Syrita Steib, a 2020 LISC Rubinger Fellow, is executive director of Operation Restoration, a nonprofit she co-founded after serving nearly 10 years in prison for her involvement in a crime when she was an adolescent. Her work on behalf of women and girls affected by mass incarceration is having ground-breaking impact on people's lives, but Steib explains that it will take wholesale transformation, not just reform, to achieve liberty and justice for all.
(Top photo, from right: Syrita Steib, Dolfinette Martin and Annie Phoenix, of Operation Restoration. All photos, except where noted, courtesy Operation Restoration)
Syrita Steib is the executive director and co-founder of Operation Restoration (OR), a New Orleans-based nonprofit that provides intensive support and resources for women and girls affected by mass incarceration—a situation she knows intimately, and is deeply passionate about.
At the age of 19, Steib was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for her role in robbing and burning down a car dealership. She served nine years and two months, and after her release, when she was 29, Steib was determined to finish the college degree she had started while incarcerated. She applied for admission to the University of New Orleans, but was rejected, in spite of her stellar GPA and test scores. She applied again, but the second time, bypassed the question asking about criminal history. She was admitted, with a scholarship, and soon became licensed and certified as a clinical laboratory scientist with a specialty in microbiological testing. “The only thing that changed was I unchecked the box,” she says. For Steib, as for so many formerly incarcerated people, that box was a giant barrier between her and a fulfilling, family-sustaining career.
Steib knows well the countless, unjust and inane obstacles that people returning from prison face as they try to build a new life, usually with few resources and little preparation or support—but it was the obstacle to the right to an education that catapulted her into public action. In 2016, she teamed up with a criminal justice advocate named Annie Phoenix (who co-founded Operation Restoration with Steib), and helped write and push through a piece of legislation—Act 276—that would make Louisiana the first state in the nation to “ban the box” in college admissions.
Since then, the pair has collaborated with advocates in four states to pass legislation to remove criminal history questions from college admissions. They also wrote Louisiana’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which, when passed, would provide sanitary pads and other hygiene products for imprisoned women, and restrict male staff from conducting pat down searches and entering areas where incarcerated women may be undressed.
In addition to policy work, OR’s services range from a college-in-prison program that serves roughly 40 women per semester, to The Closet, where formerly incarcerated women in New Orleans can pick up clothing and toiletries free of cost to a GED and employment program. OR’s Rapid Response program, meanwhile, is a vital resource for women in need of rent and utilities money, court and transportation costs, and the many other expenses of re-establishing life and employment on the outside. Earlier this year, just before the pandemic hit, OR opened an eight-bed transitional house where women just released from prison can stay, for up to a year, while they are securing stable housing.
And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Can you start by talking a little bit about your journey to founding Operation Restoration?
I wasn’t one of those people who thought about creating an organization while I was incarcerated. When I was about 25, something clicked and I was like, “Syrita, you can't go out of here the same way you came in. What are you going to do?” At that time I had been to six different institutions—was shipped all over—because I was an angry teenager and young adult and I was still fighting. I hadn’t processed the abuses that had happened through my childhood and teenage years, so they would manifest themselves in ways that were detrimental to myself and getting out of prison.
I did my last four and a half years at Tallahassee FCI Correctional Institution for Women and I was able to start taking college courses while I was there. School was always easy for me. It was like now I had something to look forward to. I started paying attention to what made me tick, what was going wrong, what I needed to change. School does that for you. It helps you to build a different perspective on life.
After I got out of prison, I graduated summa cum laude from LSU and went into clinical laboratory science. I took the MCAT and was going through interviews to get into medical school. But around that time, in 2016, I met some women from the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and I started speaking about my experiences and the changes we needed to make. And that's when I realized that you could actually work and support yourself in the realm of a non-profit, giving back and helping.
You’ve often spoken about how other incarcerated women helped you when you were in prison.
I met some of the most amazing people and they're my friends to this day. It's sad to say, but at 19 I learned how to wear a tampon in prison because another woman showed me how to do it. There are a lot of mothers in prison and I needed a mom at that time. A lot of women took an interest in helping to develop and mold me, because they couldn't do it with their own kids. So a lot of who I am today comes from the women I met there.
How were you helping formerly incarcerated women before you founded the organization?
I've always given back to women who were incarcerated because they gave back to me when I came out. One young lady—she was my roommate for years when I was incarcerated--she brought me a cellphone when I got out, and when I decided to go back to school, she would send me $300 every semester to contribute to my books. Another friend from prison helped me register for school and get an apartment and all these different things.
And I've always done the same. When women I left behind were getting out, I would send clothing or money, because I knew how important it was. So when I realized that I could do this in a formalized manner and it was something that I enjoyed and wanted to do anyway, I decided to build out the organization.
Through Operation Restoration, you were already working with people who may be in a very precarious position when they come home from incarceration. How did the onset of COVID change that? Are you offering different services as a result?
This has been so gut-wrenching. We serve women, including transgender and undocumented women who have been in jail or prison or detention facilities. And these are the people who are at the heart of the New Orleans economy—they work in hotels and tourism or they are contract workers—and so many went from having an income to zero dollars.
Initially, we applied for grants and got some COVID funding. We decided to buy $80 gift cards to Walmart so people could go in and get the things that they needed for their households. And we continued to give out hygiene items, which we always do, but on a larger scale. We didn't advertise it, but word of mouth spread really fast. The first three or four days we had 20, 25 people who would show up for help, but by day four, we had a line of 400 women.
