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YWCA builds people back up after incarceration

Shay Tolise, Kate Brunk, and Candice Byrd of YWCA Labyrinth Made Goods and YW Strive joined WGLT in studio for a special edition of Sound Ideas.
Charlie Schlenker
Shay Tolise, Kate Brunk, and Candice Byrd of YWCA Labyrinth Made Goods and YW Strive joined WGLT in studio for a special edition of Sound Ideas.

More than 640,000 Americans returned to communities from prison or jail each year, according to a Brookings Institution study. Many will be back in prison in three years and 76% within five years, according to nationwide figures. A lack of institutional support, statutorily imposed legal barriers, stigmas, low wages — they all mean prison sentences can effectively be for life, especially for residents of black and brown communities.

One of the most important ways to break apart the interrelated snarl of factors that leads to recidivism is to deal with the repetitive trauma they produce both before and after incarceration, said Kate Brunk, the director of Labyrinth Made Goods, a program of the YWCA McLean County that teaches people how to transition from employment into running their own business. The Y also runs a transitional program called Labyrinth House, and a career training program, YW Strive.

“In Illinois, 43% of people who are exiting prisons and jails will likely be re-incarcerated within three years. The work we do with Labyrinth Outreach and Labyrinth Made Goods helps reduce that number. 80% of the women we work with have not been reincarcerated within three years, and additionally have not gained any new charges,” said Brunk during a special edition of WGLT's Sound Ideas newsmagazine.

Listen to the full episode
This episode of Sound Ideas aired April 6, 2022

"When someone's incarcerated, whether it's pretrial or after a conviction, they typically lose their job. They might be evicted and lose housing. Then they have an eviction record. They might lose custody of their children. People tend to struggle to maintain friend and family relationships. It puts a strain on networks of support individuals need to thrive," said Brunk.

When people get out of jail or prison, they face further barriers, finding a job, rebuilding credit, getting copies of key documents like birth certificates, and renewing or getting a driver’s license. All of those take time to navigate.

“For somebody who is still processing the harm or trauma that they've experienced, that can be insurmountable if they don't have supports to help,” said Brunk.

Candice Byrd is the coordinator of YW Strive and has lived experience of rebuilding after incarceration.

“I would say from countless denials from jobs and apartments, it's a sense of hopelessness and a sense of losing that will,” said Byrd. “I think the biggest issue for me was being hirable. Any amount of education, qualification, and certifications I had still gets overlooked.”

That has also been true for Shay Tolise, the lead apprentice at Labyrinth Made Goods, a not-for-profit that makes scented candles and other products as a model to teach people rejoining society how to run a business.

“I lost full confidence in myself, like society had turned its back on me,” said Tolise.

Tolise has a Class 1 felony on her record. She said her boyfriend at the time dealt drugs using her apartment, though she affirmed the conviction was not a false one.

Even some agencies constructed to provide financial and housing help were not there for her because of the Class 1 nature of the felony.

“Where do I turn now? My family looked at me differently because I was such a golden child. I had worked since I was 14 years old, helping my family out and now I wasn't able to get a job. The disappointment was a big burden I was carrying,” said Tolise.

She felt like giving up multiple times. Building resiliency is not easy, and Tolise said she still struggles with that, though Labyrinth programs have helped.

We have different choices

YWCA programs frame it not as somebody having "made a bad choice," but identifying the choices people really had leading up to incarceration. Those may not be the ones white middle class America has if they did not have financial stability, a supportive family, and so on.

“When some of those opportunities and support are taken away, it doesn't mean that people think that they have the same choices, right? One of the things we do to help overcome internal barriers is to reframe that shame and guilt they might feel. To see it from a different perspective,” said Brunk.

She said the women who seek help through the Y programs are already displaying resiliency. And Labyrinth tries to reinforce positive messages.

“I personally just needed an opportunity to showcase who I really was, what I was actually capable of, and then someone to validate that. I am not my past. I'm not this conviction. I am not my record. I am more of a person than that,” said Candice Byrd.

Byrd said she tries to remind people that they are not the doors that have been shut in their face.

“Let's erase that and look at what matters to you, what gives you intrinsic value, what would be happiness to you? Let's look at what that looks like. And then let's start making a roadmap to get there, despite your barriers. And if something comes up, let's work together to remove those barriers,” said Byrd.

