By Krissi Khokhobashvili

CDCR Public Information Officer

Reducing recidivism and turning lives around are goals for rehabilitating all inmates, but when it comes to treating female offenders, a different approach is needed.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and is dedicated to ensuring the female inmate population receives gender-responsive treatment.

The Female Offender Programs and Services (FOPS) Mission oversees a myriad of rehabilitative programming in the state’s three female institutions – California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla and Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF), as well as two community-based facilities – Female Rehabilitative Community Correctional Center (FRCCC) in Bakersfield and the Community Prisoner Mother Program (CPMP) in Pomona.

Helping ensure the success of those programs is FOPS Associate Warden Cherylann Mendonca. Mendonca said one of the most important things FOPS provides are Gender-Responsive Services.

“Being gender responsive means creating an environment – through site selection, staff development and programming – that reflects and is understanding of the lives of women and girls,” she explained.

To that end, one of the biggest accomplishments of Mendonca’s five years with FOPS has been assisting with the activation of FWF in Northern California.

The 403-bed institution is designed specifically to help women prepare to re-enter their communities, with a focus on job preparation, education, and family reunification. Women also receive vocational training through the California Prison Industry Authority (PIA), which offers a construction program and training in Computer-Aided Design at FWF.

Mendonca also points to the Alternative Custody Program (ACP) as one of FOPS’ many successes. Since 2011, eligible CDCR inmates are allowed to serve their sentences in a private residence, transitional care facility or residential treatment program in lieu of confinement in state prison. To date, more than 400 women have taken part in the ACP, the vast majority of whom successfully transitioned back into society and have not returned to custody.

“It allows those women who really want to change to go out into the community and find a job, and be given the opportunity to be self-sufficient,” Mendonca said.

To be approved as a rehabilitative program for women, a program must show it can be transformative. Mendonca, who joined CDCR in 1984, said that until starting work with FOPS in 2009, she hadn’t considered the different approach needed when working with females. Now, that’s her job.

“When choosing programming, we look to see if the outcome will truly make a change in someone’s life,” Mendonca explained.

The number of programs for women is ever-increasing at CDCR. Mendonca said there are many new programs, either just starting or on the horizon, that will continue the FOPS tradition of rehabilitation.

Mendonca was instrumental in bringing LifeScripting to CCWF. LifeScripting provides a fundamental and rare approach to identify the traumatic experiences that led female offenders to their life choices.

LifeScripting promotes self-healing and life-changing behaviors that will positively affect the female offender’s interaction with their children and successful reintegration into society upon release.

Mendonca has received statement after statement from women who have taken the course and are seeing positive changes – even while still incarcerated. One pointed out that LifeScripting has helped her have better communication with her family during visiting.

Parenting Inside Out, another program Mendonca is proud of bringing to CDCR, is a class tailored to the needs of incarcerated parents.

A licensed social worker guides students through subjects such as emotion regulation, child development, communication, problem solving, effective discipline and preparing for a return home.

The class also includes a visiting component, in which parent and child are reunited under the observation of a social worker, who quietly observes and then provides feedback. The pilot program has seen much success for fathers incarcerated at California State Prison-Solano, Mendonca said. CIW will start its pilot program for mothers this summer.

Retaining family bonds is a vital component of rehabilitation. Studies show that even one visit while incarcerated lowers a person’s chances of reoffending upon release. And for every mother incarcerated, there is a child – or children – facing challenges at home.

Mendonca is a key coordinator for “My Future Starts With Me,” an annual conference co-sponsored by CDCR and Friends-CARE (Children in At-Risk Environments), a nonprofit that supports children of incarcerated parents. The goal of the conference is to inspire young people whose parents are in prison or jail to lead bright, positive futures free of crime and drugs.

“It’s to give at-risk youth some idea of what their choices might bring them,” Mendonca said.

Last year, the conference invited judges to talk about the sorts of cases they see in court, and the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department discussed gang awareness.

Inmates from Folsom State Prison and the Folsom Women’s Facility also answered questions from the youth via Skype. This is one of the more popular workshops at the conference.

In addition to information about truancy, education and safety, the youth were also able to meet others in similar situations, and to see that a support system does exist for them.

Mendonca, who has been involved with the conference since its inception five years ago, was honored this year for her service. Friends-CARE presented Mendonca with a plaque and their sincere appreciation for her “continued dedication and support of the at-risk kids and the children left behind.”

She’s a tireless worker with the Department,” said Dorothy Montgomery, Director of Friends-CARE, adding that the conference is the first of its kind, and it was a big task for Mendonca to take on.  Montgomery said she is grateful for the guidance Mendonca has offered along the way.

With so many duties, programs and people to look after, it’s a wonder Mendonca finds any time for herself, but staying active is important to the holder of a degree in physical education.

In addition to playing tennis and volleyball in high school and college, Mendonca is also a respected handball player, a sport she started playing in 1979.

She has won numerous competitions in California, as well as the United States Handball Association Nationals Women’s B singles in 1998. In 2010, Mendonca became the first woman inducted into the Northern California Handball Hall of Fame as both a contributor and a player.

While corrections wasn’t the career path she thought she would take, Mendonca said it is certainly one that has made her happy. As soon as she joined the department, she knew it was the right place to be, a feeling solidified even more when she joined FOPS.

“I like finding new programming,” she said. “I like new ideas. I like that we have to think outside the box.”