Syrita Steib and Annie Phoenix are the co-founders of Operation Restoration, a New Orleans based organization that supports formerly incarcerated women and girls. They spoke to Collab in Action about their legislative victories, empowering women through employment and education, their advocacy work and vision for expanding Operation Restoration’s outreach and impact.
Syrita Steib Annie Phoenix
Camila: A lot of Operation Restoration’s work has been focused on aiding and empowering women in their transition from the penal system back into communities with emphasis on education, mentoring, and support. Is there anything that you’ve learned from your personal experience about the most needed forms of support for women coming out of prison?
Syrita: Women coming out of prison need everything. It goes from basic things like underwear and a toothbrush to connections to systems of higher education, opportunities to heal from trauma and resources to reconnect with family. And more importantly, they need other women who have been through the same experience and can help them walk through their journeys. It’s not enough to be a resource provider, the most effective thing is to walk with somebody and say “I’ve done this walk before, and I know what this feels like.” One of the women we work with spent 19 years in prison. When she got out, one of the first things I did was take her to the grocery store and I noticed she was totally overwhelmed. And I understood why this was difficult for her. I knew what she needed in that moment because I knew what I wish I had had. The key thing is: people need other people who understand them, who understand their experiences.
Camila: Did you receive this kind of support coming out of prison?
Syrita: For me, it was different - my mom was a judge, my dad worked at the oil refinery, they had resources. Unlike other women, I got out and I had a place to live and family members who wanted to support me. But they didn’t necessarily understand what I had been through during the past decade of my life. So, yes, I had other women whom I had been incarcerated with who gave me a lot of support too. They helped me go back to school, one of them bought me a cellphone and taught me how to use it, because cellphones barely existed when I was imprisoned. I ended up moving to an apartment with one of these women so we could support each other.
Camila: I know providing support is one of the main goals of your organization, Operation Restoration. What have been your greatest successes so far?
Annie: We have passed laws and we have created nation-wide campaigns, but we also create opportunities and jobs. For example, the other day I went to the dentist, and I had excellent insurance. And that’s because we created an organization. Now, 13 families have full benefits, and our employees are all women, 80% of them formerly incarcerated. Our organization has accomplished amazing things. We recently received a donation from the New Orleans Saints – 5,000 sq. feet of office space in Benson Tower, which is one of the nicest office buildings in downtown New Orleans. We’re renovating this space and we’ll have it for free for 7 years. Yesterday I walked through and they were painting the walls… I was in awe. I could not have imagined that we would be able to be in such building, providing resources to women. Being able to provide opportunities to our staff is something I’m really proud of.
Camila: And what were your greatest challenges getting Operation Restoration up and running?
Annie: There were a lot of challenges but perhaps the greatest challenge was believing in ourselves. I have self-worth issues, like we all do, so this was a huge barrier to me. In our first year I thought that if we could have 3 full-time staff and a 300,000-dollar budget, that would be amazing. And I had to learn to aim higher. Instead of 3, now we have 13 full-time staff, we have a lot more than I ever dreamed of in the beginning. The truth is, sometimes we end up limiting ourselves a lot more than other people limit us. And the work can be hard and frustrating, it often feels like it would be easier not to do it. But at the same time, I feel fully committed to our vision and to Syrita. I think it’s the people you work with that ultimately keeps you, and supports you through the hard times.
Camila: You have both drafted and helped pass Louisiana Act 276, “banning the box” on college applications in the state. In the last few years, however, some researchers have argued that banning the box in job applications may actually hurt the groups it was designed to help. Could these potential unintended effects have similar impacts on college applications?
Annie: Robert Stewart and Christopher Uggen from the University of Minnesota have published an excellent paper on this. They did an experiment and submitted applications to several colleges throughout the country indicating different criminal histories with racial variations. Their study found that Black applicants with a criminal history were discriminated against at the highest level. This study also shows how college admissions and job applications are very different processes - in employment you’re looking for fewer people, where college admissions seek larger pools of people to fill up classes. And I must also say, in relation to the employment studies, that academics have a responsibility to be accountable to communities, and they must be careful about ways in which they may end up harming communities. Nobody has ever said that “ban the box” is getting rid of racism. Racism and racial disparities exist in employment, but the answer to that is not to promote the exclusion and discrimination of people with criminal histories. The answer for racism is to focus on racism, it’s not okay to keep the box so we can help White or Black folks who don’t have criminal histories and discriminate against those who do.
Camila: How can academics best support advocates and activists doing the groundwork that you do?
