WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling Her Story) is an association of formerly and incarcerated women who have been empowered by their own experiences. Through mentoring, mutual support, leadership development and telling our stories, WORTH transforms the lives of women directly impacted by incarceration and changes public perception and policy. WORTH has the expertise and understanding to engage, navigate and challenge policies and perceptions concerning incarcerated women, particularly women of color. As a well-organized and sustainable group, WORTH is a visible and powerful voice for formerly and currently incarcerated women in public conversations and policy debates.
WORTH members represent diverse backgrounds, not only in terms of race/ethnicity, but also in age, socio-economic status and experiences. Members have served sentences ranging from one year to 27 years and include women who have been out of prison for nearly twenty years as well as those released within the past year. Members of WORTH are sought after as experts who speak on issues of critical importance to incarcerated women and their families.
WORTH is comprised of four components:
Tina Reynolds received a Master in Social Work from Hunter College in 2003, co-founded WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling Her Story) for women affected by the criminal justice system, and is a board member of both Justice Works Community and the Virginia Drew Foundation. In her work over the past ten years, Ms. Reynolds partnered with formerly and imprisoned women to challenge and offer solutions to policies and other barriers women and families face during and after incarceration. Tina also developed a curriculum "Impact of Incarceration on Society, Community, Families and Children" for the City University of New York.
Q What inspired you to begin WORTH?
A WORTH first began as a result of a conversation between myself (a formerly incarcerated woman) and a colleague whose children's father was in prison. We came to the conclusion that our voices were missing from policy conversations about issues facing incarcerated or formerly incarcerated women and their families. Soon enough, people started asking me to speak and join in on the conversation, and other women who had been in jail or prison joined me as well. We all became part of the solution, stood up to represent women in the system and the challenges they face.
Q What are some of the most compelling lessons you have learned from your members that you can offer to others in the field?
A Because I have the experience of having been incarcerated – I can tell you that many women in this situation have tenacity – they don't give up regardless of what they are facing. Some currently and formerly incarcerated women are also not afraid to push the envelope. Whatever the challenges they face, they feel strongly that their voices must be heard and changes made. Women go through an incredible self-transformation as part of this process. Women who are formerly incarcerated and are working to change policy are on the rise; this is why we believe so strongly in WORTH. There is a huge shift from experiencing the oppression of being incarcerated to being empowered to change policies.
Q How do you think services for women involved in the criminal justice system have changed over the past 5-10 years?
A I believe that services have changed significantly. We are seeing programs that provide much needed services to women; for example programs that focus on women as mothers. Programs like Hour Children (http://www.hourchildren.org/) assist women and their children not only during but also after incarceration. They provide care for children while their mothers are incarcerated, provide transportation for children to visit their mothers in prison, and help women to gain employment and improve social skills as they transition back to the community. The Virginia Drew House assists women prior to sentencing - they are sentenced to stay in the house with their kids and reclaim their lives, which is a remarkable alternative to incarceration. We are seeing a shift from offering services to either women or their children to services that provide for both women and their children simultaneously.
Q What positive changes or successes have you seen occurring in the field of gender-informed practices?
A Because women with experience with the criminal justice system are becoming involved in this work, there is more of a focus on women's health – mental and physical health and reproductive rights. People are talking more about gender and transgendered issues – this has been a major and positive change in our work. We also see more of an individualized approach – not everyone who ends up in the criminal justice system is the same and as such they cannot all be treated the same.
Q What do you see happening in the field of criminal justice as it relates to women or gender-informed practices in the next few years? What progress still needs to be made?
A There needs to be more of a focus on trauma informed care and gender specific considerations to avoid a "one size fits all" approach. Women in the system have been so stigmatized that they internalize it; as such, we need to move away from focusing on failure and help women to redeem themselves. In many ways, I believe this is more of a challenge for women than for men. Women are facing considerable emotional, medical, and family hurdles. It is so challenging just to meet their basic housing and employment needs and reunite with their kids. We must include these unique challenges in our conversations about how to improve our work with women and reform the system.
Q What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the field in implementing gender-responsive strategies?
A Most people think, "It's prison: why should it be any better (or different) for women than men?" We need to continue to work to create a shift away from this attitude so that our policies and practices really address the issues that women face. How can we make sure that people continually think about "what does this mean for women?"
Q What advice do you have for professionals working in the field who want to achieve better outcomes with the justice-involved women with whom they work?
A We need to think big and see women from the perspective of all the things they are and want to be: if we can hold onto this perspective, and practice it every day, we will begin to see women thrive and grow. Women need a voice. They need opportunities that are meaningful to them and a say in the kinds of interventions that are offered, so that interventions are truly helpful.
Q Are you aware of any up and coming resources that are being developed, for which the field should be on the lookout?
A WORTH is currently developing its Birthing Behind Bars project. Recognizing the power of women's individual stories to enact change, WORTH will collect and compile the stories of women across the country who have experienced pregnancy while behind bars. These stories can be used to help push a state-by-state analysis of the intersections of reproductive justice and incarceration. Partnering with Thousand Kites, a media justice group, WORTH is creating a website to share women's experiences via video, audio and plain text. It is also developing a phone hotline where women can call to share their own stories.
These stories will cover the vast range of experiences that women have while pregnant in prison, including:
In addition to the website, WORTH will also compile these stories into a book. Too often, issues of reproductive justice are separated from issues of incarceration. The website and the book will tie women's individual experiences to the broader issue of reproductive justice (or injustice) behind prison walls.