It broke my heart to see that—all these women standing in line for hours just for $80. If they're cleaning houses, they’d say, "I need masks and gloves to continue to work." Or they didn’t have the money to purchase the protective equipment they needed so they could go out and look for work. Or just to keep their families safe.
Are you able to help women currently in jails or prison, where the spread of COVID has been so concentrated?
We run a bail fund, the Safety and Freedom Fund, and we have been bonding folks out of jail who are unable to pay bond in New Orleans for about three years now. When the first case of COVID was introduced into the jail, it spread really rapidly. So we put out a call to different partners and from March 17th to today, we have bonded out about 167 individuals, some who are pregnant, to get them out of harm's way. The crazy thing is that most people are sitting in jail with an average bond of anywhere between $500 and $2000. That’s how low it is. But they don’t have the funds to pay and so they’re sitting there while the virus is spreading like crazy.
We've also had success during this time with getting a lot of women receiving clemency, especially women who were in under domestic violence issues and sentenced under this one statute: Louisiana had a decades-old law that stated, basically, you couldn't speak ill of the dead. So if a woman killed her abuser, the abuse could not be brought in during her case. We go to all the clemency hearings for women and we support them if they're coming back to the New Orleans area.
The rate of infection in the prison system is really high, too, and it’s been really traumatic how the situation has been handled. In one facility, 97 percent of the women tested positive. We've been working in partnership with the Tulane Medical School to donate gowns, gloves, masks and soap. We wanted to make sure that each woman had two bars of soap, because they didn’t have access to any.
Your Rubinger Fellowship project aims to connect clients with jobs in the film industry in New Orleans. Are you able to work on that now, under the circumstances?
We know the film industry is going to open back up eventually and we want to be ready when it does. So we’re still having meetings and trying to set things up. But we’re also training folks on how to do COVID cleaning—how do you use backpack sprayers and cleaning chemicals, things like that—because that can be an immediate job placement when the film industry and other businesses get ready to open back up.
Legislative work around criminal justice reform is a big element of Operation Restoration. What are some of the bills you’re working on now?
At the federal level, we work with a coalition focusing on removing barriers to higher education for incarcerated folks. The three focal points are restoring Pell grants [federal grants for higher education] to people who are currently incarcerated, removing question 23 on the FAFSA [which asks about past drug-related legal involvement], and banning the box on college applications nation-wide.
And the state level, one of the pieces of legislation we’re working on is about the rights of primary caretakers at the point of arrest. That legislation was written around what we see a lot of times when mothers get arrested. No one checks on the kids, so they're left at school or they're left at home--things like that happen. So, at the moment of arrest, what is the right of the primary caretaker of a dependent child or a child who will be dependent on the parent for the rest of their lives? Do they have a right to make reasonable preparations for their children if you're going to arrest them? And can we see if a citation can be written or there’s some other alternative, instead of actually arresting the individual if they're the primary caretaker of dependent children.
The education piece is clearly at the heart of your personal mission.
Expanding educational access to folks is a no-brainer. That has to happen. You cannot deny people their constitutional right to education. Also, we know that there are all these inequities that are not just color-based, but related to gender, too, specifically for Black women. When Black women are released from prison, 44 percent of them will be unemployed for a period of five years. We really, really want to cut down that number. So we work on making sure that Black women who are formerly incarcerated have access to employment.
What else needs to happen?
The truth is, aside from all these other things, the real goal would be ending the incarceration of women and girls totally, period. Not even trying to reform a system or make a system better, but totally abolishing systems as they exist. Anything else is a Band-Aid
Hospital systems, school systems, and prison systems have a lot in common. They mimic each other. All these systems were created for white men. That’s not good, bad, whatever. It is what it is. But for me, you can’t tear down one without tearing down the other. They all have to be destroyed and re-imagined and built in a way where they are inclusive of everyone--not a particular race, not a particular gender, but inclusive of everyone who represents this planet we currently call Earth.
But in the meantime, I’m trying to do what I can to alleviate the suffering of individuals, of women and girls right now, until we get to the point of abolition.
What is it like for you spending time in prison with women who are currently incarcerated?
I tell people all the time: when you're in prison, you never hear the positive stories, because the system is invested in you not hearing anything positive. The only thing you think is that prison is this revolving door, nobody makes it. All you hear is the stories about the people who recidivate and who come back and tell you how hard it is. So on your release day, you're terrified and you're questioning yourself: can I do this?
So I make it my business to get the positive stories back in there. Eighty percent of my staff is formerly incarcerated, so I bring the whole team in. We all sit down and talk. Some of the women have actually been incarcerated with some of my employees, so they're able to put their eyes on people and see how far they've come, to the point where they're like, “Oh, if I they could do it, I could do it.” I used to purposely go in in my scrubs and they're like, "Oh, you work in the hospital? I was told I would never be able to work in a hospital.” And I say "Yeah, that's why I have these scrubs on, so you know that if you want to go and be a doctor, you have that opportunity, you could do that, we'll figure it out."
When I was in prison, I didn't know anybody was even outside of prison fighting for us or who cared about us. You don't know what people are doing on the outside in your name. I let the women in prison know, “we are fighting for you. And when you get out, if you want to come fight, just come on and join us.”
The Rubinger Community Fellowship invests directly in local change makers across America, supports innovative solutions within community development, and champions diverse nonprofit leadership.