When Crystal Hinson walked out of prison in October 2022, the first thing on her mind was getting her children back.
The 41-year-old mother of four knew she faced significant challenges. She didn’t have stable housing or a job, and was weighed down by a lengthy criminal record.
“As a woman, the first thing you’re thinking about [when you leave prison] is: how do you get to your kids?” she told GBH News recently. “You can’t just go home and get your child.”
On that chilly morning, Hinson became one of nearly 500 releases of incarcerated women from Massachusetts state prisons last year, almost all of them from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham, the state’s only women’s prison. That doesn't include women released from county jail or federal prison. While far more men are released from the state’s prisons and jails each year, researchers say women face specific and complex challenges that make them especially vulnerable. Studies show, when they enter prison, women are even more likely than men to struggle with drug abuse, psychiatric disorders, poverty and trauma.
And their successes and failures can have more direct impact on children who rely on them. Women leaving carceral settings are more likely to be the sole caretakers of their children — roughly 60 to 80% of women have minor children, and women are five times more likely than men to have children in foster care or a state agency.
Yet there is limited effort from the state or local organizations to help formerly incarcerated women overcome these challenges, an investigation from GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
A dozen formerly incarcerated women told GBH News about their struggles to find housing, jobs and education while dealing with long-term trauma and other challenges caused by their criminal records. Many said they faced domestic and sexual violence before their sentences, and assault during prison. Upon release, they said they received little institutional support, instead relying on cash-strapped nonprofits, or no one at all.
Challenges are even more daunting for women with children. Hinson was one of the few willing to talk about the struggles of getting her children back — a goal she says is more often at the forefront for formerly incarcerated women.
“[Men] might want to go see their kid, but they’re not thinking about walking into a courthouse after they just were released and trying to go get their kid or even ask for visitation,” she said. “I had to prove to you why my kids should be with me.”
The state Department of Correction says it has a series of programs for women at MCI-Framingham, where women serving longer sentences are housed among detainees awaiting a court hearing. State prison officials pointed to its program description booklet, which mentions a “Female Offender Program Continuum” and a handful of other women-specific efforts. Programs like “Family preservation,” “Parenting Inside Out,” “Parenting Support Group,” “DCF Visit Coordination” and “Parents Helping Parents” are mentioned, as well as another held annually called "Mommy and Me."
Jason Dobson, a DOC spokesman, said that program provides space “for incarcerated parents to restore and foster relationships with their children that will continue to build over time and beyond MCI-Framingham.”
There have been some advancements in help for women heading home. There is the state prison system’s Credible Messengers, a voluntary mentorship program with seven staff that offers help to state prisoners expected to be released within 90 to 120 days. So far, the program has supported 317 people — 71 of them women — since its launch in 2021, state officials say.
A local nonprofit recently created a home for formerly incarcerated women in Boston. And, last year, another Boston-based nonprofit called Justice 4 Housing launched a program called Stable Housing and Reintegration Program, or SHARP, meant to provide housing vouchers, case management and support services for justice-involved women and men.
“Women tend to have children and families versus men who have families usually who support them. Women usually don’t have that.”Leslie Credle, executive director of Justice 4 Housing
Leslie Credle, executive director of Justice 4 Housing, says the group has helped 29 women and 45 men so far. But she says there’s far fewer programs in the state to help women, especially to find housing that can unite them with their children.
“Women tend to have children and families versus men who have families usually who support them,” Credle said. “Women usually don’t have that. They are usually the primary caretaker.”
When Hinson left prison in October, she was determined not to go back.
Formerly incarcerated women return to state prison after committing new crimes at largely the same rate as men — about 30% of the cohort who were released in 2018, according to state data.
Hinson attributes her criminal history to a turbulent childhood. She calls herself a “state’s kid” — moving through 16 foster homes before aging out as an adult.
Long struggling with addiction, she says she got sober after the father of her children died of an overdose. At the age of 41, she says she needs to make up for lost time.
Nearly 1.5 million children have a parent in state or federal prison, according to government estimates. Hinson doesn’t want her children to continue to be part of that statistic.
