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Girls on the Rise

Looking across the room, prisoner Machelle Pearson said she could see some of herself in the faces of the seven young girls shifting nervously on plastic chairs at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Some had been in trouble for fighting in school. Others had run away from home. All had been brought to the facility for Girls on the Rise, a program that focuses on helping at-risk girls improve their self-esteem, change their behavior and divert their path from one that could lead them to trouble with the law. “We’re trying to promote self-esteem, self-respect and respect for authority,” said Corrections Program Coordinator Donna Butler, who oversees the program. “We’re trying to change their behavior and we let them know the realities of living in prison.” Sharing their story Standing in front of the group of girls on a late July morning, Jennifer Pruitt told them about the serious consequences that can come with some mistakes. “Some of us were your age when we came here,” said Pruitt, gesturing to the prisoners around her. “We hope that what we have to say will touch one of you. We hope that one of us will be able to reach you.” Pruitt was incarcerated at 17 after she participated in a robbery that lead to the death of a man. The prisoners beside her had similar stories, and all faced long-term or life sentences. “It took me five minutes to commit my crime and I’ve been paying for it for the last 16 years,” said India Porter, who was sentenced to serve 23 to 40 years in prison for her involvement in a shooting. “Our life is all about the decisions we make. If I gave my fears and insecurities a voice, my life would be completely different today.” Debra Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison for open murder, encouraged the girls to consider the possible repercussions of their actions and decisions. “All of us robbed society of one precious thing, and that’s safety,” Smith said. “It’s bad decisions that will get you here.” To be involved, prisoner mentors in the program go through an extensive interview process and nine-month training, which includes instruction on conflict resolution, effective communication, healthy coping skills, and parenting skills, among other areas. The program offers a gender-responsive curriculum that helps prisoners educate young participants on a variety of topics, while using their own personal experiences as examples. The girls sat wide-eyed as they listened to the prisoners’ stories. Some wiped away tears as prisoners asked them to respect themselves enough to make good choices, take pride in their grades and not let others take advantage of them. “Someone brought you here because they care about you,” Pearson told the girls. “No matter what you’re going through, there’s someone out there who cares about you.” Getting involved Girls who participate in the program can range in age from 11 to 18 years old. The girls attending the program’s session in late July were 12 to 16 and were brought there by neighborhood police officers with the Detroit Police Department. “I hope they take away some insight to not make mistakes and to make better decisions, especially when they get into a confrontation,” said Neighborhood Police Officer Colette Burks-Weathers, who brought the girls to the facility for the program. “I hope this sinks in and it touches them for the rest of their lives.” Many of the program’s participants are identified by community police officers or school officials as good candidates for participation, but parents can also choose to get their daughters involved, Butler said. She hopes more schools, organizations and parents will see the benefit the program can have for at-risk youth. While the program began with anxious fidgeting, it ended with smiles and nods from the girls. As it concluded, each girl and each prisoner took turns looking into a mirror and saying something positive about themselves. “You are our future,” Smith told them. “So make the best of your future.”