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Originally published Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Help women in prison change course

The cuts to Washington state’s Department of Corrections has hurt programs that help reduce recidivism among women, writes guest columnist Laura Pavlou.

Special to The Seattle Times

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They have already had a rather drastic course change. They are in prison. MORE
The prison system in the USA, as a whole, is a disgrace because our legal system is... MORE
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IN less than two decades, the U.S. population of incarcerated women has increased by 400 percent. At the end of 2006 there were more than 1.3 million women inmates, parolees and probationers in the United States. More than 100,000 prisoners are being released each year without any form of community correctional supervision, despite the fact that post-release programs have been shown to reduce recidivism.

Since 2009, I have been facilitating workshops for women in prison. In our series, I show the women that there is hope. Hope that they can choose not to go back to prison after they are released. Hope that they will find the resources they need to succeed. Hope that they can learn tools that will offer them a new way of thinking, and as a result, a new way of life so they can parent their children, pay their bills and contribute to society in a way that makes them feel valued. What I noticed is that most of them have aspirations to give back in ways that will help others.

Ninety-five percent of the women I meet share stories of poverty, incest, molestation, rape, drug addiction and alcoholism. The dysfunctional patterns they learned as children continue into adulthood because there is often no self-awareness about the possibility for change or life skills to change course.

In one recent workshop, a young woman shared that she grew up with a father, a brother and an uncle who molested her. And as a teenager, she married a man who imprisoned her in her own home and continuously raped and beat her. Through tears she told me that prison was the only place she has ever felt safe in her entire life.

From 2008 to 2011, the state Legislature has cut the Department of Corrections budget by $269 million. This has resulted in cuts to staff and community-supervision programs that would ordinarily provide the discharge planning and referrals designed to assist prisoners with the transition to society. Although national studies prove that rehabilitation programs cut recidivism by as much as 20 to 49 percent, today many women are being released from prison with only $40 and a bus ticket.

In the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to study Norwegian community and culture in Oslo. Interestingly, not knowing that I would become passionate about helping women in prison, I was assigned to take a field trip into a women’s prison.

What I noticed about the Norwegian approach was the focus on rehabilitation. Like most Americans, I had a notion, from television and movies, of steel doors, concrete walls and barred windows, but this was not the case in Norway. All prisoners had a private room, with colored walls, a comfortable bed and personal bedding. Common rooms had the latest technology and the walls were adorned with art. Every inmate works, most outside of prison, and when they come “home” they share chores and cook together. They learn to live and work in community, learning valuable life skills.

Not surprisingly, recidivism rates in Norway are less than half of what they are in the U.S.

Total state spending in the U.S. on corrections is now about $52 billion. While Washington state’s spending on prisons has declined, state spending nationally has quadrupled during the past two decades, making it the second-fastest-growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid, according to a 2011 Pew report on the State of Recidivism.Yet we continuously cut programs for rehabilitation that will reduce recidivism.

Our mantra in our workshops is, “I hear you. I see you. I support you. You are powerful.”

My hope is that all of us move toward hearing, seeing and supporting this underserved population in our society.

Laura Pavlou is the founder of Women’s Wellness & Integrated Social Health. She can be reached at laura@ourwwish.com


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