John N. Mitchell Tribune Staff Writer Mar 5, 2019  Shawn Baker, locked up for eight years, is now working and productive — John Mitchell John N. Mitchell Tribune Staff Writer

 

After her release from prison in November 2017, Shawn Baker
needed help.

“I didn’t know what to do next,” said Baker, who served eight
years on an aggravated assault charge. “You are by yourself
when you get out and you can become desperate if you don’t
have help.”

She got that help through  Ardella’s House , a nonprofit that helps
incarcerated women transition back into society. They helped her
find a job with  Peerstar LLC , which helps incarcerated women find
housing and jobs upon their release from jail.“I’m helping people,”
Baker said. “People helped me.”On Tuesday at City Hall, Baker
joined local politicians, lawmakers and other stakeholders
participating in the  National Day of Empathy (NDE). The brainchild
of #cut50, NDE is a national bipartisan program whose goal is to
cut the national prison population in half over the next 10 years.

Almost 3 million Americans were behind bars at the end of
2016,  according to the Prison Policy Initiative .“We’re trying to

humanize mass incarceration. If you listen to the stories, they are
powerful,” said Tonie Willis, executive director at Ardella’s House
and the #cut50 Pennsylvania ambassador. “Once the people tell
the story, they want you to take their story and  put  a face to mass
incarceration. Words are powerful. Our hope is that if you listen to
the words it might make you move on empathy and think about
the things that incarcerated people are going through.”

The program, which ran for about three hours, included brief
addresses by state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, City Council
members Jannie Blackwell and Curtis Jones and state Reps.
Jordan Harris and Joanna McClinton. Other speakers, all of them
addressing the subject of empathy, included District Attorney
Larry Krasner and Keia Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the
Philadelphia Defenders Association.

Bradford-Grey wanted to drive  home  the point that the day was
not about creating good feelings around a discussion about
empathy, but about encouraging those who participated in the
session — there were about 100 people in attendance — to
consciously guard against having biases against the incarcerated
and the formerly incarcerated.

“Empathy will guide our actions. If you understand people and
human capacity, you  start  to see the value in them,” Bradford-
Grey said. “When you start to see the value in them, you don’t just
make these biased decisions that keep them in cages or not give
them opportunities when they come out.

“Empathy helps us to recognize people for who they are rather
than what they may have done in their worst moments,” she
continued, “and not label them forever based on that factor.”

Baker didn’t speak with the elected officials on Tuesday. However,
that does not prevent her from telling others about her
experiences and those who helped her.

“I worked on myself while I was in jail. I was determined to come
out a better person,” Baker said. “And then others helped me. So I
feel obligated to do the same thing for other people going through
what I’ve been through.”

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