The number of women in the prison system has exploded in recent years.
Many of them have experienced physical and sexual trauma. Too often, though, their needs are overlooked by prison officials and those fighting for better conditions and outcomes for prison inmates.
So, when I heard about what Rita Ali was doing, I was intrigued. Ali, the former director of the Sister Clara Muhammad School, served four and a half years in federal custody in connection with a scheme in which Community College of Philadelphia paid for nonexistent adult-school classes at the West Philadelphia Muslim school. Today, she has a newfound mission of helping female ex-offenders.
“When you look at the face of the criminal justice movement … your mind is going to go to Jay-Z, Meek Mill, the hip-hop generation,” said Ali, who also is known as Faridah Ali. “You don’t see the same emphasis being placed on women and we have the same burden as men but we don’t get the support from the men.
“Women have suffered all of the same things that men suffer going to prison but they have it worse,” she pointed out. “Men are not shackled having babies.”
Two years ago, Ali started a nonprofit called We 2 Matter to help females returning from prison with housing, job training, and counseling programs but put things on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, she celebrated her organization’s launch with a party at her son-in-law Mike Tyson’s ranch in Southern California. Singer Bobby Brown, actor Columbus Short, former L.A. Laker Metta World Peace, and boxer Zab Judah, were among the big names in attendance, according to TMZ, a celebrity gossip news site.
Ali is in Philadelphia this weekend to launch her nonprofit.
“To me, it’s the social issue of our time,” Ali told me. “You’re constantly held to a stigma that never lets you be made whole again and that goes against everything that God does. There’s no forgiveness. Criminal justice is supposed to be about the punishment fitting the crime. Well, if you’ve served your time and you’ve paid your dues, you should be made whole again.”
In her memoir, Triple Jeopardy: 3 Strikes But Not Out, Ali writes:
“Recalling my first Mother’s Day at Danbury Federal Prison, my heart ached for the women. Hearing the sobbing of many inmates was a most depressing experience. In spite of heartfelt efforts of the inmates to comfort each other with homemade arts and crafted flowers, cards and sharing meals together, nothing compensated for mothers being ripped away from their children on any day, let alone Mother’s Day.”
This topic isn’t something that makes headlines all that much. I’ve written about the need for widespread reform in the criminal justice system but never focused much on the unique needs of female inmates, many of whom are mothers and primary caretakers.
Ali’s group joins the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls among others doing this work.
“I’m not inventing the wheel. These women have been out there for a while. They’ve been in the struggle for many years but they’re not getting the recognition,” Ali said. “They don’t have the visibility. The lack of visibility is keeping this movement from progressing as much as it should be.”
Ali intends to use her celebrity connections, including that with her famous son-in-law, to help elevate the cause. Any attention this important cause gets is a good thing.