In 1989, Sister Jackie Toben, SSND, gathered with three women outside of Union Station in St. Louis. The women had been recently released from prison, and they were helping each other with support from Sister Jackie as they transitioned back into society. They chatted over a bag of potato chips and a liter of soda, saying how they should offer this support to other women coming out of prison. 26 years later, this informal meeting has evolved into the program Let’s Start that helps formerly incarcerated women transition into the next phase of their lives.
Let’s Start is a support process for families impacted by imprisonment. They offer weekly support sessions for women along with a parenting and legal clinic. They also collaborate with other organizations for employment, housing, and drug treatment. Bus trips are arranged once a month for children to visit their incarcerated mothers. Therapists are available for the children as well to help them deal with difficulties they face when their mother is in prison. Sister Jackie’s work with incarcerated women has shown her how imprisonment impacts the whole family, especially with imprisoned mothers. Children are affected when their mother is not in their lives.
During their meeting 26 years ago, Sister Jackie initially expressed her doubts about creating any such program. One of the women with her, Sandra Ware, was determined to create a place where other women like her could receive support. Sister Jackie says that the program would not have gotten off the ground were it not for Sandra’s determination and effort. The group has grown over the years from the original 3 women to 390 served this past year. These women themselves have become leaders by facilitating the group sessions, doing numerous talks in the community, and meeting regularly with policy makers about issues that affect their lives and the lives of their children.
Over the years, Sister Jackie has observed several issues with our criminal justice system. One of the first things she noticed was how young much of the incarcerated population is, in her words “just kids”. She also points out how most of the incarcerated women she has met are in prison because of drug offenses. Many of them were abused while growing up, causing them to turn to drugs to help ease the pain. She believes the criminal justice system does not deal with this reality very well.
Many women Sister Jackie worked with have left an impact on her, and she has chosen to share one of these stories. Sister Jackie met Patty 25 years ago when she was in jail and pregnant. Patty was in and out of prison 11 times for drug offenses. Eventually a judge gave her the opportunity to receive treatment for her drug use instead of being imprisoned yet again. Patty then started attending meetings with Let’s Start. After receiving treatment, Patty committed to improving herself. She has turned her life around and now has a job and a place to live. She still attends Let’s Start to provide support to others. Additionally, she frequently does speaking engagements in the community and currently serves on the board of directors for a social service agency. Despite the improvements she has made in her life, she still experiences family struggles, especially with her daughter. The pain her daughter experienced, feeling abandoned and losing trust in people, is still real. Patty deals with that daily and does all she can to mend the relationship.
Sister Jackie urges her fellow Catholics to consider our incarcerated brothers and sisters as members of our community, welcoming them with a spirit of openness and compassion. She says that “simply because a person has been incarcerated doesn’t make them any less a human being…We are essentially all one family.”