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Woman to Woman 

A new mentoring program helps female offenders out

The image of jail as a place for bad guys is still mostly accurate: Nationally, 819 of every 100,000 men are incarcerated, compared to 51 in the same number of women. Yet since 1980, the incidence of women imprisoned in the U.S. has been rising at nearly double the rate for men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It took Vermont a little longer to catch up, but in the past six years, the number of women entering the prison system has skyrocketed 600 percent, says Jill Evans, who directs correctional services for women offenders at the Vermont Department of Corrections.

The numbers may still seem relatively small: 43 women at the 4-year-old Dale Women's Facility in Waterbury; 110 at the Southeastern State Correctional Facility in Windsor, which opened in fall 2003. But these don't reflect the more than 2000 women under DOC supervision in the community.

Oddly, though women's rates of conviction and incarceration are going up way faster than men's, women's crime rates are not rising at a higher rate. What gives? Drugs, for one thing. Though Vermont was slow to admit it had a heroin epidemic, a state study last year indicated that some 95 percent of women in DOC custody have substance-abuse problems. A corollary statistic: The fastest-growing population of female prisoners is between 16 and 23 years old.

"Women coming into the system have significant histories of trauma, mental-health issues and drug abuse," says Evans. "Women's pathways to crime are very different than men's -- they tend to be property crimes to support their drug habits. The most serious, and most frequently committed, crime for women is writing a bad check," she notes. "For men it's assault on a minor."

Accordingly, the recidivism rate for women has more to do with violating conditions of parole -- drinking or taking drugs -- than with committing another crime. While few in the penal or legal system might argue that jail time is the ideal solution for non-violent female substance abusers, at this time it is pretty much the only solution.

But in light of prison crowding, rampant drug use, and the recent startling revelation that the state is spending more to incarcerate than to educate, Vermont legislators are taking a closer look behind those locked doors and considering potential alternatives.

Meanwhile, one post-prison effort is trying to keep women from re-offending. The Burlington-based Vermont Women's Mentoring Program is nearing the end of its first year, and anecdotal evidence has been mostly positive. The idea is this: A female mentor in the community is matched with a female prisoner about to be released, and both make a minimum yearlong commitment to each other. The mentor is available for phone calls as needed, and a weekly visit. Even if the mentee has a relapse and is temporarily re-incarcerated, she and her mentor stay in touch by phone or email. So far 25 pairs of women have been matched, and a new group is being trained this month.

As director of women's correctional services, Jill Evans came up with the mentoring idea and put out a bid for its development and implementation; Mercy Connections and Northern New England Tradeswomen won it. The Sisters of Mercy-run Mercy Connections was launched after Trinity College closed four years ago. It also coordinates the Women's Small Business Project and a transitional education center at Joseph's House in Burlington. NNET recruits, trains and employs women in the trades and has long worked with women in and out of prison. The two nonprofits seemed a perfect match for the project.

Evans says the program was necessary because, frankly, traditional prisons and re-entry programs follow a male model. And not only is the female prisoner profile different; so too are the needs of women once they've been released. "Until recently women were kind of invisible in the system because of the numbers," Evans explains. "But women tend to be very 'relational,' and because women have generally had so many bad relationships in their lives... studies suggest that for a woman to have a relationship with another person who does not judge her, and supports and respects her, is one of the most powerful things she can have in her life."

Pam Greene, coordinator of the Vermont Women's Mentoring Program, explains that six months were devoted to design -- looking at similar models around the U.S. and Canada -- and research, which included focus groups with women in prison. What she heard echoed Evans' report: "Everyone asked for one true, trustworthy friend," Greene says. "And I can't overstate the untreated trauma histories that led them to use drugs, alcohol and other substances."

"My mentee says I'm the only person who consistently communicated with her in jail," says Williston-based mentor Lynn Kennedy. "She knows very few people who aren't involved in drug and alcohol abuse... I know the reason for prison, but it seems to me [these women] need counseling more than they need prison."

Greene notes some other significant ways in which the female prison population differs from the men's:

- The women tend to have more education; 70 percent have a high school diploma, and many have been to college.

- Seventy-two percent have experienced domestic/physical abuse as adults.

- Eighty percent of incarcerated women have children. While statistics are not available to indicate how many men in Vermont prisons are fathers, it's safe to say that they rarely are, or consider themselves, their children's primary caregivers. The opposite is generally true for women, for whom one of the most tormenting aspects of incarceration is being separated from their kids.

This resonates with both Kim Jacobs, a former inmate now living in St. Albans, and her Milton-based mentor Maureen Cooney-Moore. Jacobs has been in and out of jail since she was a teen, for shoplifting. "It started as a means to support myself," she says. "I was let out of SRS custody when I was 17, and I stole to live. Then it turned into an addiction." Eventually, so did heroin and cocaine.

Jacobs' older daughter lives with her grandmother. Now 14, the girl "had to clean up messes I left out, take care of her sister, and clean me up when I couldn't move," Jacobs says. "She's been through a lot for her age."

Jacobs, 35, now shares a small apartment with her 10-year-old. Though she carries the stain of "habitual offender" on her record, she's been drug-free for a while, and has had steady, if unsatisfying, employment for 10 months. Last week Jacobs "made parole," which means she can leave Franklin County to look for a better job.

Along with a buprenorphine program in Swanton, Jacobs' anchor has been her mentor. Though she has family nearby, "They don't understand the whole addiction thing," she says. Cooney-Moore does: Back in the '80s, the "nice, middle-class girl" became addicted to cocaine herself and spent two months in prison. The two women clicked immediately, she says. "I was amazed by Kim's honesty about getting high; she was really wrestling with her demons. Her daughter was the same age as mine when I was addicted." Cooney-Moore would like to see the mentoring program extended to kids -- "They need to deal with what they saw mommy go through."

LeeAnn Woodhull spared her son the sight of his mother's downward spiral; she left the 3-year-old with her parents in New Jersey when she came to Vermont 18 years ago, seeking "a break." What she found instead was a ruinous alcohol addiction and domestic violence. But the Burlington resident, now 43, says she was "a functional alcoholic" and didn't get in trouble with the law until she was 40. Her boyfriend claimed that she chased him with a knife during a fight; Woodhull denies there was a weapon, but in retrospect she's grateful that her arrest at least got her away from that relationship.

Being placed in 24-hour lockdown for 16 days was "the worst experience of my life -- I felt like a bad animal," Woodhull says. She found some salvation last year when "two ladies from Mercy" selected her for the mentoring program. "Maybe some girls coming out don't want that close relationship, but I really needed it at this point in my life -- somebody to hang with, talk with, be friends with. I didn't have any close friends when I was drinking," Woodhull adds. "We trust one another. It's a good feeling. I like it."

On parole until early next year, she's now taking classes and making new friends at Joseph's House, and looking for a new job. "Someday I might become a mentor, after I get my life together," Woodhull says. "More people need to know about this. They've taught me it's a good thing to reach out."

Testimonials like this are encouraging to the mentors, and to the DOC. And along with building networks of female friends and role models, Pam Greene anticipates an eventual side benefit to the mentoring program: "an advocacy community that's getting educated about incarceration in Vermont, and over time that may lead to public policy programs or legislation." She's particularly excited by the idea of alternatives to prison. "It's ridiculous to lock people up," Greene says. "It's a waste of human capital."

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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