Coming Home: An Interview With Tina Reynolds

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
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.

Transformative Communities

A Conversation with Tina Reynolds

By: Savannah Clarke

Tina Reynolds was in Guelph on February 24th to speak on a Transformative Justice panel to explore the work that herself and other Black women are doing in their communities to keep each other safe, to resist police violence, and build alternatives to prisons. She took some time to sit down with our interviewer Savannah and share some knowledge.

Savannah: Can you start off with your name and some background on what you do and who you are?

Tina: My name is Tina Reynolds and I am a social worker, a junk-lecturer, I live in Brooklyn, New York. I teach at York College in New York City in the behavioural science department and I’ve been doing that for ten years. I have experienced being in prison and I have been an activist and advocate for over twenty years. Advocating for women, children and families and specifically changing the perception of women as they’ve been impacted by the criminal justice system

S: So what is the importance of meaningful relationships in the work that you do?

T: In 2004, we started an organization called Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH). One of the things that we did for our first strategic meeting was to make an agreement amongst ourselves that our relationships as women who have been impacted by the criminal justice system mattered and had to be put first. That we were stepping out and doing something that was very unique. We were collaborating with our sisters whom we had left behind. Within our own lives we were making a way for them to be able to have some stability once they returned. So, our relationships in establishing those conversations moved towards a co-creative, inclusive, collaborative vision of the organization and the way at which we would do our advocacy work. We knew many people working within the human services and criminal justice services. Some of us had gone back to school and received our degrees. We saw that the resources that were most valuable were ourselves and that we could actually leverage some opportunities for our sisters coming home through our positions in the work that we were doing. The relationships we established in these organizations and amongst ourselves became really important and vital in us assisting women and being there as a resource for when they came home. So relationships are really important.

S: It sounds like it sort of builds the foundation for your organization?

T: Absolutely. We built a foundation and moved through our relationships differently. We’ve all had our experiences that were different from our prison experiences. Within those prison experiences that we had, we came with our own individual passion around the impact and effects of our own prison experience. WORTH was never a mono-issue organization. We always held up and offered opportunities for women and saw that there was an need for dignity and for understanding for how every women served their time and how it is that they came home and what it was that impacted them the most and what drove them to do this work from a passionate place. Usually it was an issue that impacted them terribly during their incarceration that they fought really hard and adamantly for when they came home.

S: Earlier you mentioned your sisters and doing work for those that have been left behind, how do center the voices of those who have been most marginalized in our communities? More specifically from your perspective on working with women in prisons.

T: The organization is called Women on the Rise Telling Her story. It’s our her-story, it’s our linage, our story. Our stories are so important and they can mean different things for different people. What we’ve done with centering our stories is allow ourselves to be seen as experts and to see ourselves in dignity. We’ve been able to see ourselves as women who have had the prison experience and most importantly are not those experiences that we’ve had. We’ve taken our experiences, shaped and molded them to be shared with other people in ways that could be used for presentations, literature, journals, books and poetry. We make sure that we are in the centre of that and how we get that place is an understanding that it is necessary to be fully self-expressed. Full self-expression comes about in many different ways. We’ve centered our voices through full self expression, the dignity offered through others and it’s putting the story in the center.

When we use to open up our office in the morning, we would come in and the first thing we did was sit around a table that was in the middle of the kitchen, in our office in Manhattan. Now our office in is Queens but that Manhattan office was so special to the needs that we had as women. There were times when would come in and we would sit around the table and debrief from the day before of our organizing efforts or whatever it was that we were working on. Often times we didn’t start working until after noon because we just had the need to be in conversation, to hear each others voices and opinions. To find out about what mattered, our children, our challenges and barriers. From one issue to the next, we committed ourselves to doing better and dedicate ourselves to the issue and what is of our passion. They were really great times.

S: So, you mentioned earlier that you own your experiences and that you get to shape and decide how they are used. How do you work to change the narrative of how people see prisons in our communities?

