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Inmate Danilla Espiritu is training this dog through the Canine Companions for Independence program at Folsom Women’s Facility.

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer

Women are different from men. While this may seem like a simple statement, it’s a fact many people, businesses and organizations have long ignored. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), however, takes the needs of female offenders seriously, understanding how gender-responsive strategies are vital to reducing recidivism.

This was the basis of the Gender Responsive Strategies Conference, held recently in Folsom. CDCR welcomed corrections officials, stakeholders and employees from headquarters and California’s three female prisons: Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), California Institution for Women (CIW) and Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF). The two-day event gave insight into the work CDCR is doing to rehabilitate female offenders, from health care and programming to parole and re-entry services.

Jay Virbel, Associate Director, Female Offender Programs and Services, said the intent of the conference is not only to gauge CDCR’s success so far, but to look to the future and how the department will continue to help women succeed.

“It takes everyone in this room to make that happen,” he said, “from the community, to the leaders, to the academics, all the way through. It takes all of us. Thank you for wanting to participate. Thank you for taking time to participate and making this meaningful.”

Participants were invited to tour FWF. Correctional officers and program directors led groups throughout the institution, where they met inmates furthering their education and gaining tangible job skills through the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA).

A group of inmates at FWF are training dogs through Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization providing service dogs to people who can’t otherwise afford them. The puppies, Penley and Nieve, were a hit with the FWF tour groups.

A tour group learns about the California Prison Industry Authority’s Green Valley Training Center near Folsom Women’s Facility.

CALPIA’s headquarters are just steps away from FWF, and women in the construction program there have been hard at work installing a modular building, including pouring the foundation and creating a park-like area in front.

On the second day of the conference, Shannon Swain, Deputy Chief Superintendent, Office of Correctional Education, emphasized the importance of getting the right inmate in the right program at the right time, and having a variety of programming available makes this possible. The biggest lie in the world, she told the audience to much laughter, is “one size fits all.”

“The same is absolutely true about programs and about education,” she added. “We have 35 individual (Western Association of Schools and Colleges)-accredited schools with principals and staff out there, teaching academic and Career Technical Education every day. Those types of CTE programs include everything — building maintenance, carpentry, electrical, small engine repair … there are many opportunities for people in our prisons to get an education if they want one.”

Working alongside re-entry programs is the Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO), which has specialized programs in place for supervising female parolees. Maritza Rodriguez, Chief Deputy Administrator of DAPO, said the department’s practices have evolved from surveilling offenders and re-arresting violators to supporting parolees in their efforts to not return to prison.

Rodriguez discussed the HEAL Initiative (Housing, Employment and Linking services), a partnership between DAPO and the Division of Rehabilitative Programs created to reduce female offender recidivism. Components include pre-parole classes at Re-Entry Hubs, Female Offender Treatment and Employment Programs, specialized caseloads to address unique re-entry challenges for females and statewide staff training in gender responsivity. These efforts, Rodriguez said, are paying off.

“We have a huge uptick in how many parolees we have in really good programming,” she said. “We were kind of in this business of just getting them to the door; now we’re in the business of trying to keep them in the door.”

CDCR staffers aren’t the only ones helping women change their lives. The conference included several people who have made it their life’s work to help women. Dr. Stephanie Covington, PhD, LCSW, of the Institute for Relational Development and Center for Gender and Justice, developed the Beyond Violence program at CCWF and CIW.

Dr. Stephanie Covington shares information about the Beyond Violence program she developed which helps female offenders work through their own trauma to understand how to make positive choices.

Beyond Violence employs the Social-Ecological Model used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to understand violence, as well as by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) research on women in prison. This four-level model of violence prevention considers the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community and societal factors and addresses the issues that put women at risk for experiencing or perpetrating violence.

Covington told conference attendees it is a myth women are becoming more violent. She said the perception exists because of changes in policies and the justice system which are over-highlighted by the media. But it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

“The majority of women who are incarcerated for violent, aggressive crimes,” she said, “are women who themselves have been victims of violence.”

Virginia Dunstone, Executive Director of Women 4 Change, is the creator of LifeScripting, an 80-hour workshop at CCWF in which female offenders analyze their behaviors and choices. Dunstone asked the audience how many of them spoke English. When everybody raised her hand, she asked how many of them have been told to stop speaking English, a language most learned in childhood. The room was quiet.

“You don’t tell yourself to stop speaking the language you learned,” she said. “And yet we learn every single belief solidly, in our childhood, and we get up day after day telling people, ‘Just stop your behavior.’ Behavior has to be recognized before it can be changed.”

More than 600 women have gone through the program at CCWF, Dunstone said, with 550 on the waiting list. Training will be conducted soon to expand the program statewide, as women have let CDCR know the program has changed how they think about themselves and how they communicate with others, including their families.

“Because of the things I’ve learned in this class, I am going to lead a positive, more empowered life,” one inmate wrote about participating in LifeScripting. “This class has also taught me how to be a better mother, sister, granddaughter, etc., when I parole. I am now in charge of my own life.”

Dunstone said it’s all about information.

“They don’t need me, they need information, and when that information affects them, they talk,” Dunstone said. “It happens with so many of your programs. Because you care about women – they know it. And they go and sign up and tell everybody, ‘Please go to the program, it will serve you.’”

Dr. Barbara Owen, PhD, helped CDCR revise its Gender Responsive Strategies training, which is required for all correctional and institutional staff working in female facilities. She said research has proven time and again such strategies, combined with programming such as Beyond Violence, work.

“Women are not men,” she said. “And I think we know that from our own lives – I think everyone who works in women’s facilities knows they’re different than male facilities. We now have the evidence, which we kind of knew already, that gender-responsive practices lead not only to improved outcomes, but vastly improved outcomes.”