Women in Prison: Mothers can learn to parent from behind bars but they'll still have to go home

Jan 1, 2007

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

"It's not enough to train somebody to be a good  inmate,'' she says. "You must translate those skills into them becoming a model citizen."

More than 2,200 women in Illinois' prison system left children at home last year while they served time. That's about 80 percent of the female prison population, most of which comes from the Chicago area. While relatives care for the kids, many of those moms are learning to parent by phone, by letter or by teleconference.

One of them, Tracie Dismukes, is a 41-year-old mother of five in Decatur Correctional Center, the newest of the state's three all-female prisons. She's serving her fourth "bit," a maximum sentence of six years for stealing, possessing and selling drugs. "Believe me, this is my last one," she says. "I'm going to put this number in retirement."

Because Dismukes is 200 miles south of her family in Chicago, she talks to her children through a grant-funded video conferencing program. The Decatur prison and The Women's Treatment Center in Chicago have private rooms with video cameras that zoom in during conversations and make Dismukes feel as though she's talking to her children face-to-face. Their unconditional love keeps her going, she says.

But the distance was hard to accept. So was the drug-addiction program. Dismukes says she felt guilty because she had to focus on herself while her 24-year-old daughter cared for her own child, her four siblings and her grandmother. 

Then again, Dismukes has been attending GED classes, working at the prison's salon and rediscovering self-worth in group therapy.

"At first I was like, 'I'm not going to talk. I'm not going to let these people know my business,'" she says. "But now I have no problem opening up and telling what's going on because I don't need to go back out there with that garbage inside of me. I'm just ready for a change. This time I can say that I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Her pathway to prison mirrors a statewide trend. The number of females sentenced for drug-related crimes has doubled, while the growth of the female prison population has tripled that of males in the last decade, according to Illinois Department of Corrections data. This means a growing number of women like Dismukes have had to leave children behind.

In response to these trends, the Illinois Department of Corrections created the Division of Women and Family Services. The new division has developed programs to help incarcerated mothers maintain and strengthen their family ties. The state's three all-female prisons — in Decatur, Dwight and Lincoln — have units outfitted specifically for incarcerated mothers.

They can take parenting, lifestyle and exercise classes, as well as participate in job training and addiction recovery programs. The prison system can be,  in a sense, a one-stop shop for all types of support —  mental, physical, social and spiritual. Making change inside prison walls requires a commitment and a journey. Meanwhile, female inmates have to cope with family life that goes on without them, an unnecessary hardship, according to advocates who contend women convicted of nonviolent crimes shouldn't be sent to prison in the first place.

Critics and state corrections officers agree that life after prison needs to become the focus of reform efforts.

Once women go home, they face the added challenge of being a changed person in an old environment. How to help them transition from prison to community has been at the heart of a century-old policy debate, but it's just now starting to grab the attention and critical funding of governments around the country.

Policy approaches have changed considerably in the past century. In the early 1900s, women were warehoused in Illinois' first all-female prison in Joliet. Rehabilitation wasn't a priority until the state's first reformatory opened in Dwight in the 1930s. Women who committed nonviolent crimes, mostly theft, were housed in a cottage-like home and trained in "domestic science and womanly arts," according to the Illinois Department of Corrections' Planning and Research Department.

Today's female prisoners still tend to commit low-level "crimes of economy," stealing or doing whatever it takes to survive on the streets, says Decatur Warden Mary Kepler. Substance abuse and property crimes are interconnected, often resulting in multiple arrests and short prison sentences.

Cherry Brewer, Decatur's assistant warden, says if such programs as job training tailored for women can help strengthen the bond between mother and child, mom might think twice before committing another crime. 

Former incarcerated mother Joanne Archibald says she doesn't dismiss the value of classes, therapy sessions and teleconferences offered by the Department of Corrections. Archibald, now associate director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, opposes imprisonment of nonviolent female offenders. She says sending a mother away from her family can take a toll on relationships and could hinder chances to find services close to home.  

"Part of treatment is building up that trust relationship and building strong connections in the community, which is hard to do when you're three-and-a-half hours away," she says.

Correcting behavior is particularly complex when women arrive in prison with emotions ranging from fear of men to grief from loss. Women are more likely than men to internalize stress and feel embarrassed, says John MacIntosh, a casework supervisor in Decatur. "Females, they're not able to get stripes on their sleeve for going to prison." 

