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Marla Thao : Building a New Life, Piece by Piece

March 20, 2012

Marla Thao

Editor’s Note – This is the first in a 3-part series detailing the challenges faced by Marla Thao.  The second post will deal with Marla’s efforts to reconnect with her family and the third post will examine the unique cultural challenges and opportunities experienced by Marla.


Post by Jessica Hunt

Marla Thao’s outlook is brighter these days than it has been for a long time and part of that is because she’s found a support network she can count on.  But after eight years in prison, the first place Marla needed to reach for support was within herself.

A child of Hmong immigrants in St. Paul, Marla struggled in her attempts to live in-between the Hmong culture she was born into and the American culture she encountered on the streets daily.

“One thing I struggled with growing up was self-esteem,” she said.  “Looking back what I had led me to my crime was… I was searching for love in other places, especially in men…So I felt kind of insecure.”

Her family relations were physically and verbally abusive and her search for acceptance led her into a relationship with a meth-using boyfriend who eventually became abusive also. She was living out of her car and he convinced her to turn to prostitution to earn money.

“I guess after the first time I did it, I thought ‘nobody will want me except this guy because I did this for him,” she said.

She became pregnant with her daughter and soon realized that drugs meant more to her boyfriend than she did. Eventually her own prostitution wasn’t enough, and her “boyfriend” began luring more girls into prostitution, using their apartment as the base of operations.

“My relationship with him was more important than (the girls) were..…. I knew it was illegal, I knew it wasn’t right. But…I was unhealthy myself.”

Her boyfriend was caught and because she was involved and did nothing to stop the operation, Marla was sentenced as a coconspirator.  In 2003, she was sentenced to 11 years for three counts of promotion of prostitution with minors, aiding and abetting.

Marla made a choice while at Minnesota Correctional Facility Shakopee to take advantage of any opportunity that might help her leave her past behind her.

While serving as an institutional clerk at Shakopee, Marla worked near the transitions center and began learning more about the Amicus services and programs.

She first applied for and was then matched with an Amicus One to One friend, Vanessa Kahn. Vanessa offered her a positive relationship and someone to talk to.

After forming that relationship, Marla got involved in the agency’s Sisters Helping Sisters program and the Amicus Employment Advantage class. Through those classes, she learned skills to help build her confidence and self-esteem.

“It is a safe environment to share stuff you have been struggling with,” she said.

When taking these courses, Marla was contacted by Amicus  Reentry Coordinator Jerome Graham to help ease her transition back into the community. Marla states that Jerome has provided  solid support for her both in prison and after her release.

“More than just a case worker, you can say a friend. You can talk to him about things you are struggling with, the challenges,” she said. “He has been a great help.”

As part of her reentry efforts Marla also came into Reconnect to use the job search resources.  She has encountered many barriers in her searches for stable employment and affordable housing which  accepts individuals with a sex offense, but today she is living in an apartment with her mother, working full-time and has recently enrolled at Metropolitan  State University, seeking a degree in social science.

Marla has also volunteered with Amicus, sharing her experiences at trainings for One to One volunteers.

“Amicus is, …really welcoming and accepting. I think that’s all people really need to succeed. Someone to believe in them, that they’ll make it,” she said. “People who are in prison have disappointed so many people in their lives and people give up hope in them. They give up hope in themselves. And to have someone to believe in them – that’s worth a lot. Amicus gives many people hope that they will succeed.”

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