Sharon White-Harrigan | The 2019 MAKERS Conference
Sharon White-Harrigan, Clinical Director, Women’s Prison Association, talks about America’s broken criminal justice system from the 2019 #MAKERSConference at Monarch Beach Resort.
- Please welcome Sharon White-Harrigan. [MUSIC PLAYING] SHARON WHITE-HARRIGAN: Thank you. Good evening. I am honored to be here. [APPLAUSE] I am here tonight because there are so many Sharons out there. Too many women, especially women of color, are trapped at the crossroads of racial, gender, and economic oppression like I was-- caught up in a system that is in serious need of repair. So tonight I am asking all of you-- all of us-- to support and empower these women and to do what we can-- all that we can-- to keep them out of the criminal justice system in the first place. [APPLAUSE] We can't ignore the common risk factors that lead women in a lack of safe housing, lack of education, which, in turn, leads to a lack of employment and a lack of resources for mothers. Many have untreated mental health needs and substance abuse issues, but do they deserve punishment? Absolutely not. What they do need is help. Your help. Not tough love, just love. [APPLAUSE] I remember standing in the court room and reading on the wall, you know, right above, "In God We Trust." If anybody knows anything about God then you know that God is love, that God is charity-- I'm about to preach. God is compassion. So, again, I'm asking all of you to show compassion to these women way before they end up behind bars. [APPLAUSE] So my role at the Women's Prison Association-- I help women transition back into society. And I had this one client, and I'm going to call her Mae, where her mother had her at a very early age, at the age of 13. Almost every man she encountered molested and raped her. She lived on the street. She ate out of garbage cans. She grew up in foster cares and group homes and ended up in and out of jail. Sadly, that's not an unusual story. But we helped her get her first apartment, her first place ever where she's safe. She even has a kitchen where she can cook, now that will change her life. And that is what makes my work not work, and this is also what makes WPA so unique. Because we provide individualized, gender-specific, trauma-informed support to the women who need it. And if we invest in education, and employment, and offer resources to these women, the community can then provide what the women needs to avoid arrest in the first place. Because what you don't know is that prison doesn't help these women. And they have very little to none justice in the criminal justice system. So we have to change the systems that are failing them in the first place long before they get pulled in. So that's where you come in. And I'm challenging you all-- you heard me. You all-- all of you, all of us to go back to your companies and ask that question-- do we hire women with criminal justice histories and, if not, when will we start? [APPLAUSE] Hire these women and those at risk, because WPA can help you-- just wanted to share that-- change their futures, invest in them, and make that change sustainable by offering them professional training and development, a livable wage, and then I'm going to push the envelope, child care. [APPLAUSE] So, yes, we have a whole society to change, but let's start with one hire. Let's start with you. Be that person to make that change. Be that person to take that chance. Open your mind, trust in a woman's capacity to change, and then help her do just that. [APPLAUSE] Think of me, remember my story, help a Sharon. [APPLAUSE] And you will find, like I did, when I went to prison for the first and only time, that they are people too-- not criminals, not monsters, but creative, brilliant women who were cut down way before they had a chance to soar. Some want their stories heard, others might need material things, but all their lives will change just by knowing someone, anyone gave a damn. [APPLAUSE] Let that someone be you. So this is my call to action tonight. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]