The average age of female offenders in Illinois is 34. Eighty-four percent report having been abused. And they often have multiple children. In 2005 alone, 80 women gave birth while serving time.

Illinois is slated to join only a handful of states in allowing inmates to stay with their newborns, but the pilot program will initially be limited to five women in a special wing of the Decatur Correctional Center. It's also restricted to moms who are within 18 months of finishing their sentences.

The program, expected to start in March, will be limited because only five rooms are being renovated to include carpet, a sink, a shared bathroom and a camera over the infant's crib. 

Staff and trained inmates baby-sit the infants while mothers attend classes.

Mother and child also will receive health care, thanks to a $150,000 federal startup grant to the prison and Decatur's Community Health Improvement Center that serves families regardless of income. 

The hope is to expand the program to 20 women within one year, says Debra Denning, deputy director of the Division of Women and Family Services.

Steve Spaide, administrative assistant to the Decatur warden, says an infant who stays with its mother is less likely to end up in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "In the end, we think the program is going to save taxpayers money."

For incarcerated mothers who just gave birth but can't get into the program, a relative must pick up the newborn from the hospital within 48 hours. If no one is available, then the Department of Children and Family Services takes temporary custody of the child, Denning says.

But the new mothers still have a chance to interact with their children in so-called reunification programs offered at all three women's prisons. They're also available at two transition and work centers in Kankakee's minimum security prison and Aurora's Fox Valley Adult Transition Center.

In Decatur, up to 25 inmates have a chance to earn privileges and see their children during regular visits in a special dormitory-style wing. Colorful murals painted by inmates brighten the walls, and women have their own rooms instead of bunking with at least three others. They also enroll in such classes as stress management, substance abuse, sexual abuse recovery and age-specific parenting.

But suddenly being sober and having to interact with a 2-year-old can shock the system, says MacIntosh. So staff plan activities for children's visits and keep a finger on the pulse of women's attitudes so they stay focused on rebuilding the mother-child bond.

Being with their children gives them a reason to do better, says Kepler, Decatur's warden. "That's the big motivator, to have a normal family life."

The program has a catch. It requires children to visit at least three times a month, disqualifying mothers who can't arrange transportation for their children. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois does provide free transportation from Chicago to Decatur once a month.

Randi Moore is one of the lucky ones who sees her son almost every weekend. The more she talks about the teen, the more her eyes fill with tears. "He just brightens my day. I want to be home," she says.

Yet she takes an anxious breath when she thinks about how going home will be different. The 29-year-old will return to Christian County armed with a hard-earned GED and a newfound confidence. On her desk sits a rosary and a highlighted Bible, open to the Psalm of David. 

Talking to the Lord, she says, has helped her cope with her past.

Moore dropped out of school and got a job when her son was born. But wages paled in comparison to the quick cash she could earn by selling crack-cocaine. She was taken into custody in August 2005. The judge's words, "six years," rang in her ears. She realized she needed to change.

"If I didn't come to prison, I'd still be doing what I was doing," Moore says. "When I was out there, I didn't think about me. Now it's me and my son. 

I've got to do what's best for us." Through a self-image class, she wrote an autobiography that relieved guilt from the loss of her father nearly 20 years ago. Through a dog grooming program, she made a goal to open her own business. And through church services, she talked to God for the first time.

But as women return to the same environment that sent them to prison in the first place, they risk falling into old patterns that could lead to another sentence. In fact, just under half of female inmates return for committing another crime.

So the prison system has started to broaden its focus. 

Deanne Benos, assistant director at corrections, is the administration's designated expert on driving down crime rates. She says after trying to help inmates gain job skills, kick substance abuse habits and learn to cope with their problems, the system needs to help women transition from the structured prison environment to their communities.

"It's not enough to train somebody to be a good inmate," she says. "You must translate those skills into them becoming a model citizen."

The challenge, she adds, is that "just like there isn't only one type of woman coming out of the system, there isn't one type of service that's appropriate for everyone."

Currently, women within two years of release can leave prison to gain job skills at Kankakee's minimum security work camp or Aurora's transition center, which offers career counseling and other self-improvement programs. There also are recovery homes and treatment centers for women who need more structure and support to stay sober outside of prison.

