Sisters That Been There: New Women’s Peer Mentorship Program Offers Innovative Alternative to Incarceration

Steeda McGruder, Founder of Sisters That Been There

At a forum on realignment towards the end of 2011, our very own Steeda McGruder blew away the audience as she described how the strength and encouragement she found from other women while incarcerated is what allowed her to transform her life, and break a cycle of incarceration. She had a dream of working with incarcerated women to help them turn their lives around. Just months later, Steeda is running a ground-breaking new program in Santa Clara County in collaboration with probation. Check out her story!

By Steeda McGruder — Below is a letter I wrote and handed out to all the women participating in my new program called Sisters That Been There – a support group for women being released from prison and returning to Santa Clara County, done in partnership with the Santa Clara County Probation Department.

Dear sister,

My name is Steeda, and I am a sister that’s been there. I am so glad you have made it home safe! Things have changed since you have been gone and what I mean by that is that there are people out here who are meeting on a regular basis to figure out how to assist you in the free world. They are doing this so that you may stay home where you belong. This may seem crazy, but it’s true. I have been a part of this, and am here today because I love you, and believe in your success and rehabilitation. And look at us now, anything is possible this time around. Look to your future because it’s promising when you know what you want. Do you know what you want? If not, no worries, we will surely find out while you are here. So with that said, I hope you choose to be here fully, where time matters and everything you do to better your life is valued and encouraged. Let’s find out what destiny has in store for you and lets live up to it. You are amazing and this is a fresh start again, so lets do things different this time around, and lets show the community who we are and what we want. Let’s shine.

This is such an amazing group that stemmed from a journey I can barely understand. I never imagined things would happen so fast, however it is my dream, and I have experienced this vivid picture that I am living today. I believe that women being released from institutions to Santa Clara County, don’t have to be caught in a cycle of continuously going back – we are in a new era.

Just because I believe this ofcourse doesn’t mean that these women believe the same thing just now. It just means they don’t know it yet. I know it to be true though from the time I’ve spent with them during our sessions.

Our process at Sisters That Been There is about being willing to look for the solution, rather then letting people be defined by their problems. And the solution today is to take a chance and believe in the people that are willing to live their lived as an open book.

I want to encourage all women that I make contact with to sacrifice for a greater purpose that will benefit other women. We are all followers of something or some one and honestly when I realized how many of these women were watching me while I did wrong and followed in my steps, I made me reflect. It made me want to take the influence I had on women around me and lead them right out of the cycle of incarceration.

This is the beginning of change in the criminal justice system that will eventually stop the increasing numbers returning to incarceration in Santa Clara County. The women I’ve met with at the program have said things to me that let me know it’s working. I had a woman in me group who just got out of Valley State Prison after a ten year sentence tell me, “I’ve never been to a group that felt like this the energy in the room.” A lot of women have said the program has opened up new possibilities for their own reflections. One exercise I led the participants through was to ask them to define what their strengths were. One woman said she had no strengths, only struggle. I told her that her struggle is her strength. She walked out of the session with a different sense of her self and her possibilities.

Sisters That Been There is breaking the cycle, because we are committed to building trust between the rehabilitating woman and the community. There is no chance or choice when confined, only strength and survival, so who will they trust to give them the strength they need to survive? SISTER THAT BEEN THERE!

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