At a forum ACJP//De-Bug held at the end of last year, as Santa Clara County imagined the best ways to build a realignment strategy that reduces recidivism, Steeda McGruder gave her testimony as an offering of hope to a crowd of community members, elected officials and public safety officials. She shared a vision of peer mentorship built from ideas she developed while she was incarcerated. She called her dream “Sisters That Been There.” She made her dream real, and now Sisters That Been There has become a unique blueprint of redemption, re-invention and tangible impact. Check out the Mercury News profile of her success story!
Ex-convict with ‘street cred’ leads unique San Jose support group for repeat offenders
By Tracey Kaplan
For a Santa Clara County contract employee, Steeda McGruder doesn’t exactly have a pristine résumé:
Occupation: Drug dealer/user, thief
Work history: In and out of custody for past 17 years
Attitude during last jail stint: Angry, suicidal, high-risk (allowed out of maximum-security cell only every 48 hours to shower)
So why has the probation department eagerly put her on its payroll at $400 a week?
Because officials believe her criminal record, powerful rap and magnetic personality make McGruder the ideal person to run a support group for recently released repeat female offenders called “Sisters That Been There.”
“She’s got street cred,” said Sean Rooney, a supervising probation officer who hired McGruder to officially run “Sisters” — the program she created.
The 16-week group offers newly released women a nonjudgmental place to discuss their problems. Through guided visualizations, art therapy and often blunt, heartfelt sharing, these street-hardened addicts examine how they got stuck in the “Land of Lost Dreams,” as McGruder calls the criminal lifestyle. She want to show them how to escape to the “Land of Celebration.”
Hokey as it sounds, McGruder envisions Sisters as a lifeline to a small but growing group of felons who want to successfully negotiate the many tribulations of being on probation. McGruder, an African-American woman with long streaked hair, warm brown eyes and
a broad smile, penetrates the defenses of even the toughest ex-cons.
She’s been steeped in the depths of street life, and her gritty presentations are peppered with details familiar to inmates — from memories of degrading strip searches, to the acrid odor of jail disinfectant, to the emotional pain produced by contemptuous jail guards.
“I have a way with these people,” McGruder said. “It’s a gift and I don’t want to waste it.”
After 11 years behind bars, support group member Cindy Cortez, 55, was determined to stay straight. But she needed everything, from clothes to wear on job interviews to a glaucoma test.
With McGruder’s help, she landed a job at a crafts store called Hobby Lobby in Morgan Hill and is enrolled at Gavilan College, where she is learning medical billing and coding.
“Steeda is the best thing that happened to me since I got out last year,” Cortez said.
The idea for the Sisters group came to McGruder while she was at her lowest point in jail last year, after she’d slit her wrists. McGruder’s life had always been difficult. Her mother was a heroin addict, and McGruder spent her adolescence in and out of foster care, juvenile hall and group homes. She knew she was capable of more, but had no idea how to change. Finally, her determination crystallized when she was in lockup and happened to read a self-help book entitled, “Where Have All the Smart Women Gone?” by Alice Rowe.
“I was up all night crying with tears of joy and excitement,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the smart women are here, their intelligence just never got embraced.”
McGruder’s Sisters concept dovetailed perfectly with the probation department’s new mandate under realignment, California’s recent overhaul of its criminal justice system.
In October, responsibility for imprisoning and rehabilitating nonviolent offenders shifted from the state to counties. The idea was to reduce prison costs and overcrowding, and encourage counties to try less expensive alternatives than jail. The search was on for truly effective programs.
When local officials heard McGruder speak about her fledgling support group at a community forum about the realignment plan, they jumped at the chance to work with the charismatic woman. At the time, McGruder was offering classes at Silicon Valley De-Bug, an ethnic media outlet and collective in San Jose that runs a free legal clinic every Sunday.
At first, she operated the group for the probation department for free. But officials were so impressed that they urged her to submit a formal proposal.
She can relate
Support groups like Sisters are unlikely to solve California’s persistent problem with thousands of repeat, low-level offenders. So far, only about 20 women have attended the sessions, which take place on the second floor of probation department headquarters on First Street in San Jose. But word of the group is spreading among probation officers and more women will be encouraged to join.
Even the best support group can’t convince stubborn repeat offenders to give up the criminal lifestyle unless they want to. But for women who have truly decided to change and need a helping hand, Sisters already is making a difference.
McGruder acts as an intermediary between the women and their probation officers when problems arise, such as a missed appointment, or when the group leader senses a woman isn’t making progress. Probation officials say paying her is more cost-effective than throwing the women back behind bars.
“It gives the women a voice,” Rooney said, “an outside advocate so they don’t turn and hide when things go wrong.”
Lilla Perez agrees. The 38-year-old got out of jail late last year after serving time for meth possession with intent to sell. She now works as a roofer. Determined to stay clean and sober for the sake of her six children, she credits McGruder with offering her essential support.
“You need more probation officers who’ve been criminals like Steeda so they can relate,” Perez said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now without her.”