Still, advocate Archibald says demand exceeds supply. Sentenced to jail for drug possession as an expectant mother, she now advocates for community-based services, such as small, residential, treatment-based homes. The staff could help women find local services "that they can continue to have connections with that aren't just about corrections."

Those services could be critical at 1:30 a.m. when a mother worries she might relapse and use drugs again, or, as Archibald experienced, when a mother believes her son's suicide attempt stems from her absence during his infancy.

She says a mother's incarceration can have a long-lasting effect on children.

"It's so true. They think everything is their fault," she says. "It just goes on and on, and then when kids don't have the visits, don't have the connections, aren't able to talk about it, it just sort of all gets internalized."

She says rather than separating women from their families, part of the solution is to support alternative sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Benos agrees. "We need and want more alternatives to incarceration for women that have entered the prison system on low-level, nonviolent, drug-addiction-related crimes." 

But that would require the Illinois General Assembly to change the law. 

In the meantime, Illinois and other states are focusing on services that help inmates transition from prison to society. "You're starting to see a culture shift," Benos says. "Legislators are putting more money in our budget for these community-based services across the board."

Last year, the Illinois General Assembly earmarked $790,000 for re-entry programs. In February, the governor announced a $58,000 federal grant to the Community-Based Transitional Services for Female Offenders Program in Lake County, which would provide education and counseling to 75 women parolees.

Parole officers work with local law enforcement to track former inmates and to connect them with community services in an effort to reduce their risk of repeat crimes.

Any type of prison reform can be politically sensitive, says Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. But he has little hope that Illinois lawmakers can settle the debate about whether the state should provide these programs to inmates when law-abiding citizens can't afford education or health care. He believes there's a greater chance to reach consensus on parole reform.

Currently, he says, not only are there too few parole agents — given that there are 35,000 parolees statewide at any given time — but there also is a lack of support for community-based services.

"We do have these local mental health and social service operations all over this state, but they're generally underfunded," he says. "And the demand is usually much greater than they can handle."

He supports the idea of reaching out to churches and nonprofits to expand the network of places parolees can get help. "It will take a significant investment to do parole reform correctly, and I think the jury is out on whether the administration will make that kind of investment."

But he has felt encouraged by the governor's creation of the Community Safety and Reentry Commission and Working Group, on which he served, and a substance abuse treatment center at Sheridan Correctional Center.

This fiscal year, the administration earmarked another $1.9 million to open a methamphetamine-specific treatment program at Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis. Meth, a highly addictive drug that can be concocted with normal household chemicals, leads to risky behavior.

These treatment and re-entry programs apply to the male prison population, but Denning brought smaller-scale versions to the Women and Family Services Division. The meth-specific treatment programs offered at Decatur and Lincoln currently serve 67 women, Benos says. "Most drug addicts relapse at one point or another. But the key with the criminal justice population is to train them to manage any form of relapse in a crime-free way."

The women's division also has a full-time employee who coordinates re-entry services statewide.

Whatever the solution, the state will pay. Without spending money to help women offenders reintegrate into their communities and their families, the state could spend up to $36,000 a year on each woman sent back to prison. And without addressing the effect of a mother's incarceration on her children, the state could spend another $52,000 to $96,000 on each child sent to juvenile prison. 


Illinois prisons for women

Decatur Correctional Center is the state's newest female-only prison. The  medium-security prison opened in 2000 and averages about 530 inmates who have committed a variety of crimes from drug possession to reckless homicide.

Lincoln Correctional Center also was converted to serve mothers. The facility opened in 1984 to house male inmates but became a medium-security prison for females in 2000. It averages about 977 inmates.

Illinois' third and oldest all-female prison is Dwight Correctional Center. Opened in 1930 as a maximum-security prison, it now averages more than 1,000 inmates. 

The prison receives female offenders from county jails and houses inmates who are in protective custody, on Death Row or in need of mental health services. It also houses a medical center for terminally ill and pregnant inmates.

Former Gov. George Ryan broke ground for a fourth women's prison, Hopkins Park, in 2002 near his hometown of Kankakee. But Gov. Rod Blagojevich stopped construction shortly after taking office a year later.

"It was more a question of priorities," says Deanne Benos, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections. "Do we want to spend tens of millions of dollars more a year to warehouse more men and women in prison, or do we want to invest that money on solutions to prevent crime in the first place and to make our communities safer?" 

Bethany Carson

Illinois Issues, January 2007