Still Here: A story of incarceration and gentrification in the US

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Women are the fastest-growing imprisoned population in the United States. Since 1980, the number has increased by 750 percent. In 2017, there were more than 225,060 women in US prisons and jails. Eighty percent of those were mothers and two-thirds were women of colour. 

But what awaits the roughly two million American women and girls released from prisons and jails each year? 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a US think-tank that researches the effect of mass criminalisation, most policies and programmes for formerly jailed people are still focused on men. This, despite the fact that formerly imprisoned women – particularly women of colour – are more likely to experience homelessness and unemployment and are less likely to have a high school education than men who have been released from jail or prison.

For many, release can mean entering a new type of confinement – a kind of social prison where they struggle to overcome the stigma of their past incarceration and to find jobs, safe and affordable housing and to reconnect with family. About 60 percent end up back in prison within three years.

For those women returning to communities transformed by gentrification – to neighbourhoods they scarcely recognise – the transition to life on the outside can be particularly difficult.

While gentrification happens all over the world, in the US it is inextricably linked to incarceration: as mass incarceration places disproportionate numbers of African American men and women behind bars, gentrification forces low-income people of colour from their homes, their communities, their neighbourhoods. Both feed a cycle of poverty, crime and racialised over-policing.

AJ Contrast, Al Jazeera’s immersive storytelling and media innovation studio, wanted to explore the effect of incarceration and gentrification on women of colour in the US. The resulting immersive multimedia project called Still Here follows Jasmine Smith, a fictional character who returns home to Harlem, New York City after being locked up for 15 years. 

Still Here premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and comprises three components – interactive VR, audio with AR and a photo gallery. 

How to watch Still Here: 

  • Interactive VR: Created for VR headsets, the 25-minute interactive film about incarceration and re-entry follows Jasmine as she returns to her grandmother’s brownstone in Harlem.
  • Audio with AR: Optimised for iPad Pros, the 18-minute story about gentrification is divided into three chapters in which Jasmine interacts with her uncle, a coffee shop owner and a homeless person.
  • Photo Gallery: The online gallery showcases the lives of the women whose stories informed the project.

In Still Here, the viewer is immersed in Jasmine’s world as she grapples with the reality of a community that no longer looks the same and seeks to rebuild her life post-incarceration. 

Her narrative is based on the real-life experiences of formerly imprisoned women, some of whom are part of the Women’s Prison Association (WPA) advocacy group and who collaborated on the project.

Here are some of their stories:

Claude: ‘I was in prison longer than I was ever free’

Age when imprisoned: 19 | Age when released: 44 | Sentence served: 25 years | Year of release: 2017

Still Here - Claude in prison [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

A portrait of Claude six weeks before her release from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Bedford Hills, New York, 2016 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

“I was in prison longer than I was ever free. I always hoped in the back of my mind that I would win an appeal or something, but it never happened.

“I had to resign [myself to being imprisoned] and live because I was just angry and depressed for a long time and tried to sleep the time away.”

Claude described the day in 2017 when she was released as being like “a rebirth”. Her sister and nephew were waiting for her outside the prison.

“The sliding doors opened. I walked through. I took a deep breath. I thought, ‘wow, this is really happening’. And I came through the door and saw my sister and my nephew and it was just like, I’m finally home!”

That was three years ago. Now she is living in Albany, New York, with her boyfriend, Mark, whom she met when he was a civilian working in the prison in 1995. Claude hopes she will soon be “discharged from parole and finally be home free”.

One of the first things she did after being released was to get a makeover.

“If you had met my mom, God bless her, [Claude’s mother died while she was in prison] she always had nails. Even when I was home, I always got my nails done. When I got incarcerated, I kept on doing my own nails, my own hair. Doing that was the one thing that stated, ‘I am a woman,’ because everything about the jail was dehumanising, was to strip a woman of her womanhood. So coming out, I was looking forward to someone pampering me.”

But not everything on the outside has been so easy.

