Syrita Steib-Martin was sentenced to 120 months in federal prison, 20 years in state prison, and $1.9 million of restitution at the age of 19. The sentence stemmed from auto theft charges. But Syrita wasn’t alone — over past 20 years there has been an 800% rise in the incarceration rate of Black women, who are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women. Serving the time is difficult but as Syrita found out firsthand, living beyond incarceration is an entirely different sentence. Now her life’s work is to fight against a system that is destroying the lives of Black women, through the work of her organization, Operation Restoration.
Syrita was always plenty smart; she’d already been offered a full ride to Xavier University of Louisiana in physics and engineering when she was arrested. It wasn’t until after she was incarcerated, however, that she learned to truly value education. Education literally turned her life around and liberated her, even behind bars. When she got out she was determined to go to college. She was denied admission promptly and she suspected that it was because she had to check that little box on her admissions application, signaling to the school that she had a criminal past. She applied again and decided to leave the box unchecked and it worked. Syrita had a clear target moving forward.
According to Syrita, if a person just steps foot on a college campus after being released from prison, the odds of them going back are miniscule. The odds are even less for those who earn degrees. Through their Unlock Higher Ed campaign, Operation Restoration has successfully worked to remove “the box” from admissions applications in Louisiana, Colorado, Washington and Maryland. Schools like George Mason University are voluntarily banning the box on its applications. Mississippi, Georgia, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin and several other states are on Sytrita’s radar. In addition, she is working nationwide with allies to restore Pell Grants to prisoners and eliminate Question 23 on the FAFSA, which directly asks about prior criminal offenses.
There are an infinite amount of roadblocks for women who are returning to their communities after incarceration. Operation Restoration is working to remove as many as possible through direct services and political advocacy. There is one more threat, however, Syrita and others like her encounter that doesn’t stem from harmful legislation or poor decisions on the part of impacted women. Rather, it is our collective indifference to the suffering of women in general and Black women, in particular. Largely, discussions of mass incarceration and criminal justice center on Black men. Black women, however, are a target of the system and as they are taken away from us, so is the life of our community.
Black women matter — free, incarcerated or otherwise. Operation Restoration is on a mission to restore our women and we should join them. As Syrita pointed out, “it only takes one person to spark a movement.” If that is true, what could we all spark, together?