By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Nadirah Aasim, then known as Zandononi Day, was a young mother, fresh out of Margaret Washington High School in 1981. She quickly landed a prized government job as a clerk at the city’s Department of Employment Services and saved money by living at home with her mother. Still, she yearned for more – a larger salary, a house of her own, a husband, and freedom to go and come as she pleased.
“I was a go-getter, I had all these dreams, I had all these goals,” recalls Aasim, now, 49. When she moved out of her mother’s house on Ridge Place in southeast Washington into a basement apartment across town in August 1982, leaving a 2-year-old daughter – and her dreams – behind, everything went downhill.
It didn’t take long for her to stumble into the open-air drug markets that dotted her northwest Washington neighborhood. Brazen dope dealers stood in the middle of the street dispensing heroin, cocaine, crack and marijuana as freely and as openly as a nearby McDonald’s sold Big Macs.
“I got the idea that I would be this really good drug dealer,” Aasim said. She started serving customers out of her basement apartment.
Just two months into her new business venture, Aasim started self-medicating on heroin. And before long, she became her best customer. If she made $5,000 in a month, she smoked or injected $4,000. Four months into the drug business, police were kicking in the door of her apartment and placing her under arrest.
For 22 years, Aasim fought a losing battle with drug addiction and domestic abuse, spending time in and out of prison. Her longest stint was at the United States Penitentiary at Hazelton, a high-security federal facility located in the mountains of Prescott County, West Virginia, 35 miles from Morgantown. The facility houses men and women in separate units and sits on 996 sprawling acres. Aasim unceremoniously celebrated her 45th and 46th birthdays there as part of a 2-year sentence for distributing drugs.
According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, the female prison population exploded 832 percent between 1977 and 2007, making women the fastest growing segment of the prison population. More than 200,000 women are in prison or jail in the United States. Another million women are under criminal justice supervision. Twenty-five percent of the women ensnarled in the correctional system, like Aasim, are Black; 15 percent are Latina.
Aasim’s estranged father died while she was locked behind bars in West Virginia. Her mother, the woman that has served as a dependable surrogate mother for Aasim’s children, was ailing by March 2009. Around that period, Aasim began doing something she hadn’t done in 25 years – she began reconnecting with her mother, calling her every day and trying to catch up on life that had bypassed her as she sped along in the fast lane. Four months before her release, the mother of three was tired, hurting and homesick.
Tracye Wilson, the employment coordinator at Our Place DC, visits women in prison to prepare them for the often arduous transition back into their communities and families; 56 percent of women in federal prisons and 62 percent of women in state prisons reported being a parent.
“When I first met [Nadirah], she was slouched down in her chair,” said Wilson. “Her body language was screaming, ‘Here we go with this BS, again.’”
Our Place DC is a non-profit group that has given many formerly and currently incarcerated women reason to hope. According to its Web site, the organization has served more than 10,000 women in the Washington area since 1999. It helps women by providing assistance with work documents and IDs, offering transportation for family visits with incarcerated women and scholarships for college tuition. To Aasim, it sounded too good to be true. “I had to put Our Place DC to the test,” she said. Wilson is accustomed to being tested – and passing those tests with flying colors.
“They ask me questions and I help them figure it out for themselves and it builds self-esteem,” Wilson explains. “I often try to convey to them that there is nothing wrong with seeking advice and asking for help. In fact, that’s what smart people do. It’s called research.”
Aasim started following Wilson’s advice before she was released from Hazelton, and in September 2009, after completing her sentence in a halfway house in Washington, Aasim registered for classes at the National Housing Corporation and Learning Center. Without a computer or a printer, Our Place DC became her personal technology lab.
“I stayed on the computer until they closed doors and they let me and they welcomed me,” Aasim remembers, “When it was all said and done, when I got my certificate in mortgage loan processing in January 2010, I think that they were happier than I was.”
But Aasim quickly learned that she would have to do more than collect certificates and make people feel good, if she wanted be competitive in a shrinking job market.
“Now they’re bringing in these young kids with these degrees,” Aasim said, shaking her head. “Everybody’s figuring it out. We need to go back to school.”
Going back to school may not be enough as the long shadow of a felony conviction follows Aasim and other ex-offenders from job interview to job interview.
A 2010 study for the Center for Economic and Policy Employers found companies were “much less likely to hire ex-offenders.” Most of the employers surveyed – 80 to 90 percent – preferred hiring other disadvantaged groups such as former welfare recipients, workers with limited job skills, or the chronically unemployed over applicants with criminal records.
Wilson said that finding jobs for ex-offenders has always been a challenge, but it looms even larger in today’s tough economic climate.
“When I’ve got 15 applications for people who say that they’ve never been incarcerated and I’ve got your one and you’ve clearly put on there that you’ve been convicted of a felony, why am I going to look at your application?” Wilson asked, rhetorically.
One answer is that most people who serve time in prison will return to their communities at some point. And how well they are re-integrated into their communities may determine whether they will resume a life of crime, costing taxpayers property, money and, in some cases, human life.
Aasim, sober for eight years, acknowledges that it is tempting for ex-offenders discouraged by their job prospects to ponder returning to their life in the streets. But she knows where that trip ends and she doesn’t want to travel there again.
According to a report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007, Black women when compared to White women were more likely to be rearrested (63 percent to 52.2 percent), reconvicted (43.8 percent to 36.2 percent) and returned to prison (34 percent to 26.4 percent). Unemployed ex-offenders are three times more likely to return to prison than those with jobs.
And that return trip comes at a high price – literally.
A June 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that federal, state, and local governments spend nearly $75 billion on corrections per year. The annual cost of incarcerating an inmate in a federal prison ($23,429) nearly doubles what it would cost to send that same person to a public university to earn a degree ($12,804).
President Obama addressed the issue of employing former offenders at a 2010 town hall meeting in Tampa.
“There are a whole lotta folks that have never been to jail who are looking for a job, it’s hard for me to say, ‘I’ll choose the guy that went to jail, instead of the person that never went to jail and has been laid off. What is also true is that if we can’t break the cycle, then all we’re doing is churning folks in a revolving door through the jail system back on the streets back to dealing drugs.”
Women face a unique set of challenges as “returning citizens,” the term preferred by prisoner advocate groups. According to a 2002 report by the Council of Advisors to Reduce Recidivism through Employment (CARRE), women released from prison have less work experience and job skills, and more childcare responsibilities and substance abuse issues than their male counterparts.
That’s why places like Our Place DC are so important.
“It is so important for us to realize that if we don’t go to these agencies, there’s no need for these agencies,” Aasim said. She credits Our Place DC and Tracye Wilson with much of her post-prison success. Her renewed faith in Islam and connection to the Muslim community in D.C. has prompted her to start Aarifa Outreach, a non-profit group that supports domestic abuse victims. At first Aarifah Outreach was just a class project, but now it’s grown into something more. And that’s fine with Aasim.
“I don’t want to be Catholic Charities,” she explained. ”I just want sisters to have a safe place to go and know that other sisters understand the need.”