“I have no other chances,” she said. “They don’t have anybody other than me.” Hinson told her story to GBH News recently in Dorchester, dressed simply in a white T-shirt and cut-offs, her hair pulled back tightly in a bun.
The day Hinson left MCI-Framingham, she says she was met by her nephew, her brother-in-law and her two adult children, now 23 and 19. The younger two, now ages 15 and 10, couldn’t be there because they were in school.
Hinson said she kept in touch with her children during the three-and-a-half years behind bars. But she’s still working to gain their trust — especially the older ones.
“They’ve also been dragged through the mud longer,” she said.
“I have no other chances. They don’t have anybody other than me.”Crystal Hinson, on her two youngest children
In some ways, Hinson has been fortunate. While serving her latest sentence in Framingham, she was introduced to the Credible Messengers program that provided her a mentor. That mentor connected her to Justice 4 Housing, which hosts the 18-month Stable Housing and Reintegration Program.
Credle, the head of Justice 4 Housing, says she created the program a year after being released from federal prison in 2018 after seeing so many formerly incarcerated women with nowhere to go.
The program requires that interested people, mostly people recently released from prison or jail, take financial literacy classes, trauma counseling and work with a case manager if they’re selected for housing. To get that opportunity, they’re entered into a lottery to obtain a housing voucher through a partnership with the Boston Housing Authority to help with the rent. Other municipalities are beginning to partner with the group for additional vouchers. Justice 4 Housing covers the rest of rent and other housing costs.
Hinson says she first learned about the SHARP program two months after her release. At first she was skeptical — she’d left carceral settings before with nowhere to go, and was at a homeless shelter before her last incarceration.
“I said, ‘Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste my time. I’ve tried to get housing before I was ever a convicted felon,’” she said. “Because I had minor court cases, misdemeanors, they wouldn't allow me to receive housing.”
Finding stable, not just temporary, housing can be a struggle for formerly incarcerated individuals, according to a 2015 study from Harvard Kennedy School.
Meeting the program’s obligations were challenging, Hinson said — attending appointments, filing paperwork and getting to court hearings, all without a car. She sometimes had no other choice but to stay with people actively using drugs, she said, at one point, forced to move after a friend overdosed.
She said her children were staying with family while she was incarcerated. She feels lucky because no one contested her efforts to seek their return. She had one hearing with the Barnstable family court for one child, and another with a Manchester, N.H., court for her son, who was living out of state.
“I missed a lot — they’ve gone through a lot,” she said.
Six months after she started the program, Hinson says she was approved to move into a three-bedroom apartment in Dorchester with her two youngest children.
Many other families aren’t as fortunate. Gelissa Cruz, 35, wasn't able to find a place to live with her 13-year-old son who is currently living with his grandmother.
Cruz says she spent three years in the Suffolk County House of Correction for driving under the influence. In April, she was paroled to the McGrath House, a residential reentry program for women in the South End run by the nonprofit Community Resources for Justice.
She said the home was a “pretty good stepping stone,” where she was able to get back on her feel. After that, she says she moved in with her mother. But she says she’s struggled to find housing that would accommodate her and her son, a challenge complicated by the fact that she has physical and mental health disabilities in addition to her criminal record.
It took Cruz many months and several waiting lists with local housing authorities to get a home with the help of advocacy from Justice 4 Housing. But her son is still with his grandmother. She says not living with her son is a “hardship” — but she is grateful he is is well taken care of and she can see him when she wants.
“Now that he's going to a good school near the grandmother's house, I kind of am OK with that,” she said.
‘A lot of beds are for men’
It’s not just formerly incarcerated women with children who struggle to find a place to live in Massachusetts, with one of the highest costs of housing in the country.
When Stacey Borden was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham from 2006 to 2010, she imagined the floor plan of a home where people like her could live after prison.
After her release, Borden set out to make her dream a reality. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in human services and a master’s degree in mental health counseling, focusing on trauma and addiction. After graduating in 2016, Borden founded New Beginnings Reentry Services, intent on helping other women.
