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Spotlight Non-profit: GINA’s Team helps inmates find purpose in life in and out of prison

LatinaLista — According to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world. The U.S. incarceration rate – 753 per 100,000 people in 2008 – is now about 240 percent higher than it was in 1980.

gina_with_sunflower_skpv.jpgThe same report reveals that “non-violent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Non- violent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.”

Gina Panetta, the namesake of GINA’s Team

Over 90 percent of these inmates are released back into society but they have no education and no job skills to constructively contribute to society. And because of the social stigma of having a criminal record, it’s not surprising many inmates can’t find jobs and so they drift back to their old ways to help support themselves when they are free.

One organization wants to change the odds for inmates and it started with a girl named Gina.

Gina Panetta was 25 years old when she passed away from medical neglect on June 19, 2003, suffering from acute leukemia, less than one year before being released from an Arizona prison. To keep Gina’s memory alive, her family and prison roommate, Sue Ellen Allen, created GINA’s Team.

The organization promotes education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women and men in Arizona and the United States at no cost to the prisons. Their mission is to:

Get inmates needs addressed by contributing to inmate education, programming, and re-entry, thus creating better citizens, smoother re-entry and more peaceful communities both inside and out.

GINA’s Team operates a variety of programs such as a monthly guest speaker’s program that brings in professionals to speak on a variety of subjects to inspire and motivate inmates; offers classes on creative writing and civics and works with at-risk adolescent girls ages 12-18 by bringing in guest speakers, artists and community activists to share their stories of overcoming adversity, sharing their artistic talents and inspiring the girls to embrace creative self-expression through a variety of mediums.

Because GINA’s Team focuses on an ignored segment of the population, the organization is also actively involved in research and advocacy projects. Though the co-founder of GINA’s Team is an ex-prisoner, Sue Ellen Allen is also a college graduate, a former business owner and a former community leader who saw the wasted potential of some many women and men and decided something needed to be done.

The following is an eye-opening blog post from Sue Ellen’s Blog:

I Want to Vote
March 24, 2011 by Sue Ellen Allen


I can’t vote. I have voted since I was eighteen but now I’m an ex-prisoner and I cannot vote. Disenfranchisement exists in many forms in many states. Sometimes you get your vote back automatically upon release. Some times you have to go to court to ask permission of a judge.

In three states, Vermont, Maine, and Washington, inmates are allowed to vote during their incarceration. In Canada all inmates are allowed to vote. In America, inmates can run for office in all states, but they cannot vote for themselves, or anyone else.

Why can’t I vote?

Partly because I live in Arizona, one of the most restrictive states for restoring voting rights. I have restitution to pay. Any ex-prisoner with fines or restitution cannot vote. It is considered a debt. But other people have debts and can vote.

People declare bankruptcy and vote. People walk away from their upside-down mortgages and vote. Voting is a basic right of all Americans and yet inmates and ex-felons are denied that right even after they have served their time and supposedly paid their debt to society.

In the case of many ex-prisoners, the fines racked up can never be paid because they can’t get a job to even begin the process. In Arizona, there are over 100 licenses and jobs related that ex-prisoners cannot have.

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