While Claude has been able to finish her bachelor’s degree since her release and build stronger bonds with her family and friends, the hardest part of life post-incarceration has been looking for a job.

“Society isn’t forgiving,” she explains. “Because of that, I’m in the process of starting my own business teaching people anger management with the goal of … opening the doors of employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.” 

Still Here - Claude walking out the prison door [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Claude steps out of prison into the arms of her sister, 2017 [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Leah: ‘I was released back into a society that was unknown to me’

Age when imprisoned: 23 | Age when released: 44 | Sentence served: 21 years | Year of release: 2019

Still Here - Leah front stoop [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Leah outside her mother’s home in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

“In July of 1997, at the age of 23, I was arrested for a homicide. After being detained on Rikers Island for three years, I was convicted and sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of 21 years to life in prison.

“On January 15, 2019, after serving months shy of my 22nd-year mark, I was released back into a society that was unknown to me. 

“Where there was minimal technology prior to me going to prison, I was thrown into a world that exists on technology. That in itself presented huge difficulties for me in my transition.”

Despite this, Leah eventually found herself two jobs – one as a supervisor at a company supplying restaurants and another working evenings and Sundays at a recently opened neighbourhood restaurant.

“I need two jobs,” she explains. “The price of living is high.”

She is living with her mother and the fact that she is able to contribute financially towards the household is one of the accomplishments of which she is most proud. 

The area in which she grew up and now lives with her mother has changed a lot since she was imprisoned.

“When I lived here it was Black/West Indian,” she says. “But now there are a lot of Caucasians in the area. There are a lot of new structures being built. If I had to live around here on my own, I couldn’t afford it.”

The area is not all that has changed.

“As much as I desire to, I will never be able to change my past, but I have allowed my past to change me,” Leah explains. “Today I realise that it will never be about me, but in my endeavours to do better and be better, I know it starts with me.

“Today I make better choices and I have better ways to cope in any situation without resorting to violence. I have become a respectable, responsible, selfless, compassionate, humbled and mature woman who is always conscious of the people I have hurt and the damage I have done.”

Still Here - Leah work [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Leah at work at a recently-opened neighbourhood restaurant, Brooklyn, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Tamanika: ‘I fought the system and won’

Age when imprisoned: 37 | Age when released: 40 | Sentence served: Three years | Year of release: 2017

Still Here - Tamanika transitional housing bedroom [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Tamanika holding a photo she took of her bedroom in her transitional housing, Long Island City, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

“I am the proud mother of four children.”

When Tamanika was sent to prison, three of her four children were put in foster care, while her oldest child stayed with her family.

“The court tried to terminate my parental rights but I fought hard and it didn’t happen,” she explains. “I had a wonderful team of lawyers from Bronx Defenders [a non-profit that seeks to transform how low-income people from the Bronx are represented in the justice system]. My lawyer said, ‘over my dead body will I let them take your kids.’ I told her I only thought they said that in the movies.”

After Tamanika was released from prison, she first lived in a shelter in the Bronx for two weeks before being transferred to a shelter in Lower Manhattan that was run by the Women’s Prison Association. In April 2018, her son was returned to her care. Two months later, her daughters were also returned to her.

“I’m grateful to say that I fought the system and won. It has been a long journey. We will finally be moving into our own apartment soon.”

Still Here - Tamanika and three of four children [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Tamanika with three of her four children – Shania, 15, Taylor, 12, and Syncir, 19. Long Island City, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Kamilah: ‘Are my problems that unique?’

Still Here - Kamilah and Jeyson waiting for the bus [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Kamilah with her five-year-old son Jeyson waiting for the bus after picking him up from school in Bronx, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

“I grew up with my maternal grandparents, my mother, my uncle and his son. We all lived in the same household,” explains Kamilah of her childhood in the Bronx.

“My mom stayed home with me when I was young and I was reading by the time I was two-and-a-half. I do think highly of books and I just recently got myself a bookshelf at my home. It’s almost full.”

