Development Skills & Educational Programs Helping Palestinian Female Inmates Reintegrate Into Society

If you’ve been watching ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Season 5, you will already be familiar with Taystee’s hardline negotiating skills with Figueroa and Caputo in the midst of a prison riot. While there are multiple simultaneous story lines keeping our interest, it is Taystee’s relentless pressure on the corporation which owns Litchfield as well as the New York Governor’s office, which most resembles issues relating to real life.

Aside from the obvious nods to the Black Lives Matter movement and the well-documented ways in which female inmates are are often treated inhumanely by the prison system, it is Taystee’s emphasis on negotiating for a GED program and job skills that will allow the inmates to leave Litchfield with a way to re-enter society, that cannot be ignored.

According to a 2016 report from the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, women’s recidivism rates in the US are similarly troubling to those of men. About one-quarter of women released from prison fail within 6 months (i.e., have an arrest for a new crime), one-third fail within a year, and 2/3 fail (68.1%) five years out from release.

While there are a number of factors owing to this, as well as the issue being compounded by systemic barriers that prevent former inmates from holding down steady jobs, finding housing, etc, there needs to be more emphasis on helping them find a way to reintegrate into society, especially for women who have children and families relying on them as the sole provider.

Although the US is home to the world’s largest prison population, this issue of reintegration is certainly present elsewhere, including Palestine. In the Palestinian workforce, unemployment among women sits at 44.7%, compared to 22.2% for their male counterparts, according to 2016 figures from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. But when it comes to female inmates, because of certain progressive initiatives, the rate of recidivism among women is as low as 5%.

One such initiative is a first-of-its-kind camp for former female inmates, organized by the Women’s Association for Development and Empowerment, which helps empower young women over the course of 3 days with skills and experiences that will help ensure they do not return to prison.

“We received word that former female prisoners needed courses in social awareness, education, personal development and psychological assistance,” Elham Naaman, the director of the association, told Al-Monitor.

Over a period of 3 days split into two parts, the women at the camp learned personal and skills development by listening to lectures from university professors who spoke about the law, human rights, citizenship, religion, and psychological support. They were also taught how to use social media. The second aspect was about human development and included entertainment and recreational activities lead by specialized trainers.

The first camp was so successful that the Association was asked to extend it to a week. Elham said she believes it will be a huge stepping stone in helping the young women stay motivated to do positive things with their lives when they leave prison. They plan to continue offering the camp every three months, as there is a huge need for this.

According to Al-Monitor, there are a number of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli cells, going on hunger strikes to protest the abysmal living conditions and solitary confinements. Because of these conditions, when inmates leave prison, it becomes a lot harder to deal with the outside world. Since 1948, more than 15,000 Palestinian women and girls have entered Israeli jails. Economic deterioration, unemployment and poverty are a result of the ongoing Israeli siege imposed on the Gaza strip since 2007, which leads to women committing crimes which land them in prison.

“There is an urgent need to organize and support community initiatives aimed specifically at female prisoners in order to help them reintegrate into Palestinian society,” writes Ahmed el-Komi at the Monitor.

There are also other initiatives which are helping female inmates acquire important life skills while they are still behind bars. The Center for Correction and Rehabilitation of Women in Gaza has been working with women in prisons to help empower them financially with business skills that can ensure them an independent and successful future after they serve their sentence.

In March, an exhibition called ‘Glimmer of Hope’ was launched over 2 days by the rehabilitation center, and featured the work of female inmates. Handmaid outfits, furniture, artistic items and food made by 40 women were on display.

“The exhibition aims to achieve several goals, the most prominent of which is empowering and financially supporting inmates to enable them to launch their own projects after they have served their sentences, as well as improve the social image of inmates,” said Amal Noufal, the head of the Center for Correction and Rehabilitation of Women in Gaza.

An exhibition like this was made possible due to funds being raised for crafts training and educational programs, run by the Center and offered to the women free of charge. Being given the opportunity to participate in such an event gives women the motivation to further these skills when they leave prison, and becomes an important part of their personal and psychological development.

“The exhibition is a message the inmates send to society telling it that they should be given another chance to prove that they are productive and that the mistakes they committed do not make them criminals. This is why the exhibition was named ‘Glimmer of Hope’…we have programs of correction and rehabilitation that aim to train female inmates, hone their skills and empower them to lead their lives with honor and integrity,” said Hoda Naieem, a Palestinian Parliamentarian who was involved in the exhibition.

A handful of female inmates told Al-Monitor what it meant to be part of an initiative like this, and how they hope it will impact their lives after they are released.

“When they sent me to prison, I cried for three days and I felt in so much despair, but today I feel overjoyed because of this. Thanks to the prison program, I was given a chance to assert myself in society and I learned a profession to support me in the future,” said one woman, serving a 7 year sentence, who took a 9-month cooking course in the Gaza prison.

“The exhibition gave me the opportunity to display my products for the first time in my life. I now have big hopes to take a new path in life. The exhibition made us believe that we should not return to our mistakes and that solving our economic problems is achieved through production rather than unlawful actions,” said another, who made embroidered clothes for the exhibition.

Programs and initiatives that help female inmates look beyond their life behind bars is crucial to ensuring they don’t return. The money spent on these programs while they are still incarcerated means long-term benefit for the women as well as the community once they are released, as they have the opportunity to be financially independent while also contributing to the economy.

Giving inmates a new perspective on life will also help break down stigma that is present elsewhere.

“When my sentence is over, I look forward to honing my skills, starting my own pastry and dessert startup and correcting the negative image society has of me,” said another inmate who was part of the ‘Glimmer of Hope’ exhibition.

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