Tamika Bradford is a good student; always was. Getting out of high school with a solid GPA was easy for her. Getting out of prison and into academia proved more challenging.
“I graduated high school at 17,” Bradford begins. “I was in a program to be a flight attendant. I had a good life. No poverty in my background. Even in the courtroom, when judges and defenders looked at my case, nothing made sense to them about how I ended up where I did.”
“I’m sharing my story now to let women know you can break the cycle, but it can’t be done alone, on your own.”
Where she ended up was the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center at age 20. Broken probation and bills and payment schemes related to extravagant car and clothing purchases resulted in a five-year sentence.
Bradford’s parents made weekly visits to the facility. A strong support system was just one anomaly in her prison resume.
“Half the women I met had never graduated high school,” Bradford says. Bradford earned an Office Assistant technical degree in prison, followed the rules, and was released early after securing a work-release position.
Here’s the other distinguishing factor in Bradford’s prison tenure: Determination, not rehabilitation.
“Prison does not rehabilitate people,” she repeats several times in a 60-minute interview. “Parole officers do not rehabilitate you. Your parents do not rehabilitate you. You have to want to change.
“I watched women return two or three times, back-to-back sentences, like it was nothing. I was saying to myself, to anyone who would listen: ‘I just want to get out of prison one time and I promise you I will not be back.’”
Her first stop, post-prison, was her parents’ home in Milwaukee. Infallible Helping Hands Inc. played a huge role in her success. Infallible gave me an instant support system. It helped me deal with not knowing what I was going to do with my life.
“I came home to nothing, starting over at 23. Starting a job at McDonald’s was the hardest thing I had to do. I had to push my pride aside.”
The support of parents, grandmother, best friend and a string of prayers helped. Bradford’s best friend who was the founder of Infallible Helping Hangs Inc. had transitioned from prison to UWM student. She urged Bradford to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
FAFSA completed, financial aid secured, and with little else to go on, Bradford enrolled at UWM in 2006. Within a year she landed a full-time job as undergraduate coordinator in UWM’s Chemistry Department.
Working full-time and attending school full-time wasn’t easy, but the dual commitments forced Bradford to micromanage her time, stick to her syllabi and pay her own bills.
Completing more than 50 percent of her coursework online was a great convenience, she says, and allowed her to graduate on time and keep her job. The gift of two scholarships, totaling $10,000, was an answered prayer that deepened her determination.
But taking control of one’s life after prison is a challenge that can make the alternative – cycling in and out of prison – look easy. Getting a job, retrieving children from foster care, avoiding drugs and alcohol, repairing damaged family relationships are items on a “to-do” list that women inmates can avoid, says Bradford. “One thing about Infallible Helping Hands Inc. it works because it has a “by us for us” philosophy. These are individuals who have been in my shoes and they know what to do to succeed.”
“Many women are released with as little as the clothes on their backs and a bus pass; no plans at all,” she adds. “Don’t tell these women that their transition begins when they get home. It needs to begin before they are released.”
Combining her bachelor’s degree in urban education with a graduate degree in counseling, Bradford says she wants to create a pre-release transition program for women.
She moves in just a few weeks to Arizona, a state with vast employment opportunities in corrections. She’s beginning an online master’s program in mental health counseling in an institutional setting.
“There are some women out there with criminal histories who are in school, raising their families, making a career, doing all the right things and getting no exposure.
“I’m sharing my story now to let women know you can break the cycle, but it can’t be done post here.