Tonya Hayes was worried sick about her son, Tivontre. She had been separated from him for two years and had only heard from him once. Although Tivontre was a 24-year-old adult, Tonya loved and missed him every day. Now, she was desperate to get a message to him. “I need someone to go visit him to let him know that I am coming home…please tell someone positive to go visit to inspire him,” Tonya pleaded in her 2019 letter to Out For Justice.
A Situation They Never Imagined
What began as an ordinary stop for gas in November 2017 for Tonya, her friend, and Tivontre quickly escalated when Tonya’s friend instigated a violent altercation with a stranger. Tonya and Tivontre found themselves in a situation they never imagined, and mother and son fled out of fear of being hurt. However, they were later tracked down by police and arrested. Even though they were not involved in the altercation, they were sentenced to two years in prison at separate facilities.
While incarcerated at Baltimore City Correctional Center, Tonya became a trusted confidant and caretaker to the women at the facility. One day, a woman who was severely sick from withdrawal due to her disease of addiction poured her heart out about her abusive boyfriend and estranged family. After praying with her, Tonya knew she was being called to a higher purpose in life. She wanted to live a life of service by helping young women feel safe and loved in a community space.
Staying Strong Through the Struggle
Tonya was even more motivated to live out her purpose after routinely witnessed the ruthless treatment of those around her. For one thing, it was a common occurrence for angry correctional officers to abuse the use of a toxic spray that induced vomiting and asthma attacks amongst the population. “They closed the door so that we couldn't get air. There are pregnant women here as well. My ribs and lungs were hurting for a week,” recalls Tonya. Incidents from other sections in the facility would result in a lockdown for the entire facility, which included Tonya and the others in pre-release. That meant no recreation, showers, or activities - which happened frequently and lasted long periods of time. The facility's conditions were harsh, including moldy expired food, minuscule recreation time, and other stressors. On top of that, it was painful for Tonya to be unable to contact her family, including her daughter and her grandson, who was born while Tonya was in prison and had yet to meet. Tonya went months without hearing from loved ones because they couldn’t jump through the insurmountable hoops required to visit, correctional officers showed favoritism in deciding who could use the phone and when, and mail delivery was backed up for months.
In 2018, Nicole Hanson-Mundell, the Executive Director of Out For Justice, visited the facility to educate individuals on their pre-trial voting rights. That was the first time anyone from the outside had offered to help women in prison like her. The following year, Tonya was moved to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) as her sentence was coming to an end. She hoped to obtain pre-release status, which would have given Tonya access to the community for work release, special compassionate leave, and family leave. However, MCI-W refused to make the program available and provided no explanation. Unable to contact her son to let him know she would soon be coming home, Tonya wrote a letter to Out For Justice requesting that someone check on him on her behalf.
A Difficult Transition to Life Outside Prison
When Tonya was released in 2019, she was completely unprepared to transition to life outside prison. She hadn’t received any support and was clueless about how to get a job and other basic necessities. Tonya said.
“When I walked out the door, they gave me $50 and said, ‘good luck, don’t come back’”.
Her transition was difficult as she worked to rebuild relationships with loved ones and navigate a system that continually presented barriers for individuals impacted by the criminal legal system. Tonya then remembered Nicole Hanson-Mundell’s visit and contacted Out For Justice for reentry support. Out For Justice supported Tonya by assisting her with stable housing and offered guidance in launching Tonya’s own beauty line called Lipgloss Heaven by Mouzon Reed. She is also proud to be taking steps to fulfill her calling to provide a safe space for young women and LGTBQ individuals through her vision of the Safe Haven Rec Center.
Out For Justice staff and members from left to right: MJ, Tonya, Savannah, and Dwan (Photo courtesy of Out For Justice). Products by Lipgloss Heaven (Photo courtesy of Lipgloss Heaven's Instagram).
Although Tonya is overcoming the barriers of her transition through the support of Out For Justice, she is keenly aware that many don’t get as far. Countless women who leave incarceration unprepared for their transition back to society live in poverty, become reliant on social services, and/or recidivate. The children of formerly incarcerated mothers, who have already been traumatized by their mothers’ incarceration and absence, also suffer the consequences. MCI-W claims to prepare women for life outside of prison, but the lived experiences and stories of countless women demonstrate that this is not happening.
The Fight for Gender-Responsive Pre-Release
Out For Justice and the Women’s Pre-Release Coalition have been fighting for equitable, gender-responsive treatment of incarcerated women for years. Advocacy efforts to pass legislation requiring the state of Maryland to establish and fully fund a standalone women’s pre-release center continue.
Out For Justice and our partners need your help in holding the state accountable for funding the pre-release center to support women as they return to their communities. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how to advocate for women like Tonya who feel unsupported in their transition.