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My Turn: Female inmates need our help

The New Hampshire Legislature will soon begin making difficult funding decisions about state services. When it comes to the Department of Corrections budget, lawmakers may be discussing whether to increase mental health services to women prisoners. A recent lawsuit filed against the state corrections commissioner suggests women prisoners have fewer services than men who are behind bars, and a new state audit suggests that “by not providing female inmates with similar rehabilitation opportunities, the DOC may be increasing the chances of female inmates returning to prison.”

Recently, while teaching a five-week communication class to women at Shea Farm, a transitional housing unit in Concord for women who are on their way out of prison, I began to develop similar concerns about women prisoners’ rehabilitation and recidivism rates.

I learned a lot about at least some women prisoners in New Hampshire while teaching that course. I learned they have dreams, intelligence and compassion. They laugh easily and treat each other with respect. They listen with empathy and support each other with sincerity. However, as one might expect, they also have problems – in some cases deeply rooted problems related to trauma that may very well have contributed to them being behind bars in the first place. Recovering from that trauma will likely require intense counseling. Unfortunately, that kind of counseling is difficult to provide, and it is apparently not always readily available.

We took a vow of confidentiality in the Communicating Mindfully class, so I need to speak in generalities. However, according to a 2010 report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, “The majority of individuals in jail and prison (in New Hampshire) have either addiction or mental health disorders (or both).” Numerous women prisoners have pasts full of physical or sexual abuse perpetrated by parents or spouses, and many of them come from broken homes that frequently include substance abuse.

These life experiences and living conditions no doubt contributed to the behavior that put these women behind bars, and it felt painfully obvious to me that women prisoners need more services than are currently available to help them work through the trauma that may be at the root of their criminal activity.

Many tears were shed during the five weeks we spent together, but none were more intense than those experienced during a discussion that made it clear participants had unresolved issues they were unable to confront under the conditions in which they were living. While we were talking during one of the classes, some sensitive issues came up that caused an uncomfortable silence to envelop the room. It was a moment of recognition, of truth, in which many of the women recalled traumatic experiences. Under different circumstances, the women may have been able to use that moment of recognition to begin working through the traumatic experiences that have plagued them. However, they had been advised, they told me, by counselors, that Shea Farm was not conducive to trauma treatment. With 45 women living under the same roof with limited privacy, the conditions were simply not ideal for the intense emotions such work would likely evoke. The advice seems sound – but the reality utterly unfortunate.

I was there to help them; however, in that moment I felt as helpless as they did.

“It must be difficult to have the desire to face the issues from your past that haunt you but not have the opportunity to do the hard work that would involve,” I said, doing the best I could to at least show them I was trying to understand how they were feeling.

They nodded. Some reached for the toilet paper that acts as a substitute for tissue within the walls of the transitional housing unit.

It was clear to me that we are not doing enough to help these women. The best I could think to say was to suggest they write down what past experiences they want to work through, what issues haunt them, so they can come back to those insights and observations when they get the chance – when they find themselves in an environment that supports the deep, psychological work that needs to be done to complete their healing and rehabilitation.

That suggestion, however, felt inadequate. And it was. I couldn’t help but wonder when they would get such an opportunity. Would it be when they were released, struggling to find even low-paying jobs, managing the challenges of reuniting with their families after being behind bars, developing new social networks to avoid criminal influence, pursuing higher education to achieve their dreams of being productive members of society? When, where and how would they be able to find the time and emotional energy needed to confront the traumas of their past and the scars they carry with them to this day? And what happens if they don’t find that opportunity? Will they revert back to the old patterns of behavior that put them in prison in the first place?

Although recidivism rates in New Hampshire fell steadily between 2005 and 2008 (the most recent years for which data is available), women are still returning to prison at a rate of more than 40 percent, according to a recent state report, “Recidivism Rates Decline Third Year in a Row.” Providing women with increased access to mental health services could help improve those numbers. Ideally, we want our prison system to help people who have committed crimes avoid committing them in the future. Our money is better spent rehabilitating criminals than it is on continuously punishing them.

Lawmakers have some challenging decisions to make. Providing increased therapeutic services costs money, but so does returning people to prison. Recent changes in the law and shifting prison populations have made it difficult to determine just how much recidivism is costing the state, according to Jeff Lyons, public information officer for the Department of Corrections. However, the 2010 Council of State Governments Justice Center report predicted parole revocations in fiscal year 2009 would cost New Hampshire “approximately $13.3 million based on a $90 per day cost of incarceration.”

The female prisoners who participated in my class have the desire to confront their pasts to prepare for a better future. They are ready to have confidence in themselves, to believe in their hearts that they are good people with something positive to contribute to society. We need to provide them with that opportunity if we are serious about rehabilitation.

More important, we need to provide them with the necessary services if we are serious about helping our fellow human beings. Staff members at Shea Farm appear to be caring, capable people who are doing a great job with the limited resources they have. Imagine what they could do with more.

(Dan Huston is a professor of English and communication at NHTI in Concord.)

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