“Coming out of prison really has been a lack of resources. We know that it’s a struggle to get women into treatment,” she said. “A lot of beds are for men.”
Last year, Borden celebrated the opening of her program, a beautiful red three-story home for women returning from prison. The house — with three bedrooms, office space and a top floor “boutique” with donated clothes — has seven round-the-clock staff. There are currently eight women living there.
“We’re dealing with the trauma, making sure that they’re feeling safe, build their confidence, so they can go out in the community without causing any harm and know that they can live their lives in society productively,” she said.
LaTonya Brown Seymour, 53, says the stable housing and structure are helping her succeed. A survivor of domestic abuse, Brown Seymour says she was released in 2018 from a South Carolina prison. Originally from Massachusetts, Brown Seymour says her brother, who is serving time in prison, connected her to New Beginnings for help fleeing another abusive relationship.
“For the longest time when I first got here, I wasn’t feeling safe because he was still looking for me,” she said. “But then I was able to find a job where I can work from home and start doing better for myself and staying focused.”
With the security and stability, Brown Seymour has bigger ambitions. She hopes to attend Roxbury Community College to obtain a criminal justice degree — and eventually buy her own home.
Borden says her optimism is widespread. Since the home run by New Beginnings opened last year, only one woman has been sent back to prison or jail. Several have moved to their own apartments.
Borden is proud of her organization and hopes to see it replicated. With more women in power in local government, Borden is hopeful for change. She believes that once a woman has stable housing, they need to pause before finding work.
“We need to get our minds in order,” she said. “We need to deal with the trauma that took us into the prison in the first place.”
But Borden’s program doesn’t provide housing for mothers with their children. Among challenges, she says, are zoning requirements to house children. Still, Borden says her program works hard to help women reunify with children, if possible, and help them find a home. Part of what contributes to their success, she says, is the space is solely focusing on women’s needs.
“The home cannot accommodate children because it is uniquely designed for women's empowerment,” she said.
GBH News couldn't find a single reentry service that houses families of women with children under one roof.
The McGrath House — where Cruz stayed — provides 33 beds for women, some of whom are there as part of their reentry plan on parole or probation. The house is run by the nonprofit Community Resources for Justice that also runs other reentry centers, with six beds for women in New Bedford and 30 beds for both men and women in Western Massachusetts.
Yet not all the beds for women are full. The organization believes its services are underutilized because access to women in prison was stalled since the beginning of the pandemic. Megan Piccirillo, a spokeswoman for Community Resources for Justice, also says some women stay away because they feel they need to immediately get back to their children.
“We’ve seen time and time again that incarcerated women face family pressure when they are released,” she said. “They feel an obligation to resume caretaking and bring home income for their family.”
Making it work
Hinson said it took her almost a year from her release from prison to get a part-time job, hindered by lack of experience and a criminal record. She now holds a job focused on helping formerly incarcerated people clean up Melnea Cass Boulevard, a troubled Boston area known for its tent encampments occupied by those struggling with drug addiction and lack of housing.
She is grateful for the work. Some days she’s picking up trash and landscaping; other days she’s helping an unhoused person access a storage locker to pick up their things.
“I’m helping somebody no matter what,” she said. “It's good for someone like me that did get out of prison that's trying to learn how to work and be out here.”
Finding work is tough for most people returning from prison. But Arthur Bembury, executive director of Partakers, a Newton-based nonprofit focused on education for returning citizens, says the process is particularly hard for women because they’re often the main caregiver.
Bembury sees women in his program often on parole, working two low-paid jobs, trying to find a decent apartment, a car, fighting custody battles, all while going through an education program to improve their job prospects.
“There is a discernible difference in the challenges that they face coming home versus men,” Bembury said. “They’re walking on a tightrope, like they can’t make a mistake.”
In June, Hinson moved into her Dorchester home with custody of her two youngest children. Justice 4 Housing helped her find furniture; she’s qualified for food assistance for groceries. She’s determined to make it work.
“I remind them all the time, like: Listen, I’m here now, OK?” she said. “This was going to happen because of who I am. You were never going somewhere without me following you.”