Kamilah now lives with her five-year-old son and works as an associate producer at a hi-tech company.

She had hoped to become a nurse but was dismissed from her nursing programme after she was arrested. She says her mental health suffered greatly during this time but credits the WPA’s Justice Home programme with changing her life.

“It allowed me to use my voice and struggles to create the change I wanted to see,” she says, adding: “It’s important to rehabilitate folks that suffer from factors related to criminogenic risk. Taking punitive measures only exacerbates the unfortunate circumstances.”

Although things have been going well for Kamilah since she was released, there are still challenges.

“Even though I have the skills and tools necessary to be successful in the corporate world, there are still a lot of barriers, like having lack of access to resources,” she explains. “I’m a single parent, I’m pregnant, and my commute is difficult every day.

“Are my problems that unique?” she asks. “Do most people have a better support system than me?”

Of her childhood home in the Bronx, she reflects: “I’m starting to see signs of gentrification. There’s a lot less affordable housing.”

Still Here - Kamilah at home [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Kamilah at home, Morris Park, Bronx, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Elaine: ‘A degree and city job did not insulate me from being wrongfully accused’

Still Here - Elaine and daughter in park [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Elaine and daughter, Elaine Jr, in a park, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Elaine’s husband is serving a 45-year sentence in a state prison in Connecticut. He was arrested in 2016 and, Elaine explains, because their Islamic marriage was not recognised by the state, they do not have any marital privileges.

“As a result, I was charged as a co-defendant rather than recognised as a spouse he has confided in.”

“A Bachelor’s degree and city job did not insulate me from being wrongfully accused and guilty by association,” she says. “My grandmother bailed me out after four days of not knowing where I was because I never received my one phone call.”

“After three years of fighting for my freedom, I plead guilty via the Alford doctrine to hindering prosecution in the second degree so that I could be home with my three-year-old daughter.”

She now couch surfs because of the stigma associated with renting to a felon and because she does not want to put her grandparents at risk of eviction.

“Any change in employment, housing or travel outside of the five boroughs [of New York City] need to be approved by my probation officer,” she says. “Going to Palisades Mall on a whim is out of the question or any other family fun weekend activities that are not approved 30 to 90 days in advance.”

Elaine speaks to her husband three times a week. “Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes. Each call costs $4,” she explains.

But she cannot visit him as she would not pass the necessary background check on account of having been arrested herself. As a result, someone else from the family must take her daughter, Elaine Jr, to visit her father. She has “seen her father seven times in her life”.

Evelyn: ‘It feels like I’m paying for my freedom’

Age when imprisoned: 18 | Age when released: 36

Still Here - Evelyn executive chef [Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

Evelyn is now an executive chef in Long Island City, New York, 2019 [File: Sara Bennett/Al Jazeera]

“I had a lot of trials and tribulations coming home to New York City,” says Evelyn of her release. “I was by myself because my family was in Puerto Rico.”

But she managed to get a grant and joined a culinary programme. “I cook like my grandma. That’s the best instructor you can have. Everything she cooked was natural.”

Now, she is an executive chef. “The job comes with a little bit of stress,” she says, “but I’m proud of myself to see the role I’m in.”

“I have a wife, family, apartment,” Evelyn explains. “And my life continues. I’m on a roll, always looking for betterment in my life.”

“When you’re on parole, you have to pay a fee. I don’t know what it’s for. It feels like I’m paying for my freedom … I have to pay $30 a month, which is the maximum. I’ve been paying from the very beginning.”  

For more information about the project, visit: ajcontrast.com/still-here. For instructions on how to watch it, go to the “Watch Still Here” page.

Still Here: A story of incarceration and gentrification in the US

Women are the fastest-growing imprisoned population in the United States. Since 1980, the number has increased by 750 percent. In 2017, there were more than 225,060 women in US prisons and jails. Eighty percent of those were mothers and two-thirds were women of colour.

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