After Syrita Steib was released after completing nine years of a 10-year prison sentence in 2009, she was shocked to learn that a web of collateral consequences faced by people with a criminal record would stymie her dream of rejoining the world and going to college. To ensure that other formerly incarcerated women and girls wouldn’t have to face the same set of legal and social barriers alone, Steib founded Operation Restoration in 2016. Today, the organization, which is staffed entirely by women, with 80 percent being formerly incarcerated, offers an array of programming and wraparound services to aid women and girls impacted by incarceration in restoring their lives and realizing their full potential.
Arnold Ventures sat down with Steib, founder and executive director at Operation Restoration, to discuss her organization’s work, the specific reintegration challenges faced by women, and why we need to do a better job providing second chances for people involved with the justice system. This interview is part of an ongoing Second Chance Month series highlighting leaders working to provide opportunities for redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration for those with a criminal record.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about Operation Restoration. What problem are you trying to address and how do you approach solving it?
We work on removing as many barriers as possible for formerly incarcerated women and girls to be successful in reentering society. We have 15 programs across the organization, and they build upon one another. When we first started the organization, we focused on social services and education. But as I continued on this journey, I realized that people can’t take advantage of education if there are multiple other barriers in place preventing them from accessing that education. If they don’t have safe and secure housing, if they’re suffering from food insecurity, have challenges with transportation, then it’s as if I haven’t even presented the opportunity of education to them because I’m not invested in making sure that they can take advantage of the opportunity.
With us, we always come from a place of asking, “What does this person need? How do we meet them where they are to be able to either remove the barrier completely, or support them in overcoming another chance?”
What inspired you to start Operation Restoration?
I’m formerly incarcerated. I did almost 10 years in prison. When I was released from prison, a lot of the services and things that I thought existed were not there. They had some programs that were available for men, but virtually nothing for women.
I didn’t realize there were so many barriers to reintegration. My plan was to get out and go to school. I wanted to start my life over because I was done with doing my time. What I quickly learned was, you’re never free from it. Your record always comes up every time you have to do a background check and every time you apply to different things, even years and years and years later. It’s so crazy. I just tried to go through the process of getting an au pair and was denied due to my criminal history.
No matter how much good you do, no matter how much you remove yourself from your past, you’re always tied to it.
I can only imagine how frustrating that must be. Can you tell us about some of the reintegration challenges that apply specifically to women and girls?
I think the major difference for women is definitely family reunification. Eighty percent of women who are incarcerated at the time of their incarceration have children under the age of 18. Research also indicates that 44% of Black women will be unemployed for five years. That’s not maybe; it’s “will.” So, if one in two Black women who are released from prison will be unemployed for five years, they are much more likely to recidivate and go back to prison because the options aren’t there for them.
The other big challenge is housing. There are relatively few housing options for single women — women who don’t have custody of their children or women who have not been reunified with family. Almost all of the housing options for women are for women and children or family housing. We find that homelessness is really high when we look at single women who have been incarcerated.
We like to say ‘another chance’ because people need support in order to get it right.Syrita Steib founder and executive director at Operation Restoration
What does providing second chances to people involved in the justice system mean to you? What does that look like?
I have a lot of women whom we work with who say, “Thank God for another chance.” Not just a second chance, because some of them have gotten it wrong multiple times. Some of them have ended up in prison multiple times, and some of them have had to commit survival crimes all of their lives. When you say second chance, a lot of people wouldn’t even be in the conversation if they only had two chances to get something right.
We like to say “another chance” because people need support in order to get it right. That’s regardless of whether you’ve been to prison or not and whether it’s a supportive family, a supportive teacher, a supportive mental health system — whatever it may be.
I think that when we really challenge and push back and say, we help all formerly incarcerated women, we focus on all formerly incarcerated women and girls. We focus on how we can improve their quality of life. Having another chance is about improving the quality of life for folks who can then raise their families or then go back out into the community.
Operation Restoration is located in Louisiana. What are some of the specific barriers that you are focused on addressing in your state?
Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere in the world, and it’s been like that forever. This mass incarceration didn’t cut crime. We have to deal with the fact that Louisiana economically is behind the times. Minimum wage is still $7.25, meaning that you could be working two full-time minimum-wage jobs and still be poor. I think if we don’t put that at the forefront, we won’t meaningfully reform our justice system.
Louisiana has a special fascination with incarceration because the whole state is built on the backs of the incarcerated. They fix the roads. They maintain the government buildings. They work at the governor’s mansion and inside of the Capitol. The fixation on incarceration here is definitely economically driven.
What’s next for Operation Restoration, and what do you need to better execute on your mission?
We’re focused on scaling and expanding our model to other places. To scale, we’ve started a program called Operation Innovation, where we fiscally sponsor 20 other organizations or programs across the country. We provide the back office support, the guidance, the culture, and all of the things needed to build an organization that is as effective as ours. We’re not trying to create Operation Restorations in every community, because each community has different needs. Instead we are trying to ensure programs and organizations in each community have the resources they need to be sustainable and can execute at a high level to address the issues that we’re facing.
Too often, decisions about our communities are made in silos and not in collaboration with the community. What we need is not just money and resources, but also access to the conversations and the people who are making decisions in communities.