Growing up, Gennifer Jackson never expected to be in Connecticut.
“The only time I had heard about Connecticut was on a Monopoly board,” the Chicago native said.
In fact, she never really expected to be anywhere.
In a recent interview in Bridgeport, Jackson said, “pretty much everybody that I hung out with, right now, is either dead or in jail.”
But three years into her life in the Park City, she works in a local shelter and recently started her own ride service business that already employs two others.
“That was one of my dreams when I came out of prison that I wanted to do. So, in May, I started Safe Drive LLC. in Bridgeport, Connecticut.”
It’s a milestone in what has been, and will likely be, a long road.
It’s a road that stretches all the way back to the state women's prison in Illinois.
Growing up in what she calls one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, Jackson said she had her first encounter with the criminal justice system when she was just 9 years old.
She says that wasn’t unusual at the time.
“In my neighborhood, they think that if they put us away, then they don’t have to deal with us. Not reaching out and seeing what the issue is, and giving us mental health and things like that, they pretty much just allowed us to hang ourselves,” Jackson said.
Jackson eventually followed in her drug-addicted mother’s footsteps and went to prison.
“If that’s all we know, if that’s all we see, that’s all we do,” the former gang member explained. “We don’t have a hope. In Chicago, we don’t think about having a future, you know? Having a wedding, we don’t have those dreams. Our dream is, ‘you know what? we gotta make it through this day, watch that car right there," she said.
An 18 year sentence for murder gave the mother-of-three time to change her mindset and time to make plans.
Ginger Wilk directs the Rise Program at Family ReEntry in Bridgeport and said, “most people come out with a fresh perspective on really not wanting to go back in this time, you know, most people do come out with a lot of hope.”
Rise won a 2021 NBC and Telemundo Connecticut Project Innovation grant for their team’s work, helping women like Jackson transition from incarceration to life on the outside.
“Being incarcerated means that everything that makes you independent is stripped away from you,” Wilk said. “You can’t drive, you can’t work, you can’t be a parent, you don’t have an ID anymore, you don’t have any type of your own income,” she added.
Jackson said those are just some of the barriers to getting back on your feet.
“After 15 and a half years straight, I had to start all the way over. I had to learn how to use a phone, I had to learn how to even have a conversation with individuals, you know? Because you’re so used to talking to your sisters that’s also in there. Things are a little different when you get out here, it’s like you’re completely lost," Jackson said.
Rise is designed to be there for women when there can be a strong temptation to just give up.
“The first 48 hours is so critical that they have support around them- people who will give them hope,” Wilk says, “Because it’s very, very easy to get overwhelmed and stressed and just think, ‘you know what? forget it. I’ve got three meals a day, I’ve got a warm bed, I’m just going to go back," Wilk added.
Jackson said being released into an entirely changed world was overwhelming, and for her, incredibly emotional.
It was the first time she saw her 18-year-old daughter face to face. She said she was six months pregnant when she was arrested for a gang-related murder and gave birth to her while in prison.
“When I saw her, I knew everything was worth it, and it motivated me to keep going,” the mother of three said. And Jackson said she’s able to keep going, in no small part, thanks to Rise.
“It’s a great feeling and if I can do it, a lot more can do it,” Jackson said.
She’s hoping that changing and sharing her life story will help others do the same.