Story and Photos By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
In April 2015, when an appellate court ruled that Rhonda Oliver had been over-sentenced by 10 years, Oliver was immediately released from St. Gabriel Penitentiary with a prison-issued $20 debit card and the clothes on her back.
Oliver, who had spent 14 years behind bars, miraculously was able to find stable employment and housing by the end of the calendar year.
But what took place in the months between her release and landing of a job was another story altogether. Life in prison, with its three meals a day, hot showers, four walls and a roof, often seemed to be a better option than what Oliver was enduring on the outside: homelessness, debt and skepticism.
“I had nowhere to go,” said Oliver, who was only permitted to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time after popping up on their doorstep. A shelter operated by the Salvation Army was home for a while as Oliver pounded the pavement, looking for a job, “but you have to pay after seven days, and coming out of jail, $10 a night is a lot,” Oliver said. “A lot of people don’t know about that.”
Navigating available services
The story of Oliver’s resilience in the face of some very long odds was dramatized at St. Alphonsus Art and Cultural Center June 19 through an autobiographical play called “Released to Nowhere.”
Performed by Oliver and a cast composed entirely of formerly incarcerated women, the play exposes the often-hidden difficulties faced by re-entering citizens who are eagerly attempting to put the pieces of their lives back together, but are having a hard time locating genuine assistance to begin their journeys to independent living.
The play follows Oliver as she goes from shelter to shelter with the goal of getting on her feet. One organization tells Oliver she didn’t qualify for their services because it only accepted those who had a substance-abuse problem.
At another shelter, Oliver is informed that if there is the slightest possibility she could reside with a family member, she could not have a bed for the night; she had to prove she was “living on a street corner, under a bench or in a car,” Oliver informed the audience at St. Alphonsus.
“If you can have anyone you can live with, you’re not ‘homeless,’” she said.
At every shelter that denies her admittance, Oliver is sent away with a few toiletries. Although appreciative, Oliver told her audience that the items she needed most are never offered to homeless women such as herself – job-interview basics such as a bra, underwear, business apparel and a pair of dress shoes.
Meets with incarcerated before their release
“You have a lot of (community organizations) that say they give out clothing, but when you go to those places there’s no guarantee that they’re going to have your size or anything that’s appropriate,” said Oliver, speaking to the Clarion Herald before taking the stage.
Now employed by the City of New Orleans’ Code Enforcement office and studying accounting at Delgado Community College, Oliver has never forgotten the sting of her first months post-incarceration.
So other women coming out of prison do not have to endure what she did, Oliver founded the non-profit Women Determined in 2017, which provides housing, clothing, reconciliation, transportation and employment assistance to women newly released from Louisiana’s prisons and correctional facilities. Oliver and her helpers go into the prisons to gather the clothing and shoe sizes of the women prior to their release. This information is used to assemble an individualized “start-over bundle” for each woman, containing a coat, jacket, dress and casual shoes, bras, underwear and other basics.
The hope is that recipients will be able to hit the ground running in their search for employment.
“You need dress shoes. You need casual shoes. You’re starting over from scratch,” said Oliver, noting that Women Determined has distributed about 50 start-over bundles to date and has helped two formerly incarcerated women find stable housing.
“We go into the prisons and find out what size the ladies wear, but we also find out what they prefer,” Oliver said. “There are some ladies that say, ‘I don’t wear skirts. I like slacks when I go to an interview.’ When they get out, their clothes are waiting for them.”
For women who do not have access to a car, bus passes also are included in the bundles.
“That was a struggle,” said Oliver, recalling how she walked for miles in the summer heat looking for a job after her release. “I couldn’t catch the bus because I didn’t have any money, so I walked a lot. Those bus passes cost $65; they’re good for 30 days.”
Lacked support system
Oliver takes her play to any organization interested in hearing directly from those who have firsthand knowledge of life after incarceration. The 40-minute drama debunks several myths. For example, while society assumes every released prisoner has family to return to, many, like Oliver, do not have a living parent or a relative with whom they can stay for longer than a few weeks.
“Many people do have family members, but they’re poor, and to take care of another human being who’s starting over from scratch – feeding them, clothing them – is impossible,” Oliver said. “(Some of my fellow incarcerated) went home to Momma, but Momma couldn’t take care of them.”
Another hurdle Oliver had to overcome was nearly $2,000 in parking fines that had accrued after leaving her car idle during her 14 years of imprisonment.
“They didn’t want to hear that I was incarcerated, and they actually put me on a payment plan,” Oliver said. “I just finished paying to get my driver’s license back, and I’ve been (out of prison) four years.”
Never gave up
Refusing to buckle in her early months of freedom, Oliver stumbled upon help from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which gave her a bus pass and paid the $10 nightly charge to stay at the Salvation Army shelter. She found housing through the STRIVE NOLA program, which gives tenants rent assistance until they can manage on their own.
Oliver, 47, said she has a special place in her heart for older women who are released after spending decades in jail. They are especially vulnerable, she said, because they lack job training, face ageism, tend to be in poor health and have no Social Security income.
“All of them are not in need of housing, but all of them are need of some kind of assistance,” Oliver said.
The play was presented by St. Alphonsus Parish’s “Mercy After Bars” series in collaboration with the Archdiocese of New Orleans Respect Life Office.
To learn more about Women Determined, call 320-8352, email email@example.com or visit www.womendetermined.org. Donations can also be mailed to Women Determined, P.O. Box 58171, New Orleans, La., 70158. Drop-offs are accepted every Friday at 2916 Dryades St. in New Orleans.
Cornerstone Builders, an agency of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, facilitates employment and other re-entry services for men and women who have been recently released from jail. It also provides free family bus rides to prisons and mentorship of children of the incarcerated. For information, call 451-8351.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.