Ten Toes In: Women Help Fight Hard Time
By Dianne Anderson
Darlene Burke seemed the least likely candidate to be in a relationship with an inmate.
She holds her degree from UCLA, is a successful real estate agent of 22 years with a big name company, and is a God-fearing woman.
But, she said the heart wants what the heart wants.
Women and wives advocating for their men in prison are often viewed by society as having low self esteem issues, desperate for a man, and terrible mothers.
“It’s the total opposite of what society thinks we are. The sisters that are part of Ten Toes In are all professional women, most have BAs, their Masters, and we have a few with PhDs. Some have a history with the men or knew them prior to going to prison,” said Burke, founder and executive director of the nonprofit, Ten Toes In.
She also knew her partner from their youth. They grew up in the same neighborhood, and were close friends. They stayed in contact and fell in love.
“It just happened, it wasn’t planned,” she said, noting that although they are no longer together, they remain friends, and he also has his own successful business.
The Prison Policy Institute reports the arrest rate for Black Americans at 6,109 vs. white Americans at 2,795 per 100,000. Arrests of Black Americans in 2018 was 2.8 million, and the percent of people on probation or parole who are Black is at 30%.
Being that Black men get jail time more than four times greater than whites, they are more likely to be pipelined to prison early. It also opens the door for the kinds of relationships, like hers, that may have started young.
Her program, aptly named Ten Toes In, represents the women who are all in advocating for their partners. Among five programs, they host mentorship support groups for formerly incarcerated men each month. They hold in-person sister support groups, and virtual sister support for women worldwide, across the U.S., from Belize to Canada.
In Long Beach, they partner with the reentry organization Ronnie’s House, and several programs across Los Angeles County. Burke’s six-month curriculum is taught at state men’s prisons. As a reentry and intimate relationships consultant, she facilitates workshops with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state Parole Department, Los Angeles County of Education, along with several nonprofit organizations and Universities and Colleges.
The program mainly focuses on healthy relationships, and survives on grants and funding. Through Los Angeles County, they received $255,000 for three years, also a $70,000 for a springboard fellowship from the Durfee Foundation.
Her nonprofit motto is “Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.” Just like the outside world, she said there are some good inmates, and some bad.
“You can’t help who you fall in love with, but you can make a decision to walk away,” she said
The women in her group are realistic about their role in helping men access the tools they need. She said the main thing is getting the brothers to transition into healthy relationships and back to society.
“The women know how to advocate, they go to different events talking about reentry. Most of our brothers have to go parole board hearings, they’re helping get the support,” she said, adding that none of the men in their workshops have had domestic violence charges, but generally gang-related crime from their youth.
“We are the component of reentry and incarceration that addresses the intimate relationship. We are focused on the couple, if you go to any men’s prison, over 85% will [have outside] partners,” she said.
Minus the prison sentence or the crime, some of their relationships look like a fairy tale marriage.
One man was incarcerated for killing the rapist of his children’s mother, who had threatened to kill her family if she told anyone. He killed the rapist and served 31 years before meeting a woman of his best friend, a world-traveled military veteran.
“Bertha said, ‘Why would I think about talking to someone in prison?’ Fast forward, they’ve been married 26 years, they own and operate 7 transitional homes funded by the state and opened a fish fry where they employ other formerly incarcerated,” she said.
It’s one of several testimonies for those able to get out of the system and remake their lives.
Last year, Bertha turned 75, and her formerly incarcerated husband flew the family in from Texas and Louisiana, held a grand party at a fine hotel and paid for all their guest rooms. He re-proposed to Bertha with a $10,000 ring. After the party, they moved into their newly purchased $1 million home.
Burke placed another couple in their new home two years ago, who are homeowners and now landlords with the additional unit on the property. The wife is a mental health professional, and her formerly incarcerated husband has since built up his own trucking and freight companies.
Beneath the trepidation of first impressions, Burke said many good Black men got swept up in the system, but not all is lost.
At Ironwood Men’s Prison in Blythe, she met her inside facilitator and helper Kareem, paroled earlier this year, who now earns $85,000 a year as an advocate, teaching men to prepare for parole board hearings. Kareem’s wife of many years is an investigator for child support.
But success reentry stories are not unusual in Burke’s circle, and in her free program, there is no shortage of women seeking help. She tells them to make their men do the work that they need to do while on the inside.
“It is a support group, but I also talk about red flags. The brothers can do that work, they can type in the library. You don’t have to be their personal secretary, but you have to make them accountable,” she said.
For more information on the program, see https://www.tentoesin.org