No longer ‘broken’: Pilot program helps incarcerated women overcome trauma

Department of Corrections addresses common circumstances that lead women to prison

Even when Tanya Quinata entered the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Pierce County, she worried about the stigmas people would attach to her after her release.

Before entering prison, she saw herself as a taxpaying citizen who always worked hard to take care of her children. Now she was someone with a criminal record, serving an 11-year sentence.

While in prison, however, Quinata is working to confront that stigma — as well as the trauma from her past.

“I have always been really reserved about why I’m here, and I never spoke out about it … but I am a victim of domestic violence,” she said.

Stories like Quinata’s are common within the walls of the women’s corrections center and in women’s prisons across the nation. Stories of abuse, mental illness and poverty abound — and they differ from those of incarcerated men.

Source: National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women

According to the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, up to 98 percent of incarcerated women have experienced trauma in their lives, 73 percent have a mental health problem, 60 percent say they abused drugs just prior to committing their offense and up to 50 percent were homeless in the month before their arrest. Of all women arrested nationwide, only 3 percent are arrested on suspicion of a violent crime, according to the institute.

But a two-year pilot program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women is helping Quintana and other women work on the underlying problems that helped lead to their incarceration.

It’s called the Personal Reentry Education Plan (PREP), and it was written in partnership with incarcerated women. Now in its second year, the course has enrolled nearly 100 women. The program is funded by a federal Second Chance Act grant, the Seattle Police Department and The IF Project, a coalition of law enforcement officials, previously incarcerated adults and community partners.

“We listened to what the women thought was important and the things the women had struggled with during previous attempts at reentry,” said Felice Davis, associate superintendent of programs with the women’s corrections center.

Incarcerated women participate in a writing workshop run by The IF Project at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Members of The IF Project, a coalition of law enforcement officials, previously incarcerated adults and community partners, helped draft a new kind of reentry curriculum now used by women at the prison. (Washington State Department of Corrections photo)

In addition to a traditional reentry curriculum, PREP focuses on personal issues such as healthy relationships, codependency, working through trauma, family reunification, breaking cycles of violence, addiction treatment, addressing stigmas, personal responsibility and developing self-confidence.

“Traditional reentry efforts that focused solely on housing, education and employment missed the cyclical problems that we were seeing among female inmates,” Davis said. “The women struggled to deal with both the harm they caused others and their personal history of trauma. Failing to address their underlying issues did not set them up for success.”

(Washington State Department of Corrections video)
“A lot of us don’t just make last-minute decisions to commit a crime,” Quinata explained. “Somewhere in our lives, whether we were young and whether we were molested or in a domestic violence relationship, somewhere along our path in life, we were broken. … We’re going to do the same things over and over again if we don’t have those issues addressed.”

A new approach

Developing a reentry curriculum with incarcerated women was unconventional, Davis said, but crucial to promoting their successful reentry.

Davis, along with a Seattle University student, and Kristen Morgan, former director for prison programs at The IF Project, spent about three months working with a dozen incarcerated women to develop the curriculum and workbook for the class. Also involved were other members of The IF Project, including its co-founder, Detective Kim Bogucki, representatives from prison management and the state’s reentry council.

“We chose women who had unsuccessfully experienced reentry before and used their real-world experiences to inform our process,” Davis said. Importantly, they “were open about their needs in their social, emotional and mental health.”

The cover of the Personal Reentry Education Plan workbook, which prison officials developed with input from incarcerated women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Pierce County.

The team asked the women what they needed to reenter society as well as what these women’s role in reentry should be.

“What we hear from women is that they are lonely when they get out,” Davis said. “They also might be codependent with their partner from the abusive relationship that led them to prison.”

The PREP workbook still contains the typical reentry tasks, including checklists for finding housing and a job. But it also includes a form for evaluating relationships and questions to help determine whether a relationship is healthy.

In their relationship, do they “have fun together more often than not?” the book asks. Do they feel safe with each other, do they each control their own money and do they allow each other space when they need it?

PREP also helps women consider their goals and challenges in reunifying with their families.

The program enriches its curriculum with talks from guest speakers, including formerly incarcerated women, community corrections officers, Washington State Department of Corrections reentry specialists and nonprofit service providers.

Trauma ‘doesn’t define me’

Lisa, another woman incarcerated at the state correctional facility, said she has experienced positive changes during her involvement in PREP. (Crime victim advocates asked that we not publish her full identity.)

The Washington Corrections Center for Women in Pierce County offers a new curriculum to help women work through the trauma and experiences that helped lead to their incarceration. (Washington State Department of Corrections photo)

When Lisa came to the prison — for her third incarceration — to serve a 10-year sentence, she was in an abusive marriage. She was invited to help draft the PREP curriculum, and later to work through the program.

“We were given the opportunity to see that we weren’t the only person who’s ever gone through this,” she said. “I know today that I am worth so much more than I’ve been giving to myself. I know that the traumas that I’ve experienced, the abuse that I’ve experienced, doesn’t define me. … That’s huge.”

Seattle University is conducting a study to measure PREP’s effectiveness at helping women reenter society.

Its success will be determined by more than whether these women reoffend, Davis said. Beyond helping them simply survive on the outside, the program aims to help them become positive, productive members of their communities.