Syrita Steib-Martin is aware that it sounds cliché, but any movement to change any system has always started with just one person. She is living proof of that, making a determined push to resolve the stigma associated with being involved in the criminal justice system, restore dignity to the women and girls impacted by the system, and ultimately “end incarceration of all women and girls in this world.”
Steib-Martin is the a co-founder and the Executive Director of Operation Restoration, a nonprofit that supports women and girls impacted by incarceration by helping them achieve successful reentry into society by pushing education, while promoting leadership and self-advocacy.
But Operation Restoration isn’t just about helping women and girls obtain high school equivalency diplomas or college degrees, though that is a main component of their work. It is also about removing as many barriers as possible that many women and girls returning to society face – including pushing for legislative policy to enact real change.
“They don’t tell you in prison about the barriers when you’re released and all of things that you won’t be able to do,” she said. “They release you with this idea that you can go out and change your life and do whatever you want to do [and] if you work hard enough, or if you try hard enough, it’ll happen. And that’s not the case.”
Steib-Martin is speaking from personal experience. At the age of 19 she was sentenced to 120 months in federal prison, 20 years in state prison, and $1.9 million of restitution, stemming from charges of auto theft from a dealership in Texas that was burned down in the process.
For about the first five years of her sentence, she was floating between multiple prisons as she battled with anger and other issues during her incarceration.
It was only when she got to Tallahassee, Florida, where the prison offered college courses, that Steib-Martin felt her trajectory shift.
“[From] the time I started taking classes I felt like my behavior in prison changed; I learned about myself. When you give people the opportunity to educate themselves they start looking at things differently and assessing situations differently,” she explained.
But even then, she was lucky, as her parents were the ones who paid for her education while she was incarcerated.
When she was released from prison in 2009, 10 years after being sentenced, she was ready to go back to school with 30 college credits under her belt from the Tallahassee Community College, but then she hit a road block.
When she applied to the University of New Orleans, she was denied. Steib-Martin believes was due to her ticking a box on her application acknowledging that she had been previously convicted.
Two years later, with encouragement from her husband, she decided to try again. This time she unchecked the box referencing past convictions. Within 24 hours, she was conditionally admitted, scholarships pending.
However, even as her college education took off, she felt guilty. She decided to come clean to the professor who she worked with as a tutor and was rather close to. What he said to her, lit a fire in Steib-Martin’s heart.
“He kind of looked at me… and was like ‘Cool, well you’re not like everybody else.’ And that did something to me on the inside,” Steib-Martin, who ended up earning a degree in clinical laboratory science from the LSUHSC said, “I was like ‘no, I know thousands of people just like me.’”
Shortly after forming Operation Restoration, Steib-Martin and her co-founder, Annie Freitas, got the opportunity to draft Louisiana Act 276, which bans public higher education intuitions in the state from asking questions about criminal history for admissions. They took the bill and completely rewrote it, having never written policy before. The bill passed, and Louisiana became the first state to pass this type of legislation.
“We knew if we could humanize this topic and bring information in and talk to people about what they’re going through…then we can make real, lasting, true change,” Steib-Martin said.
That was just the beginning.
As an organization, Operation Restoration focuses on four main comments: education of those connected with the criminal justice system, policy connected to criminal justice reform, direct services for those impacted by the criminal justice system and fiscal sponsorship to other groups doing similar work in their own communities.
Operation Restoration operates the Women’s First Clinic, which helps women and girls with their HiSET as a step toward earning their high school equivalency diploma. They also make sure to remove any barriers that would get in the way of that, such as childcare and transportation and work with students individually.
“It’s one thing to give someone an opportunity, but you have to be really invested in making sure that the person can take advantage of the opportunity, because just giving them opportunity can still present a barrier because they don’t have the things that they need to take advantage of the opportunity,” she explained.
There is also assistance with the next step to obtaining higher education. If the students decide to go to vocational college classes, that’s one step. The organization has also partnered with Tulane University to facilitate a college in prison program inside of Louisiana state prisons.
