by Savannah Taylor
I had the privilege of chatting with Tina for the second time for The Peak about her work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in the state of New York. My intention upon interviewing her was to chat on what has led her to where she is today. Admittedly, I expected a play-by-play account of all the brilliant advocacy work she has done. However, what ensued touched on something much more beautiful and something many of us can relate to… Family and sisterhood.
Do you wanna introduce yourself and what you do?
Tina: I am the co-founder and chair of WORTH (Women On the Rise Telling Her Story), which is a volunteer organization that is led and run by currently and formerly justice-involved women. We’ve been around since 2008, and we’ve done some phenomenal things, like changing legislation and policy and bringing about laws that impact women who have experienced incarceration. Two years ago, I began working at The Child Center of NY to develop and implement A Vision for Tele-Visiting (AVTV), a program that offers the logistical, emotional, and wraparound support to assists families in maintaining meaningful relationships during a parent’s incarceration and preparing for a successful reentry into family and community life. We provide reentry support, family support along with youth activities, leadership development and tele-visits, as well as mental health support and wraparound services, such as job placement assistance and benefits counseling. The Child Center has a powerful community presence, reaching more than 26,000 children a year. It’s located in Queens, NY, which includes neighborhoods where the numbers of children impacted by parental incarceration are among the highest. What better place to offer services to children with justice-involved mothers?
So WORTH, from what I remember from the last time we chatted, came out of your own experiences from being incarcerated, correct?
Tina: Yes! WORTH came out of the experiences that I had and many other women had from our incarceration. We came out of prison with a feeling that there was not much ready for us to become successful and remain out in the free world. So, we began by having conversations amongst ourselves to see how we could support each other and support our sisters coming home.
Did you wanna touch more on your new program that WORTH is focusing on now?
Tina: We are focused on our partnership with The Child Center to provide services through AVTV, which in turn focuses on mothers and children within New York State Facilities, for women in NYC who are housed in Bedford and Taconic correctional facilities. We also offer tele-visiting services within Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center for women, where we offer services to families, youth, and mothers with children. There is this tele-visiting boom happening within the nation, and not all programs are thinking about the relationship between the child or family member and the justice-involved person. Here in New York, there are organizations like The Osborne Association, Hour Children, and The Child Center who always put the child first, and honour the relationship between the child and his or her parent.
It is important to offer supplemental services to physical visits–although it is very important for children to see, feel, and touch their parent through physical visits–in addition to offering families a safe space to heal and move forward with their lives. We have three sites in Queens and a tele-visit can basically be done every day. We facilitate visits in Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities, as well as Rose M. Singer centre in Rikers Island 1.
1. Westchester, Bedford, Taconic and Rikers Island are all prisons located in the Tri-State Area
It’s interesting because the program originally started out with the focus on just the state facilities, but after talking with the CEO of The Child Center, Traci Donnelly, she agreed we should offer tele-visiting to women with children because there was the possibility of continuation of services if Mom was transferred up state. She also envisioned us working with youth and opening visits up to families.
Before you were with WORTH and before you started organizing, who was Tina? What was Tina up to?
Tina: (laughs) well that’s a long time ago. I really did not know who I was; I knew who I wanted to be, though. I knew I wanted to help women and children. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, so I became involved in an organization and began sharing my story about my experience as an incarcerated woman. I had been home for about 12 months? I began pursuing an undergraduate degree and raising my last two children and reuniting with my other children, changing my life through the love of others and being really grateful for being out. So my primary focus was on my family because I have seven children and I’d been out of their lives for so long. In the first 5 years, my efforts were to basically reunify with my own children. To establish a relationship with them or assist them with establishing a relationship with each other. They were raised by various family members throughout the tri-state area…so they were pretty much dispersed throughout New York and New Jersey. Reunification is difficult and challenging. I had to swallow my pride, be strong, give voice to my emotions, and remain humble. My main focus was for my children to have a relationship with each other, grow and live happy lives. I am happy my family stepped in and supported them through my incarcerations.
It sounds like you had a very solid foundation of focusing on your family unit. Did that carry over to your advocacy work and WORTH?
