Phila. judges help inmates to stand for themselves

By Amaris Elliott-Engel, The Legal Intelligencer | July 6, 2011

Stoneleigh Fellow Kathleen Creamer is featured by The Legal Intelligencer.

The conference attendees sat on rows of plastic chairs, looking slightly bored, as any group of people who have to keep still in a large room tend to do.

Unlike the usual conference, the women were garbed in blue prison scrubs and sitting in a prison gymnasium. When the 100 or so inmates attending the conference got a chance to ask questions of the keynote speaker, state Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, they lit up.

Washington was as good as any professional motivational speaker, telling the women: “It’s not how you fall. It’s how you get up.”

Usually, the women held by the Philadelphia Prison System’s Riverside Correctional Facility are brought by prison vans and buses to the Center City criminal courthouse and led up elevators in the core of the Criminal Justice Center to appear on judges’ courtroom turf. But late last month, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judges went to the women held in Philadelphia’s jails for a conference aiming to help the women plan for life back on the outside.

The National Association of Women Judges has organized similar conferences on the inside of prison walls in other parts of the country, but the “Success In and Out Conference” was the first time that the Philadelphia chapter of the NAWJ has organized such a conference, organizers said.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Doris A. Pechkurow, chair of the conference steering committee, said that any woman, whether a government official, a head of a corporation or a sales clerk at Wal-Mart, struggles on how to get food on the table for her family and how to take care of work and other responsibilities. But the conference was an opportunity to give back to women who have the extra problem of re-entering society from incarceration, Pechkurow said.

More than 30 judges, attorneys and social workers presented on etiquette, getting ready for work, parenting, domestic violence, and “Thirty Days Out: I’m Not Coming Back and Here’s Why!” According to Philadelphia Prison System spokesman Robert Eskind, 80 percent of the 700 to 750 women being held by the system are pretrial detainees, and the average length of stay for female inmates is two months.

What Not To Do

Presenter Betty-Ann Soiefer Izenman interrupted the presentation on etiquette in the courtroom and other challenging situations, raising her voice and demanding, “I just need this.”

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns told the women that was an example of what not to do in the real world. The judge gave another example, slumping her shoulders, crossing her arms, looking around and shifting her weight. Shreeves-Johns said bluntly that when she sees cleavage, butt cracks and exposed tattoos, she is seeing “poor judgement.”

When defendants or court litigants act like the court is inconveniencing them, they are jeopardizing the change judges will rule in their favor, the etiquette panelists said.

“What’s the fight for?” Shreeves-Johns asked. “I’m going to win.”

Presenter Renee Norris-Jones told the women, many of whom were black, that she tells her daughter that how she carries herself is very important in society. “You’re black and female,” Norris-Jones said she advises her daughter. “You have to do more. The more people go down there, you stay up here.”

In another workshop session, Kathleen Creamer, a fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation working to improve services for children with incarcerate parents, said that parents only have 15 months after children are taken into foster care before a parents’ rights will be terminated unless there is a change of circumstances. Upon learning about that swift timeline, the women all gasped, and one woman covered her face with her hands while the woman next to her patted her on the shoulder.

Creamer advised that inmates must do anything they can do to keep in touch with their kids, even it is as simple as coloring pictures and mailing them to their children. In one case, such drawings “meant so much to the judge” hearing the case, she said.

Make a Stand for Myself’

During the keynote, Washington told the conference attendees that she had been close to ending up in jail after a tumultuous personal relationship and a stint in a mental hospital inpatient unit. One inmate told Washington, “I haven’t had a childhood.”

Another inmate, Melissa from the E unit, said she is now clean and sober and grateful for how “the program” has helped her in her sobriety. “You have to work your program or your program will work you,” Washington said.

Another woman form the E unit said that she was glad to be back in RCF because “I love myself as of now.”

“Right now, what I’m trying to do is make a stand for myself,” she said.

PPS Commissioner Louis Giorla said that the conference showed a side of judges that can’t be shown in court and “we couldn’t afford to bring them in as a system.”

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer.