique set of hurdles that has a wide-ranging impact.
“They may not feel worthy of being able to have this new life,” said Diane Stanley, CEO of The Lord’s Place.
The nonprofit helps the poor and homeless in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Tamarsha Shelton is one of the women who sought her help.
Shelton’s early life was troubled. She said her mom was often pregnant and abused. Some abuse was also targeted at her.
She made a family of her own, but struggled with God and asked for help.
”I needed something better,” Shelton told NewsNation. “I needed either take me away, or build me up. With my drugs in my hand with my Bible and I asked Him to take that away from me. And exactly two weeks to that day, I was arrested.”
Shelton was off to a Florida state prison, joining the 80 percent of all women behind bars who are mothers, according to the Vera Institute. Nearly 60 percent of them have children younger than 18.
“It was hard, especially being away from my kids,” Shelton said. “That was the biggest thing, being away from my kids.”
Stanley said family is often the best hope to avoid recidivism.
“The first thing that we all hope and pray for is that family reunification will occur immediately, that the children will be able to embrace mama again,” Stanley said. “That really begins the healing.”
In 2019, Shelton joined the 2 million women and girls who are released from prison and jails each year. They have a 35 percent greater chance of being homeless after reentry than men do.
Shelton got a rare opportunity — a spot in the Halle Place home for women just released from prison, which The Lord’s Place runs. She took classes, worked in the facility’s thrift store, and impressed her way into a restaurant manager position. She calls herself a “workaholic” now.
“Through the classes that I learned at Halle Place, I was able to answer difficult background questions, and they gave me leadership management. And that’s a big accomplishment for me.”
Stanley says those difficult background questions include things such as conviction and arrest history. She hopes the stigma might go away some day.
“We do believe that people should be able to be forthright and say, ‘Yep, I was in prison and I paid my dues, and I’m ready to start a new life.’”
Shelton is able to spend time with her children and will soon be in an apartment of her own. One of her daughters is about to be the first in their family to attend college. She says the program helped her feel prepared for living a good life.
“I’m looking forward to the challenges today.”