Emily*, a slender prisoner with rusty-black hair, sports a tattoo of a panther curled over her left hand. On a Monday morning, she sits at a cafeteria-style table at the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI) unit, a values-based reentry program at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. During worship, an inmate queues up a recording of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” The inmates love this song. It expresses their need to turn their lives over to God, and they sing it loudly.
But 27-year-old Emily starts to rock in her chair, tears slipping down her smooth cheeks. She has a manila folder, labeled “Faith Lessons,” and in large letters she writes across the front of it: Jesus, take the wheel. She pauses for a moment and then adds another line from the song: I can’t do it on my own.
When the music fades, she wipes her palm across her face.
“I can’t believe it made me cry like that,” she says, embarrassed.
“A lot of people cry when I sing,” says an older inmate across the table.
Heather laughs and stands up, her prison grays tenting out unexpectedly from her abdomen. She is four months pregnant with her first child, she says.
Like women anywhere, the other inmates offer her their congratulations.
Since 1985 the population of female prisoners has risen at nearly double the rate of males. Because women prisoners have historically been few, however, corrections policy has often not taken gender-specific needs into account. The U.S. did not even have separate correctional facilities for women until 1873. But over time, it has become increasingly obvious that female prisoners have different needs than men. By learning about the issues specific to women behind bars, volunteers and prison ministry organizations can respond to them more effectively.
“A lot of them have scars from [alcohol-related] car wrecks or fights. Lots have tattoos or heroin tracks on their forearms,” says Janet McLaughlin, a retired Missouri school teacher and PF volunteer who has counseled female prisoners for four years. But, she adds, many of their scars go far deeper. “Many have traumatic and abusive pasts that they need to share.”
While many prisoners of both genders have abusive pasts in common, female inmates have a greater statistical likelihood of experiencing physical and sexual trauma.
In a presentation given to the Virginia Joint Subcommittee Studying Prisoner Reentry, Dr. Janet Warren, a professor of clinical psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia, shared findings from a study she conducted at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. She found that 55 percent of the inmates reported they had been sexually abused as children, while 40 percent had experienced other physical abuse. Moreover, between 12 and 20 percent had been victims of sexual and/or physical abuse in just the six months prior to their incarceration.
Many incarcerated women need help to overcome the hurts that drive them to destructive behaviors like substance abuse, and their programs should look different from those offered for men. Lisa Thomas, an ex-offender and prisoner reentry advocate, has ministered to thousands of incarcerated women. She observes that in general, women respond more quickly than men to programs that draw on their affinity for verbal communication and emotional connection.
“They want somebody to hear them. They want somebody to love them,” says Thomas. “The men will respond to that, also, but women are willing to get down to the exact nature of what’s going on a lot quicker.”
Without programs that specifically target women’s abusive pasts through healthy, accountable relationships, warns Thomas, female prisoners risk getting trapped in a “habitual revolving door.”
Keeping the Peace
Incarcerated women may also face difficult relationships with other female inmates. According to Lana Black, who directs the IFI unit in Vandalia, many of the women who come into her office to talk want to discuss problems with their cell mates.
These problems can stem from a variety of sources, including under-developed conflict resolution skills.
While women prisoners commit fewer violent acts than men, “there is bickering . . . some try to manipulate,” says Janet McLaughlin. “[They] try to blame instead of taking responsibility.”
Many female inmates have never seen healthy models of conflict resolution, and so they act out according to what they have learned in negative relationships beginning at childhood.
But female inmates can change. “If they can get past the blaming,” says McLaughlin, “there’s hope for recovery and a better life.” Values-based units like IFI that teach positive relationships can help female inmates arrive at a place of empathy, responsibility, and constructive conflict resolution.
At other times, though, conflict can arise from undiagnosed or improperly treated mental health issues. According to a 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 73 percent of incarcerated women have a mental health problem, a rate 20 percent higher than men. And that can lead to problems.
McLaughlin cites the case of one woman that had a hard time getting along with anyone because of her erratic behavior. As a former elementary school teacher, McLaughlin recognized the symptoms and suspected that she had adult attention-deficit disorder.
“I encouraged her to talk to doctors and get appropriate medication,” she says. “Things are much better now.”
McLaughlin hopes that mental health diagnosis and treatment of incarcerated women will improve, so that others can move forward, too.
Moms Behind Bars
Well over half of incarcerated women have minor children.
“It’s hard for them to adjust to separation from their children,” says McLaughlin. “And if they’ve been addicted, they probably weren’t good mothers in the first place, which is hard to face.”
Four to six percent of women, like Emily, arrive in prison pregnant. For those that reach the nine-month mark before their sentence expires, the experience of giving birth can vary widely. Some locations have special facilities that allow new mothers to remain with their infants while continuing to serve their sentence. In other facilities, however, women may be returned to the jail or prison directly after delivery, while their infant goes to family members or becomes a ward of the State. Depending on circumstances, the mother’s parental rights may also be terminated.
Separation from their minor children weighs heavily on incarcerated mothers, but it can also offer a special window for ministry that will help them turn their lives around.
"The quickest way to get to a women’s heart is through her children,” says Thomas. “An inmate can spot a phony a mile away. But if someone gives them something for their child with no strings attached, you cannot keep them away from Bible study, because they know that you care about them.”
To that end, Prison Fellowship offers the Angel Tree® program to thousands of inmates and their children every year, delivering Christmas gifts in the name of the incarcerated parent. As relationships get stronger, mothers behind bars gain motivation to avoid recidivism, as well as hope that their children will not imitate their errors.
Holistic ministry that addresses women’s trauma, substance abuse, mental health, and family relationships can help begin the process of transformation. But “some things,” says McLaughlin, “they just need the Lord’s help to get through.”
*The inmate’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.