RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Sheba Williams believes her work advocating for the rights of incarcerated people and those with past convictions chose her, not the other way around.
As someone with first-hand experience with how a conviction creates barriers for a person, Williams has strived to help others who have faced similar circumstances. Williams, her parents, sister and husband have convictions on their record, but she says that only tells one side of the story.
Williams was convicted, wrongly she told 8News, of a nonviolent crime and put on probation when she was young and her husband was arrested as a teen and spent nearly 20 years in prison before being acquitted and released, she said. Their records presented them with multiple challenges, including when it came to finding work.
“We put in over a 1,000 job applications between the two of us and we did not get one single call back. It was directly related to having felony convictions,” Williams said.
Williams, a John Marshall High School and Norfolk State University graduate, said she looked to find help for herself and her family, a process that shed light on the lack of resources that people with convictions have and sparked her advocacy work.
“There were programs for people who were being released from jails,” she explained. “There were programs for people being released from federal prison but if you were released from state Department of Corrections, they just told you ‘report to a probation officer in 72 hours and don’t get in trouble.’ There were not a lot of resources.”
Williams decided to do something about it, creating a nonprofit to help people in the Richmond area facing the same issues. Now, six years later, Williams is a 2022 Richmond History Makers honoree for “Championing Social Justice.” She will be celebrated along with her fellow honorees during a celebration hosted by The Valentine on Tuesday, March 8.
“It feels amazing, I don’t think it’s really set in,” she said, adding that her work has kept her too busy to think about the significance of the honor.
“Still don’t know who did the recommendation but someone will pay,” Williams said, laughing. “But it’s definitely an honor. I’m from this city. I’m born and raised in Richmond and I’ve always seen people who support the community.”
Williams is the founder and executive director of Nolef Turns, a criminal justice advocacy group that works to reduce recidivism. The nonprofit organization assists people in the Richmond area in several ways, from helping those going through the criminal legal system to handing out food and COVID-19 test kits.
Nolef Turns isn’t what people would consider a traditional program, William says, as it focuses on the individual needs of the people it helps. The advocacy group, made up of volunteers, has mentored children who have parents in the prison system or who are going through detention centers themselves.
Williams said the support Nolef Turns provides can vary from helping people navigate the complexities of the legal system, signing up for programs such as SNAP and Medicaid and donating tablets to students. The group has handed out food, medication, masks, hand sanitizer and COVID-19 test kits during the pandemic.
“Everyday is different. Every person is different. We sit down and do goals that are specific to the person,” Williams said, explaining that there is no guide or plan when it comes to the work.
Williams spoke about the collateral consequences that people with convictions face, pointing to housing discrimination and trouble finding employment.
“Having a conviction is probably one of the few things that people can legally discriminate against a person for. So to not have to rely on social services and different nonprofits, if people are able to work and make a living wage, they build into this community,” Williams said.
“A lot of people think that people are just committing crimes for no reason. If you look at the root causes of crime, most criminal activity happens because of lack of resources, because of behavioral health issues, because of substance abuse disorders. But people won’t treat the problem.”
But Williams said there are other barriers that people with convictions face that others may not think about, including when trying to be a foster parent or volunteering to be a chaperone for their child’s school trip.
After the 2016 presidential election and heightened focus on voting rights, Williams said Nolef Turns was thrusted into a new position of advocating for those who have been disenfranchised due to the records. She is hopeful that lawmakers could eventually vote and pass a bill for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of people with convictions once they are released.
While her workload and Nolef Turns’ reach continues to expand, Williams said she’s proud to be honored as a Richmond History Maker. But no matter, the advocacy work comes first.
“Just to be recognized and I feel like I am the baby in this advocacy space. I feel like I haven’t done half as much as I want to do but to just be recognized, for somebody to tap you on the shoulder to say ‘hey, I see you,’ that’s just an amazing feeling. There’s so much more to go,” Williams said.