As more states implement no-cash bail policies to decrease jail populations, it sparks the question of what is being done for those already serving a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony.

The justice system is set up for intaking female felons, but what happens when they are released and are forced to reacclimate in society?

Topeka K. Sam
Topeka K. Sam

The number of women incarcerated in the U.S. is over 222,455, according to the research and advocacy center, The Sentencing Project. One of the reasons can be traced back to The War on Drugs campaign in the 1970s. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, this is reflected in the numbers, with more than 61% of women incarcerated in federal prison for nonviolent drug crimes.

The Ladies of Hope Ministries, founded by Topeka K. Sam, is working to end the poverty crisis and the incarceration of women and girls. It offers safe housing, reentry support and advocacy programs grounded in the lived experiences, insights and ideas of people with direct experience with the criminal justice system. To date, Sam and her team have raised over $11 million and have delivered 9,276 bags of groceries with 488 justice-impacted families served through its Angel Food Delivery Program.

“When you see a person like myself who has overcome so much adversity and who is resilient and has been able to create something out of nothing, it’s inspiring,” Sam shares. “I am the same type of person that comes out of incarceration that is connected, that can provide that same thing for another person’s company. We train women on how to tell their stories and share their experiences so they can be empowered to go in these places and speak up and present themselves in a particular way, so people give them an opportunity. It’s about changing the culture within the companies. It’s about sharing the data because it’s no longer an issue that focuses on one person. One in three families is impacted by incarceration. So this is in every single place and every single company in this country. So it’s no longer their issue; it’s our issue as a country.”

Growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, Sam decided to attend an HBCU college in Baltimore. She dated a guy who sold drugs and became addicted to the type of lifestyle the drug money offered. She became a broker between people looking to buy the drugs and those selling.

Sam eventually dropped out of school. Although she made money in the drug game, she still worked a legitimate job at Amtrak. After starting a side business, she stepped away from the drug hustle for seven years.

Then, one night, everything changed. She received a call asking if she would do one more job—it was a significant movement. Sam agreed because she had dealt with these people in the past. She went into it with the focus that the money she’d earn from this deal would fund her other company’s expansion.

“I found myself arrested in Virginia, included in a superseding indictment in a federal drug sting operation,” Sam explains. “It was a federal sting operation, so no drugs, no one was hurt. It was set up. I was set up, and when I got to court, the judge was like, ‘You’re a drug queen pin in society, no bail.’ So, I found myself sitting in this new community, as I called it.”

Sam spent 21 to 23 hours a day in her isolation cell, so she took classes as a way to get out and be around others. As she heard others’ stories, she began to realize how drugs affect families and communities. Facing 20 years in prison, she plead guilty and received a 130-month sentence.

“I started listening to the sisters in there,” she states. “It was the same underlining issues, but instead of being poor, white, black, coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, low levels of education women, in federal prison, they were doctors, lawyers, senators and judges. We all experienced some type of early childhood trauma, sexual trauma, violence, intimate partner violence, mental health issues, or substance issues… I knew when I left that I could do anything that I wanted to because of the support system that I had. But I knew that a lot of other women that I left behind would not be able to. One day, I woke up and it was clear… I was going to start an organization called The Ladies of Hope Ministries.”

In 2014, Sam’s sentence was reduced to 65-months after she wrote a letter to the judge, and in 2015, she was released. Although she began structuring LOHM in prison, under mentorship, she started implementing her vision once she got out.

Today, Sam has 15 full-time employees. She works with contractors and consultants and supports thousands of women and girls worldwide. She’s built housing units in New York, New Orleans and Maryland. Additionally, the organization has reconnected families and secured job opportunities for its participants.

For example, Marta Barreto, a Pathways 4 Equity fellow, now serves as a propulsion technician at Virgin Orbit. After returning from the Navy, she faced turbulent and traumatic times, leading to her incarceration. After her release, Barreto received a degree in career and technical education.

Sam serves on the board of directors for Coalition for Public Safety, The Marshall Project, Operation Restoration and United Justice Coalition. As she continues to assist others, she focuses on the following essential steps:

  • Believe in something greater than yourself.
  • If you don’t like your current situation, take action to change it.
  • Make it a point to heal. The world doesn’t owe you anything; it’s up to you to make your goals a reality.

“In all pain, there is the purpose,” Sam concludes. “Whatever it is that I may experience and go through, it is because I’m being shaped to be able to endure and withstand something greater.”

Source: Cheryl Robinson:

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