T: For myself, I think that the narrative of prisons had to change from a place where I felt like I was being rescued when I sought out resources after prison. The idea that I had was that prisons were a place of punishments and that notion stands today. It is within our society that we rely on this particular environment to punish people, rehabilitate people and a place where it is politically entangled within various things in our society. It is part of a system that takes the freedom away from people. [However], it is also part of a system that takes the freedom and life of those that are in our communities. It makes [people in our communities] bound to that particular system. If there is a person they love within, they cannot live their lives as if it does not exist. The prison narrative, for me, is looking at it from the context of what has been done to brown and black people throughout our history.This is an environment, a place and a space specifically for those same things to happen under the guise of punishing because someone has committed a crime. Often times the idea of crime is one where there has not been a crime committed at all. There has been more of an issue of criminalizing of people. So, when we think about the things people do and the reason why they were arrested for things that they do is because we have not held our systems of the way in which we are policed, the department of corrections and other systems that prohibit us from being full human beings – have not been held accountable. We have not asked them questions, taken lead or held our power. As long as we continue to not take our power we have a narrative where we feel it is necessary to have prisons within our community and within our lives. I believe in prison abolition. I think there is a way for us to end incarceration. I believe there are ways for us to heal and have difficult conversations. I believe that there are people who commit crimes and I think we should have equality around that. If the rules bend for one, we have to understand that they are stronger and more stringent than the other. So we have those two paradoxes to look at. The conversation around punishment is more important in our society, I think, then the narrative of prisons and what they stand for.

S: What are some challenges that you’ve faced in the work that you do and how did you overcome these challenges?

Tina: The challenge of the work is being at peace with women. Working with women, for me, was the biggest challenge. It was one that I did with joy and I still do with joy. It is that humility that needs to be full and in the center. It is checking ones’ self and your intention. It’s the debriefing and being able to listen to others. As well as, truly being inclusive. It is being able to apologize, rededicate and recommit yourself to being a stand for what it is that you are doing and for those that you are doing it with. Knowing that you need to be a good follower as well as a good leader.

S: My final questions is, do you have any advice for our generation when working on this movement? We’ve talked a lot about exchange of knowledge, how do we build this movement that is intergenerational?

Tina: When I first started college, I always thought about the intergenerational impact of mass incarceration. Now I know that there is an intergenerational impact of mass criminalization of a people, on black lives specifically. When I first heard of #blacklivesmatter, I thought about how it was that all lives mattered and I was excluding myself again. [This is because] Inside, around the trauma that I’ve experienced it’s always been about exclusion of self and inclusion of others and not looking at myself, specifically as a black woman, as my life mattering. I’ve had to take that on in many instances that I’ve had to do this activism work where I’ve had this internalized fear. So, the intergenerational aspect of moving this movement forward, because it’s not a new movement, is including all black and brown people. It is the inclusion of all black lives. It’s the inclusion of all women, trans and queer women. It’s the inclusion of all folks that have been oppressed and dehumanized. It’s the inclusion of trans folks, queer folks, youth and their voices. It’s the inclusion of having folks being able to create and imagine, what it might look like that’s different. It is not being ashamed of what it is you’ve done as a person [ but instead] having it propel you to be fearless of the shame and the guilt. And to understand, especially young folks, that these conversations are happening with all people. Showing up in different spaces is not something that is thought about or planned…it’s happening. The universe is answering and offering. It is creating a space for these conversations, meetings and connections to be made because it’s really important. A friend of mine has always said to me what is very integral to activism are the three C’s. They are to have clarity, remain capable, and maintain compassion. So, the three C’s, for me, are those things. To be really clear and to sit down and be still and to think about what it is that I need to do next and how it is that I’m transforming… as well as other things are transforming around me. Being patient, loving, kind, consistent, available, flexible, a person that is listening, a person that is hearing and involved. Just being.


Tina Reynolds
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.