Annie: It’s very hard for academics to recognize when they don’t know something. We have made careers and a lot of our livelihoods is based on constantly promoting what we know and what we’re experts on. Academics need to humble themselves and recognize that they’re not the experts in this field. No matter how many books they’ve read or how many people they’ve talked to. Academics need to bring resources from their universities to support formerly incarcerated people doing research and leading conversations about the best way forward. They must also help create opportunities for formerly incarcerated academics and help us end the use of dehumanizing language.
Camila: Could you tell is more about your advocacy work for women still in prison?
Syrita: We go into prisons and jails and we see people desperate for a sweatshirt. You can’t expect to talk about education with someone who’s freezing. We worked on the Dignity Legislation in Louisiana so sanitary products, soap and shampoo could be provided to people in prison without charge. Interestingly, we had no opposition from the DOC. Most people agree that incarcerated people should have their basic needs met. We push for basic needs, but we, of course, know that’s not enough. In the documentary “College behind Bars” they talk about two horrific things: solitary confinement and strip searches. Both are dehumanizing and unnecessary – they strip people of their dignity, their humanity. Solitary confinement is torturous. We fight for college education in prison, but we know that we must also fight for human rights.
Camila: Why have we advanced so little in securing dignity and human rights for people in prison in the 21st century?
Syrita: People don’t know what happens in prisons. I have to believe that if everyone knew, these things would not be happening. That’s what we see in legislatures when we bring certain issues to light. When we tell legislators that women do not have access to sanitary napkins, they are horrified. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened without media attention and exposure of the awful realities of racism. We need to bring transparency to the realities that people survive through while in prison.
Camila: What is your long-term vision for Operation Restoration?
Annie: We want to have the largest all-female non-profit in the world, period! [laughter]. If we can keep helping women, particularly those coming out of incarceration, we need to effectively do that. The way we do it is by hiring and supporting women to do the work they want to do. We have 15 programs because we work with amazing women. Sometimes we don’t anticipate programs, we hire someone because of who they are and how they think, and the work they end up doing is amazing. For example, Dolfinette Martin [operations manager] whom we hired early on is really passionate about housing. Because of her we are going to buy a house and start doing transitional housing. We’re also working with Hope House in New York and creating opportunities for women to learn how to become homeowners. And that was all possible due to Dolfinette’s passion and drive. That’s what we need to keep on doing - supporting women so they can do the work that inspires them. That’s our goal.
Camila: What are you most looking forward to see happen in the criminal justice reform world in 2020?
Annie: We’re going to restore the Pell grants. That’s going to happen! Bringing back funding for college in prison is going to create great opportunities. That’s what I’m most excited about right now, and of course, the “ban the box” on college applications. We want to see that happening in 21 states next year. We want to see individuals’ right to go to college outweigh someone’s right to know about their past.
Syrita Steib is the Executive Director and co-founder of Operation Restoration. She has an unrelenting passion to help women successfully reenter into society after incarceration. At the age of 19, she was sentenced to 120 months in federal prison. After serving 110 months, she earned her B.S. from LSUHSC in New Orleans and became a nationally certified and licensed Clinical Laboratory Scientist. Syrita has advocated for legislative efforts in Louisiana and nationally including the Louisiana Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act and Louisiana Act 276 which prohibits public post-secondary institutions from asking questions relating to criminal history for purposes of admissions, making Louisiana the first to pass this type of legislation. She was on Mayor Cantrell’s transition team in 2018, was appointed to the Justice Reinvestment oversight council for the state of Louisiana and chairs the Louisiana Task Force on Women’s Incarceration. Syrita is also a 2019 Rubinger Fellowand Unlocked Futures Fellow with New Profit and FREEAmerica.
Annie Phoenix is the Policy Director of Operation Restoration, which she co-founded in 2016 with Syrita Steib. Annie has spent over a decade designing educational programming with people in prisons. As an undergrad, Annie designed theater and writing programming for incarcerated youth and women and advocated for the inclusion of transgender students in women’s colleges. In 2015, Annie enrolled in Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community PhD program to research higher education and incarceration policy and practice. After co-founding Operation Restoration, Annie worked closely with Tulane to build the only secular, for-credit college program available to women incarcerated in Louisiana. Annie researched, drafted, and advocated for the successful passage of legislation in five states including six bills in Louisiana. In 2019, Annie facilitated the creation of Unlock Higher Ed, a national coalition to support formerly incarcerated advocates to lead the movement to increase access to higher education.