Women emerging from prison face formidable challenges

COLUMBUS — On a cold and dreary October day, Heather C. Jarvis packed everything she had into a pink duffle and a plastic trash bag and waited for the rest of her life to begin.

Sitting in the lobby of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, she smiled anxiously as her longtime therapist told her she’d be fine, that she was ready for the outside world. She had checked all the boxes during her nearly 10 years behind bars — substance abuse treatment, professional development, even earning an associate’s degree — and had people intent on helping her.

“Sometimes, I’m just so scared that it’s not enough,” Jarvis, her voice breaking, told The Associated Press before her release.

Jarvis, 32, is part of the fastest-growing prison population in the country, one of more than 190,000 women held in some form of confinement in the United States as of this year. Their numbers grew by more than 500% between 1980 and 2021, more than twice the growth rate for men, according to a report by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

The sharp increase is partially due to the increased penalties and mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and trafficking that many states have implemented over the past few decades. Approximately 25% of incarcerated women are in prison for drug-related crimes, compared to 12% of men, according to the 2023 report. Ohio — an epicenter of the opioid crisis — is among the states that experienced the most dramatic jump in female prisoners.

Programs aimed at helping women stay out of prison once they’re released have not grown at nearly the same pace, according to the National Institute of Justice.

“Women’s incarceration grew very rapidly in the early 2000s, but it took a good decade or so before the field really acknowledged the widening gap between available programs and services and the number of women who need them,” said Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy nonprofit.

That makes the journey harder for women, who confront different challenges than their male counterparts. Over half, for example, are mothers to minor children, the group says.

“Women face all of the same barriers that men face in reentry — securing employment, housing, and transportation, and reestablishing family connections — but with an extra level of difficulty,” Sawyer said. “For example, housing … often forces women to choose between homelessness and returning to abusive situations, while in contrast, many men return to female supports: mothers, wives, girlfriends.”

There is also the issue of sexism.

“There is more stigma attached to a woman getting involved in a crime or using drugs than there is men,” remarked Linda Janes, chief operating officer of Alvis, a Columbus-based nonprofit that works with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to provide reentry services, including housing and job assistance.

Jarvis is one of the lucky ones. In October, she was released into “transitional control” at Alvis, and she’s already found an apartment to live in after her time there is up. Columbus is far from her hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia — a long way from the friends she did drugs with and the family members who overdosed or went to jail themselves while struggling with substance misuse.

In 2015, Jarvis pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and involuntary manslaughter after a friend was fatally shot by a man whom he tried to force to withdraw cash from an ATM. The man’s son owed Jarvis and her friend money — funds they needed to fuel their mutual drug addiction. In Ohio, someone can be charged with murder if their accomplice dies while committing or fleeing from a crime. Jarvis’ guilty plea reduced her charges.

Now, after serving her time, she is ready to start anew. She’s employed, attending The Ohio State University to get a degree in social work, and was recently granted full custody of the oldest of her two daughters, 17-year-old Adessa.

But her longing to be with her children more than Alvis allowed led her to violate the terms of her release. She moved into her apartment with Adessa, despite being forbidden from living outside transitional housing without another adult.

Jarvis’ mother — who had been approved to live with her but could only stay part time — reported her daughter to her parole officer. She was upset about Jarvis’ decision to reconcile with the father of her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Anna.

So now, Jarvis is back at Alvis. Adessa and Anna are living with Jarvis’ mother back in Parkersburg.

Still, she hasn’t given up. While she doesn’t expect Adessa to return, she is working toward gaining shared custody of Anna with Anna’s father in the hopes that they will all live together soon in Columbus. She and Anna — who was 5 months old when Jarvis went to prison — have been slowly checking off a bucket list during their brief moments together. It includes eating Takis, a spicy snack made of rolled corn tortilla chips, and for the first time in Anna’s life, having Jarvis brush her hair.

“I think that was like, the moment for me when I was like, I’m going to get to be her mom,” Jarvis said.

She is also still coming to grips with her new freedom and the daunting number of decisions she now has to make for herself: choosing what she wears, whom she talks to on the phone, what she buys with her own money.

“I remember how strange it felt to put clothes on and look at myself in the mirror,” she said, recalling the tears that flowed freely her first night at Alvis. “I sat there in front of it for a while trying to decide if I recognized myself.”

Her discomfort is echoed in life outside, where society is not necessarily embracing her with open arms. One day, she was forced to explain to a Verizon employee that she had no credit to buy a cellphone because she had been in prison for almost a decade. And just when she was about to start orientation for a job at an addiction treatment center in Columbus, her application was dropped. Even though she never directly harmed anyone herself, her record listed a violent felony, which disqualified her.

“No matter what I do, it’s (the felony’s) always gonna be violent,” Jarvis said in a video message, sobbing into the camera. “I’m not a violent person.”

Jarvis has since gotten a job as a restaurant server. On April 20, she will finally be able to move full time into the two-bedroom apartment, a space lovingly furnished with hand-painted mason jars and donated furniture. Anna’s bedroom has been tenderly decorated in a pink and purple color scheme.

As the date of her full independence approaches like a fast-moving train filled with the cargo of her past and future life, she has trouble separating her anticipation from her anxiety.

For now, she knows the two emotions will have to coexist.

Sitting in the apartment during a recent interview, she takes a deep breath.

“I’m proud I’m doing what I said I was going to do,” she finally says. “I am the person I thought I was, even on my bad days.”