County graduate reflects on impact of unique curriculum for Black women involved in justice system

August 23, 2019

H.E.A.T., or Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability and Therapy, is a curriculum tailored for black women involved in the justice system.

Candice Murphy always knew she had the intelligence and personality for success. After grade school in Northeast Portland, Murphy left for California, where she finished high school at the top of her class in biology. 

When she returned to her native Portland, she enrolled at Concorde Career College in pursuit of a career as a phlebotomist or medical assistant. At 21, she was a college graduate employed at a local dermatologist’s office. She later worked at Legacy Emanuel Women's Clinic as a medical assistant. 

But life began to spiral as Murphy made the wrong turns with the wrong people. For 17 years, she struggled with an on-and-off-again addiction to crack cocaine. That battle intersected — more than once — with the criminal justice system. 

And, coming from a broken home, Murphy said, “I didn’t have the skills to stop myself from spiraling. After I had my daughter, I settled down a bit. But I never really regained ground with addiction. Throughout the years, I had four children. I couldn’t keep up with society. So instead of getting multiple jobs, I just stole.” 

Candice Murphy poses with parole and probation officer Tomasina Tavai-Porotesano

At 36 years old, Murphy was in a fight with a relative’s girlfriend. She was charged with assault and served more than two years in prison. 

But Thursday, in a long-awaited personal milestone, Murphy took another step toward a different future. She joined seven others in the Multnomah County Boardroom for the first ever graduation for women involved in the H.E.A.T. for Women pilot program.

H.E.A.T., or Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability, Therapy, is a curriculum tailored for black women involved in the justice system. It’s facilitated by corrections counselors, and parole and probation officers, from the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice.

Murphy started the eight-month course while serving her sentence at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. She completed it in the community, after she was released from prison. The program is intentionally structured so that if a participant does not finish it inside the correctional facility, she can complete it in the community and have the support of her peers during community group sessions. 

“People in the group can help each other get jobs and prevent isolation,” said Travis Gamble, community justice manager for the Department of Community Justice and manager for the Department’s African American Programs.   

Each lesson touches on topics from “myths and misconceptions of black women” to “messed up thinking” to “examining emotional family wounds.”

“The first person who did something wrong to me was my mother,” Murphy said. “And I needed to communicate with her, and I also needed to forgive her and move on. 

“I also figured out why I allowed a man to call me once a month and I still loved him,” she continued. “My father wasn’t there for me all the time, but when he showed up I still loved him, and so that was the same with my relationships. The H.E.A.T. Curriculum helped me to start talking about it and to be comfortable talking about it. A lot of African American families, we hide the deepest darkest things going on with us.” 

The H.E.A.T. program originated as a curriculum for men. It was created to address the over-representation of African American men in the criminal justice system, and developed for drug court programs in Kentucky and Indiana. As those programs saw success — with more participants engaging and finishing the curriculum, and with fewer participants re-offending — other communities across the country picked it up. 

Multnomah County was the first organization, with state corrections officials, to implement the H.E.A.T. for Men’s curriculum inside prison. It’s also used for groups outside prison, including Portland’s G.I.F.T. (Gang Impacted Family Team) program as well as the County’s African American Program community groups. 

Thursday, H.E.A.T. co-founder Daryl Turpin, spoke to graduates. 

“We saw right away that if we were going to engage young men in the system,” Turpin said, “we have to have the right tools.”

“But there were more people tapping us on the shoulder saying, ‘What about Black women?’” Turpin said. “And finally we looked at the data and saw black women were the fastest-growing population in prisons across the country. “

Turpin and partners drew on expertise from practitioners and justice-involved women across the country to create the H.E.A.T. for Women curriculum. It included guidance from Felesia Otis, a local public safety activist. 

The course is divided into three sections on self, family and community. Time is built in for discussion and work sessions. The experience culminates in a graduation and remarks in front of family and friends.  

Throughout her nine-month experience, Murphy shared painful but necessary experiences as she sees it with her group, parole and probation officer and corrections counselor Bruce Douglas.

“The bonding with the girls was great, all by itself, because African American girls we tend to fight with each other,” said Murphy. “It gave us a reason to trust each other with this critical information that we’re sharing. That by itself, was an incredible experience. Then, just going through the book, step-by-step on self and community and family — it opens up your eyes to things that haven’t changed, but can be changed. I love it.”  

From left: Corrections Counselor Bruce Douglas and Parole and Probation Officer Tomasina Tavai-Porotesano.

“At least one women didn’t recollect that she had been traumatized,” said Douglas. “Because the abuse she was receiving, she didn’t look at it as traumatizing. We shed light that what she was going through wasn’t normal and we should get it addressed.”

The curriculum — which developers believe is the first culturally-specific and gender-specific of its kind — is a departure from the traditional role parole and probation officers have historically played.    

“Now, we actually talk about trauma,” said Gamble. “When I started if you talked about trauma you were making excuses for people’s behavior. The problem with that is that you don’t give people a platform to identify that behavior, own it and change it.” 

Murphy was released from prison in January 2019. Each day presents its own challenges but she has two jobs, a support network and path forward. 

“The H.E.A.T. Curriculum brought up a lot of old wounds. You know how you fall down and hurt yourself and it’s raw and there's a scab," she said. "The curriculum allowed me to let those wounds re-heal in a different way. "