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Philly women graduating from prisons of their pasts

Ivy Johnson spent 18 years in prison for killing someone in a fight and every day that death weighs on her. "To make amends I have to save another life," she said. It wasn't long ago that Johnson graduated from a 10-week program, Women Working for A Change," that teaches women who have been in prison about self-esteem, active listening, healthy relationships and job preparation. Johnson stopped to encourage the group's most recent graduates, who celebrated their achievement on Tuesday.

Mary Jill Brown, center, one of the graduates of the Women Working For A Change program, at the program's graduation ceremony at R2L in Center City.
Mary Jill Brown, center, one of the graduates of the Women Working For A Change program, at the program's graduation ceremony at R2L in Center City.Read moreCAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

The stories came one after another: horrible and brave, sad and hopeful, often in the same sentence.

Ivy Johnson, 49, spent 18 years in prison for killing someone in a fight in upstate Pennsylvania. Out of prison now, she's working to become a peer counselor for people addicted to drugs and alcohol. "To make amends, I have to save another life," she said.

Mary Jill Brown's three adult children stopped talking to her after her fifth arrest for drunken driving, the one that landed Brown, 55, in state prison. "OX6423," Brown said. "I was a number. I had no name." Now she's in a halfway house, starting a job at Subway on Tuesday night. Her children are speaking to her, proud of the progress she's made.

Lindsay Massarelli, 31, mother of an 8-year-old son, had her definition of a good man: Someone who gave her money, maybe for drugs, or to get her out of her childhood home where she was told, "you'll never amount to anything" and where, she said, a family member molested her and her brother. This time, when she got out of prison, she enrolled in a program to learn to drive a forklift. "I have standards now," she said.

Angelia Smithwick, 49, spent Monday night at home in Warminster with her husband and five children, youngest, age 7. Not remarkable, except that it was the first time in two years for Smithwick, who went to prison and then to a halfway house after multiple arrests for drunken driving. "I felt right for the first time." Ironically, she couldn't sleep in her bed. It was too comfortable.

Those weren't the only stories at Tuesday's graduation ceremony for Women Working for a Change, a 10-week reentry program in Philadelphia for women who have been in prison. Brown and Massarelli are new graduates. Johnson and Smithwick are alumnae.

So far, five groups of women, totaling about 55, have graduated since the initial 2014 pilot. Only one among the 36 graduates of the first three classes returned to prison as of February 2017. No information is available on the fourth class and the fifth class, which graduated Tuesday.

The lessons the graduates learn in self-esteem, healthy relationships, job preparation, active listening, understanding trauma, spirituality, and detaching from destructive core beliefs somehow inoculate them against street pressures. What seems to be even more important is emotional support from alumni and staff, many of whom have trod the twin paths of tragedy and hope.

Massarelli said the women in the program were the first to want to know her as a person, separate from her past. Brown talked about people knowing her name, not thinking of her as a prison inmate number.

All could relate to the struggle of the group's founder, Dorothy Johnson-Speight, whose son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, was killed in an argument over a parking space. She channeled her grief into Mothers In Charge, a support organization for other mothers whose children met a violent death.

One mother, whose child was killed, was a prison inmate. In reaching out to her, Johnson-Speight learned about the trauma facing women in prison. In 2010, Mothers in Charge developed an in-prison program, Women Thinking for a Change, for incarcerated women, teaching them anger management, conflict resolution and problem solving. Johnson-Speight said only one in four Women Thinking for a Change graduates return to prison, compared to the normal rate of about 55 percent.

Tuesday's ceremony, held at the R2L Restaurant on the 37th floor of a Center City skyscraper with towering views of the horizon, celebrated recent graduates of Women Working for a Change, a post-prison program.

These days the group is operating on faith, said Johnson-Speight, a senior citizen who says she is on a fixed income. The tax return of Mothers in Charge indicates that she does not take a salary.

Her group, which had income of $536,000 in 2015, has relied on grants mainly from the city and state.

Her staff is interviewing candidates for the sixth class, but so far, there is no money for it.

Johnson-Speight said it costs about $60,000 to run a 10-week course for 15 women, including hiring facilitators, paying participants $200 a week, and providing bus fare and meals. Budget shortfalls meant that Tuesday's graduates did not get the weekly stipend.