August 2, 2017
WAMU 88.5, American University Radio
By Ally Schweitzer

Lashonia Thompson-El speaks about motherhood

Lashonia Thompson-El is a D.C. resident who served 18 years in federal prison. In the documentary “Returning Citizens,” she says one of the hardest parts of coming home was feeling unprepared to care for her adult son.
Screenshot from “Returning Citizens”

Deanna Hoskins was convicted of a felony in Ohio nearly 20 years ago. Hooked on crack cocaine, she committed a theft to support her addiction. She was sentenced to a six-month program and five years of community supervision.

It was the awakening the young mother needed to put her life on a new path.

Today, Hoskins lives in Arlington and works as a policy adviser on corrections and re-entry at the Department of Justice, and she says there are D.C. women like her who need the same second chance she had. But many women returning from prison, she says, face an obstacle men usually don’t: They come home to children who need their care.

“The woman is coming back into society with all this baggage that she went in with, that was untreated. [And while in prison,] she gained some more baggage in her little bag,” Hoskins says. “Then she comes out … and now we want to say ‘take responsibility,’ because society says we should be a mother.”

Most women in U.S. state prisons have children under 18, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project. And when these women get out, Hoskins says, they often face pressure to jump right back into motherhood.

“Normally, the caregiver who was taking care of the children [is] ready to give the kids back to their mother,” Hoskins says, “and a lot of times, women [say], ‘I’m not ready for that.’”

It’s one of the issues Hoskins says is explored well in the new documentary Returning Citizens. Hoskins spoke at the film’s D.C. debut in July. While the film’s focus is on geography more than gender — it’s about men and women readjusting to life in D.C. after incarceration — it does touch on how women’s reintegration back into society can be more complex than men’s.

Take the story of D.C. resident Lashonia Thompson-El. She was a 19-year-old mother of two when she was convicted of a double homicide in 1993. She spent 18 years in prison while a cousin took care of her children. When she was released on parole in 2011, her cousin expected her to take full responsibility for her adult son, who has a disability and can’t live on his own. But as she explains in the film, Thompson-El wasn’t prepared to take that on.

“I was kind of apprehensive when I came home about getting him right away, because I was a teen mom, and I screwed it up really bad, so I didn’t want to take on responsibility that I may not have been prepared for and then screw up again,” Thompson-El says in Returning Citizens. “I’m still like a brand new fish out of water myself, just returning from incarceration after spending half my life in prison.”

‘Trauma Piled On Top Of Trauma’

Thompson-El’s story is not unique. Convicted felons in D.C. are sent to federal prisons, often hours away from home, where they’re isolated from their families. As of late 2016, there were 188 D.C. women serving sentences in federal facilities, according to the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Hoskins says those female prisoners with children are likely to return home to kids who’ve experienced unaddressed trauma of their own, and may even resent their mothers for leaving them behind.

Lashonia and Son

Lashonia Thompson-El and her son Allante at home in D.C.  Screenshot from “Returning Citizens”

“Nobody treated that trauma for that child who experienced this significant loss in their life, [who] had to go live with family members or had to go into foster care,” Hoskins says. “Then sometimes things happen when you’re in foster care or with family members that is just trauma piled on top of trauma piled on top of trauma. And we never address it.”

That, Hoskins says, makes women more likely to re-offend — and research indicates D.C. could do more to make sure that doesn’t happen.

A 2016 report from the nonpartisan Council for Court Excellence recommended D.C. and the Federal Bureau of Prisons consider incarcerating women closer to home. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council approved a program in 2016 that could help ex-offenders get GEDs and business training, but it hasn’t yet funded the program.

Complicating matters further, there’s a question about whether society is willing to pay more to assist former inmates, particularly if they’re violent offenders, like Thompson-El.

“A lot of people would say, you know, ‘They committed a violent crime. Why should I care? Why is it my responsibility to help them?’” Saffron Cassaday, the Canadian filmmaker who directed Returning Citizens, says before answering her own question: “The reason is they’re coming out no matter what. Whether you like it or not, they are coming out.”

That’s why, Cassaday says, it’s in the best interest of D.C. officials and residents that former inmates — men and women — return from prison better off than when they went in.

Returning Citizens is available on iTunes and Amazon.