Tina: It certainly carried over. My family experiences through my incarceration and the unification process with my children certainly intersected with my work. I often found myself speaking with sisters who had experienced the same situations and the challenges of unification with their own families and children. They were facing the challenges of the choices their family members had made who were taking care of their children in their absence. So, I always wanted to make sure I focused on those issues in regard to reproductive health but also family stability once Mom came home. Because it’s so important! Mothers tend to think about their children during their incarceration. They think and wonder about their safety and who their friends are and whether they’re faring well and things that they have missed as far as conversations–as well as, the “firsts” in any child’s life; regardless of how old they are, there are always “firsts” that happen in your child’s life that you are definitely missing if you are incarcerated and you can’t get those times back. So, I’ve always been about doing the work but also realizing that there are challenges around re-establishing relationships with those you love. And continuing to strengthen those relationships as you are out, being true to yourself and asking your children to be true to themselves and coming up with some specific guidelines of how you would engage with them and how to be with them. Since you being there physically is such a big missing in their lives during incarceration, even if you see them regularly, speak with them regularly during your incarceration, you are still not there. Each one of my children are different people and each one of them have/had different needs. While they wanted me in their lives, there were certain things that they wanted from me and I had to realize my own limitations. Not always monetarily, but emotionally, because as I was growing through my process of being home, I was also growing through my process emotionally of being the person who I am today. I hadn’t really spent that much time learning who I was, and so I could do things but I wasn’t attached to the emotion behind the things I did. I wanted to be attached to the emotion; those were the most difficult challenges because I had spent so much time without feelings in order to survive in a very selfish and selfless world.
How do you feel like your communication/unification process has changed since you started your advocacy work to now?
Tina: Well, basically, so much has happened in my advocacy work in relation to my children. I’ve been an editor in an anthology, Interrupted Lives: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, where I shared a story about my last daughter and reuniting when she was 20 years old. Now, some 9 years later, she is in my life and she has three children and is married. My other children have gotten married. My daughters were married first and have strong and stable relationships with their husbands. My sons are not married yet. My children and I have always communicated, and my communication is unique to each child. I speak with some more than others. However, we have always communicated. It has transformed over the years into a relationship of dignity and respect and love. My advocacy work is all my children see and know I do, they observe my commitment and dedication to others. They are an integral part of my growth. Advocacy is an integral part of my growth, sisterhood is a big part of who I am.
Do you feel like WORTH is a place for women to come and rebuild things that have been lost or forgotten while they were incarcerated?
Tina: So even WORTH has transitioned and transformed into something different. We closed our office in Manhattan a few years back and now we’ve been working specifically on this tele-visiting. . Our mantra has always been “once you’re a member of WORTH you’re always a member of WORTH” because it’s a volunteer organization. Women were inspired and moved towards gaining employment and seeking a higher education while volunteering at WORTH. It’s always been a volunteer program and because of our movement women have gone on and done different phenomenal things for themselves in their lives. They come back and touch base and we end up being in certain spaces together. We were able to join as a group of women to the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples Movement. It is always inspiring to meet so many women across the nation who have been impacted by incarceration and gone on to do phenomenal things. So, WORTH has grown as I have grown, and it hasn’t looked like something that I wanted in the beginning, but when things transform, it’s just like relationships with your children. You have this idea of how this relationship is going to be. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gonna turn out like that. So, how do you adjust to the ways in which it does turn out and how can you keep moving forward knowing that that’s your position in the world and that’s the purpose you’ve been placed here for? So, through the transition of WORTH, in many ways, it’s not where we were before, but what can we look like in the future? So working within the prison now, we’re looking at it from a perspective of having leadership coming out of the facilities we are offering services in. Having the women come in and join us in this process and guide us from that place (because we’ve been home a lot longer) where they see the impacts of incarceration on themselves and their families being different within this world of social media and technology. We have to give folks that are coming out a safe space and a chance to be fully self-expressed.
How would you describe WORTH now then? Is it still a sisterhood?
Tina: It is still a sisterhood! It is always and will always be a sisterhood of women. There are so many women who have been a part of WORTH that it will never not be a sisterhood. Because of our experiences–some of us have experienced incarceration together, gone through education together or organized together. So, it will never not be a sisterhood… We are continuing the work moving forward, we’re just doing it differently. It’s sort of transformed into something else.
Tina Reynolds is Co-Founder and Chair of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH). WORTH is an association of formerly and currently incarcerated women who have been empowered by their own experiences while involved in the criminal justice system and beyond. Reynolds has received a Master in Social Work from Hunter College and is currently an adjunct professor at York, CUNY in the Behavioral Sciences Department teaching “Impact of Incarceration on Families, Communities and Children” and Human Development.