Byrd said it’s important for the women to know they are not alone, because navigating a complex world can be confusing.

Shay Tolise said it is a work in progress with stops and starts. Tolise graduated YW Strive and became an apprentice at Labyrinth Made Goods.

“I held down my head, like the whole time in class. I was self-doubting. My favorite word was ‘I can't.’ I can't do this. I'm scared. I don't know how to do this. And Candice taught me how to rephrase those words, and how to know my self-worth,” said Tolise.

What YWCA offers

Research shows the biggest risk factors for going back through the criminal justice system are stable housing and employment, Brunk said.

Labyrinth Outreach Services has eight beds for transitional housing purposes, though there is a waiting list. They also try to connect people with landlords, though some will not rent to people with that kind of history.

YW Strive is a career development and workplace advancement program open to anyone in McLean County, though it focuses on people with lived experience of incarceration. Most prisons don't give you access to workforce training, computer technology, and resume building, even as little as communication and professional writing. But Strive goes beyond the basics and tries to focus on the whole person and what makes a desirable employee, said Brunk.

“This gives a free, accessible opportunity to people to learn who they are, and what it is they want out of life,” said Brunk. “The meat of it is learning how to make appropriate decisions; how to budget effectively for you and your family; and how to use critical thinking. What are some steps and tools you can use that are realistic and work for you in moments where you feel uncomfortable?”

One thing Tolise said she took from classes is professionalism. Till then she always sat at the back of the class, didn’t talk much, and didn’t like presentations. Tolise said she came to accept those things are just parts of life.

“I'm not all the way there yet. But Strive was just the beginning,” said Tolise.

Studies show even if you have two people who have the same qualifications, the one who has a record is less than half as likely to get the job. And so, many get stuck in low wage jobs well below their qualifications. Kate Brunk said this too is part of the internal negative self-talk that happens to people coming out of incarceration. Brunk said the YW is turning to that issue too.

“I'm excited about figuring out what our employer engagement piece can look like, helping people, employers, and supervisors change the narratives in their mind around incarceration, said Brunk.

Unique barriers for women

The barriers faced by people with incarceration in their lives are even higher for women than for men.

“My husband has a background. And I have a background. I've been looking for an apartment. Outside of slum landlords it is so hard for me to find one. He, on the other hand, finds good apartments,” said Tolise. “What is the difference? It's because you're a male, and I'm a female.”

There are also wage gaps. Byrd said men tend to present themselves to potential employers with more confidence than women do. And it works. And she said more women than men grapple with childcare.

“I personally applied for nanny.com to have a babysitter so I could do some evening work and they denied me because of my criminal background, which is well over seven years old. I hadn't no idea that you had to do a criminal background check to pay someone to watch your children," said Byrd.

They noted the Child Care Resource and Referral Network also has guidelines that may exclude people with criminal records.

“We can be a first step for that. We can be a springboard for them to get gainful employment, doing things like project management, sales and marketing,” said Brunk. "We have lots of different projects within business administrative work that we need to grow our new business that also offers our apprentices, great opportunities for work experience and learning.”

Tolise said the toughest part of this has been developing a business plan.

“It also pushed me. It told me whether I wanted to go through with it or was something I'm not going to do. It gave me an idea of what to expect when I want to open my art gallery,” said Tolise of her dream business.

In addition to the importance of the process and the structure, Labyrinth Made Goods actually makes products. It launched in 2020, with five scented 100% soy candles. The scents are crafted from scratch, bespoke fragrances are unique just to those candles. They began with five and now have eight scents. There are plans to offer a new product line this summer, something in home fragrance.

Brunk said the need for the Labyrinth programs is not quantifiable. Not only do they help restore human beings to confidence and full function, they save money for the rest of society.

“Each reincarceration costs taxpayers over $150,000. We're spending a tremendous amount of money to send folks back through this system that has in the end created potentially more harm and barriers for them when they come back to our community. And we're not investing in those supports and resources to help them rebuild in the same way, said Brunk.

She said they need more case managers, job coaches, and opportunities to place people in jobs.

“We need opportunities to help give more folks like Shay and Candice the opportunity to find confidence and regain that dignity hey have in themselves,” said Brunk.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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