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Photo: Bonnie Layton
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Photo: Bonnie Layton
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Photo: Bonnie Layton
This is the third in a three-part series on women in Indiana’s prisons.
Cosmetology student Denise Baker, who has been in the Madison prison for more than a year, is dressed in a black beautician’s smock.
“Okay, see what we’re doing here is we’re gonna prepare her to take a shampoo, and then we’re going to trim her hair,” she says. “We can’t trim her hair without shampooing her.”
Baker goes over to a caged window in the bustling beauty parlor and asks the guard if she can check out a pair of scissors. She’s about to give a haircut to a Madison prison administrator.
Baker says learning how to be a beautician is mostly fun—much more fun than hanging out in the prison dorm—but she knows there are other more serious reasons to practice her hairdressing skill.
“What I really see is that we’ll be able to go back out and help our family,” she says. “To be a productive citizen again, I think that’s number one.”
The program’s directors say it works. Out of the 75 program graduates, only two women have ended up back in the prison system. That compares to a statewide recidivism rate of about 30 percent.
Tough Realities After Serving Hard Time
More women than ever are going to prison in Indiana, and because the majority of women serve sentences of between two and 10 years, most of them will get out. When they leave prison, they have to face hard realities, like disclosing their felony convictions on job applications and finding ways to buy food and school supplies for their kids.
Some programs exist to help female prisoners transition back to society, but many women who go through those programs still struggle when they are released.
Across the state at the Indiana Women’s prison, the clock is ticking for Nina Porter. She leaves the prison in just ten days.
It is a scary reality. Porter does not just have herself to think about, but also her 11 month old daughter who’s been living with her in a special prison nursery program. Porter grew up in the foster system, and because she’s been in prison five times, she has few connections on the outside.
“The places we call either don’t take people from prison or they only take men,” she says. “And the few places that do take women don’t take children. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
Porter realizes that in a worst case scenario, she could end up in a homeless shelter, but she remains hopeful.
“I’m sure there’s something, we just haven’t found it yet,” she says.
Starting Life Over With A Felony Conviction
In a best case scenario, life for Nina Porter might look something like it does for 33-year-old Latia Edwards. In her tiny Indianapolis apartment, after a long day at her job, Edwards is doing a weekly ritual that might sound familiar–making her five kids clean out their backpacks.
One second of your life can ruin your whole life. It takes a long time to start back over.
“It’s my ABC’s!” her five-year-old son Neamiah says, handing her a crumpled piece of paper. ”It’s your ABC’s?” Edwards says. “Where’s your folder? Can I see your folder please?”
Edwards is grateful to be here at home with her five kids. She was convicted of a felony more than two years ago for criminal battery during a domestic dispute. She served jail time before prosecutors accepted a plea bargain for probation time instead of sending her to prison.
But life has been hard, and Edwards is still in a difficult place. She barely gets by on her minimum wage job at Goodwill and with help from her mom.
“One second of your life can ruin your whole life,” Edwards says. “It takes a long time to start back over. Literally, I moved here, we had air mattresses. And right now I have a hole in my ceiling because the neighbors’ air condition unit, something is wrong with it, it’s backed up, you can see mold and everything. And it’s like, all I can do is call them and tell them what’s going on, but I can’t even really fight my case.”
But Edwards has hope each day will get better. Afterall, she still has her kids. ”The kids bring me joy, because some days, I still wanna cry,” she says.
Soon her felony conviction will be downgraded to a misdemeanor thanks to the plea deal. She has one degree, but she hopes to complete another one, get a higher paying job, and find an apartment that’s more suitable for her family.