The direct services ensure that those returning to society have somewhere to go to if they are in need of anything. There is a donation-based closet where they can get clothes for any occasion. Women and girls are also able to come by and get any variety of personal hygiene and sanitary products, as many times as they need, once they are formerly incarcerated or system-involved.
Operation Restoration also ensures that it puts some donations toward a rapid response fund, ready to spend up to $300 per person per event that can range from something as getting your lights cut off, to having to be put up in a hotel for a week because someone has not quite yet figured out a place to stay.
Policy and legislation wise, it would take an entirely new piece to truly give space to the wealth of work Steib-Martin has done in the arena.
After passing the Ban the Box legislation on college applications in 2017 in Louisiana and they moved to pass it in three other states: Maryland, Washington and Colorado.
She partnered with cut50 to work on the First Step Act, which passed late last year, restoring dignity to thousands of people incarcerated through various dictates, including the ban of shackling pregnant women, increasing “good time credits,” require those incarcerated to be within 500 driving miles from their families and much more. She’s currently working on the REAL Act, which would restore Pell Grant eligibility for students earning degrees in prison.
In Louisiana, she has worked on creating the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act so that women will no longer be charged for hygiene and feminine products when they exceeded their “allotment” of 10 pads per month.
She also currently chairs the Louisiana Task Force on Women’s Incarceration, comprised of all women, including formerly incarcerated women and currently incarcerated women, all participating to improve the conditions of women currently living within the system in Louisiana.
That is all while attending speaking engagements (including speaking at ESSENCE Festival last year), and still working as a medical technologist.
Steib-Martin’s extensive work secured Operation Restoration’s position as a grantee of the Art for Justice Fund, a five-year $100 million grantmaking initiative which is seeking to transform the criminal justice system and work towards solving mass incarceration. Operation Restoration, much like Vivian Nixon and the College and Community Fellowship which was previously profiled, received a Fall 2018 promoting reentry grant. The grant will help with the expansion of Operation Restoration’s programming, support Steib-Martin’s leadership and help Operation Restoration forge new partnerships as it increases its outreach efforts.
“We partnered with the Newcomb Art Museum [at Tulane University,] and we were able to curate an exhibit that focuses on the incarcerated women of Louisiana,” Steib-Martin said describing some of the things that happened since receiving the grant. “We paired thirty artists with thirty formerly incarcerated women and each artist made an artwork whether it was sculpture, videography, photography, different paintings, contemporary art. And basically, they shadowed their – we call them “Per(Sister).”
An exhibit has been on at the museum since January and will continue to July. But already the exhibit, according to Steib-Martin, is the most visited in the museum since it has been open.
“It just really gives you a walk through what the pillars of incarceration for women are,” she said. “So it really started to open up a conversation and bring awareness to the issues that lead women to prison in a way that was artistic and that people could come in and participate.”
But in the end, it returns back to one thing. Seeing these women and girls, those who are incarcerated, as human beings with potential.
“We try so hard to dehumanize the people that we incarcerate, so I think it fundamentally starts there,” she explained. “We call people ‘the inmates’ or ‘offenders’ and that is all steeped in dehumanizing individuals and removing humanity.”
“Fundamentally, we have to bring the humanity back,” she added.
But what’s more important is that Steib-Martin believes that change will happen, surely, one woman at a time.
“People sometimes look at an issue and they think that’s it’s just insurmountable or it’s too much for one person to participate in and do. If I thought that way I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things that I’ve accomplished. Any movement has started with one person, and nothing is too big or too small,” she said. “Our goal at my organization is to change incarceration one woman at a time. So, we don’t look at it like we are just helping this one woman at this particular time because every time you help one, then they want to come back and help someone else, and then it grows, and it moves from there. I just really want women to know that there’s space for all of us.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Syrita Steib-Martin was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. She was sentenced to 120 months.