Program helps female offenders find work, make fresh start


It's hard enough finding a job when you have experience an self-confidence. Imagine trying to get work when you've just been released from prison.

That's the challenge facing clients of Reach, an outreach program that serves female offenders and ex-offenders in Harford County.

"Our basic underlying goal is to help these women become self-sufficient," says Phyllis Doolittle, coordinator and counselor of Reach, which is run by Open Doors, a non-profit career counseling center on Main Street in Bel Air.

The Reach program offers educational counseling, job-seeking skills, practical advice on setting goals and moral support to women who are trying to sever their attachment to the criminal justice system.

Many of the women at Reach have been ordered to go there by the courts as a condition of their release and/or probation, or they are referred to Reach later by a probation officer, lawyer or social worker. Among the crimes they have committed are writing bad checks, theft, driving while intoxicated, selling drugs or assault.

Besides attending individual counseling sessions with Ms. Doolittle and a licensed psychotherapist as needed, clients belong to a support group which meets monthly at Open Doors.

In the support group they exchange their hopes and fears about everything from getting a job to getting off drugs. For many of them the group is their first experience away from a dysfunctional family setting, Ms. Doolittle says, and their recovery is not easy.

"Many of them have been sexually or physically abused as young women. They may have been in bad relationships all their lives and have very low self-esteem," she says. They aren't easily convinced that they can change, nor do they always realize the commitment of time and energy it will take to become self-supporting.

"This is not a six-months, snap-your-fingers kind of thing," she says. "It takes time to get up the courage to keep a job, even for only nine months."

On the other hand, she says, when the women meet a successful inmate-turned-nursing student or a woman who has earned a high school diploma or college degree after having been in jail, it can be a real boost.

Ms. Doolittle says that in the last year, two clients have entered training to become licensed practical nurses, one is studying computers and another auto mechanics.

Besides working with released women, Reach also sends a career counselor from Open Doors to the Harford County Detention Center twice a month to conduct self-esteem workshops for incarcerated women. The workshops are open to women in the pre-sentencing and post-sentencing phases of their detention.

Many women seeking help from Reach come from the court of Judge William O. Carr, the Harford County Circuit Court judge who was largely responsible for starting Reach five years ago. The idea, he says, was born out of frustration over the high recidivism rate among female prisoners.

"The state criminal justice system is totally inadequate for dealing with men and women," Judge Carr says. "We have prisons and penitentiaries that are full, with no relief in sight." If women are to avoid the revolving-door syndrome, he says, there has to be some practical intervention.

Judge Carr says he was struck by the similarities between Open Doors' traditional clients in search of new career directions and the women desperate to break away from the criminal justice system, especially in the area of low self-esteem. Tapping into Open Doors' expertise seemed a logical solution.

Today, Reach is supported by a $25,000 grant from Harford County. The program assists 75 to 80 women a year, says Ms. Doolittle, and the numbers are growing.

Says Judge Carr: "Eighty percent of the women in the criminal justice system need the assistance provided by Open Doors, if only for the support group. They need to hear from other women like themselves."

Ms. Doolittle agrees.

"One of the biggest problems is substance abuse, but then they meet people [in the support group] who have kicked the habit and tell them it can be done. And they hear other women say that it is possible to go back to school or to juggle having kids and a job because they're doing it."

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