Jailed, but not lost A forum dealt with the issues faced by women in prison.

Posted: November 11, 2006

The poetry class inside the Riverside Correctional Facility for Women is about more than just rhyme, meter and verse.

The women use language as a release. They tell stories about drugs, abusive boyfriends, missing their children, and the hope that one day all of those things will be permanently in the past.

Sitting opposite them last week were 20 women who had come to find out how they could help.

"After hearing what we went through and what we may need," said Tervonne Opher, 34, who is serving a 17-month sentence for passing bad checks, "what commitments are you willing to make?"

That question hung over last week's "Woman, Be Free" conference, hosted by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House. The visit to Riverside and its Poetry is Healing class was the first event in the three-day conference sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action. "Woman, Be Free" examined the issues of women in prison and the faith community's responsibility to help them.

The incarceration rate for women has grown at nearly double the rate for men during the last 20 years, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Since 1980, the number of women in state and federal prisons has increased from 12,300 to 106,174 in 2005. In Philadelphia, there were 885 women in prison on Thursday, up from an average of 467 in 1996.

The increase is largely due to mandatory drug sentencing, with women more likely than men to be in jail for a drug offense, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes reduced reliance on incarceration.

"There are lots of Christians who are engaged with people in prison and their children, and that's been going on for a long time," said the Rev. Ronald J. Sider, president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. "On the other hand, it's not enough. This conference is a plea to do more."

The event, attended by 75 participants from as far away as Romania and California, offered workshops and lectures on prison ministries, transition programs, and mobilizing faith-based groups to become activists who lobby for changes in government policy.

The Bible urges followers to visit those who are in prison, said the Rev. Vivian Nixon, who supervises a reentry program for former inmates in New York. Many mistakenly believe that if they've done that, "they've done their part," Nixon said.

Conference lecturers argued that the biblical mandate to help those who are less fortunate includes working on such issues as better education, job opportunities, prison medical care, and restoration of voting rights.

But believers battle their own demons when facing the call to help those who are less fortunate - including prisoners. "Sin, selfishness and money," Sider called the trinity of obstacles. Also, there is the fear of being hurt or taken advantage of, and the belief among many that the people who committed a crime "got what they deserved," Nixon said.

"We have so many icons in our church who were imprisoned, and yet if someone comes into the church and talks about prison work, we don't want to hear it," said the Rev. Annie M. Bovian, executive director of the Women's Advocate Ministry Inc. "We have to ask ourselves: Who are we, and what are we?"

Conference speaker Gwendolyn Wilks offered some advice to people who want to help.

Wilks served nearly three years in prison after she was sentenced to prison on drug charges. She is now a supervisor at New Directions for Women Inc., a residential support program for women offenders.

"When you have a woman or a man who's been out there on drugs for years, they don't want to hear anything about God," said Wilks, who attends Open Door Mission True Light Church in West Philadelphia. "You have to get to the root of their problem first."

Wilks participated in a panel discussion with two other women who had been in prison. Discussions also centered on the case of Lydia Diane Jones, which made history in Alabama.

Jones was given a life sentence without parole for selling drugs in 2000. She had allowed an ex-boyfriend to live in her home after she moved out to care for her ailing father. The boyfriend used the house to sell drugs. On a day that Jones had returned to pick up some clothing, federal and state agents raided the house and arrested Jones, who eventually was convicted. Six years later, her conviction was overturned and the charges against her dropped. She was the first woman in Alabama to be released from Tutwiler Prison for Women after being sentenced to life without parole.

"Prison is no place for no one," said Jones, who lived in a special dorm at the prison with programs for women who had made a faith commitment. "Adapting back to society has been hard. When I left, my children were children, and when I came back, they were adults."

Youngsters whose parents are in prison deal with teasing and bullying, and often have been exposed to a harmful lifestyle before the parent went to jail, said Jane Siegel, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers University's Camden campus.

Jones' mother cared for her children while she was in prison, and the struggle of children like hers has provided former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. with a post-politics career and ministry.

Goode, now an ordained minister with a doctorate from Palmer Theological Seminary, directs the Amachi Program, a national faith-based mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents begun in Philadelphia.

"I'm the son of an incarcerated father," Goode told the conference's attendees. "The pastor of my church and his wife became my big brother and sister, so I know first hand that intervention works."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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