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Students and professors teach and learn through partnership with women’s prison

By Katherine Hedland Hansen '88, Photos by Jordan Hartman '02


Planes, trains and boats in brightly painted red, blue and green dance across the walls of the nursery. Toddlers giggle at the animated movie playing on TV, and babies grab tiny handfuls of food off their high chair trays.

Two-month-old Rheanna Peterson sleeps in a swinging chair as her mother Rhea, rocks next to her.

But though this looks like a traditional setting, it isn’t. All these babies were born while their moms served time, and they live in prison. Through collaboration between PLU and the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy, professors and students are volunteering in and evaluating the program. They’re also completing a long-term study about the effects of prison on mothers, children and families.

Lara Fountain ’04 plays with children in the nursery at the women’s prison in Purdy.

“It has dramatic implications for their experience in prison,” said sociology professor Joanna Higginson, who is leading a longitudinal study into mothers in prison that will examine how they and their children fare after the sentence is served.

That’s just one example of the partnership between WCCW and PLU. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, in which students have the opportunity for field work, professors can perform tangible research and the prison can learn more about its population and programs.

“We actually have a common mission,” said Kathy Russell, a social work professor who sits in on quarterly meetings with prison administrators. “We are both engaged in the enterprise of helping people build skills they need to have success in the community, and we’re both working with scarce resources.”

The Residential Parenting Program allows minimum-security women who were pregnant when they became incarcerated to raise their babies if their sentences are less than 30 months and they meet other criteria. The inmate mothers are accountable for the 24-hour care of their children while living in a supervised environment. The Early Head Start Child Development Center provides education and role modeling for effective parenting.

Mothers and babies get the chance to know each other, and women receive counseling and support to enable them to better parent their children when they are released, supporters say. It also keeps some children from ending up in foster care.

Prison officials, along with these professors and students, feel strongly that providing parenting skills, education and opportunities for women will better their chances of staying out of prison once they’re released. But they’re completing objective research to see if data backs that up.

“When they’re released, they get a ride to the bus stop and a check for $40,” Russell said. “These folks are part of our community. It seems to me it’s our job to help them be successful. We want to create a transition that helps people move into the community and stay there.”

WCCW Superintendent Belinda Stewart is grateful for the partnership between her facility and PLU.

“For too long, those of us in corrections have tried to solve all the problems ourselves,” she said. “They bring the academia and expertise that we need. We essentially have our own research arm.”

The only women’s prison in the state, WCCW is located just outside Gig Harbor and houses about 900 offenders ages 18-83. One of the first things the professors learned was that prison officials didn’t have any detailed demographics or personal histories about the women housed there.

Higginson, Russell and sociology professor Anna Leon-Guerrero put together a comprehensive survey for all offenders, asking them questions about their parental status, their drug history and education.

They asked mothers detailed questions about where their children live, if the kids saw their mothers arrested and if they visit the prison. Prison officials want to determine how many inmates intend to be parents when they are released to better prepare them for that role and track the impact on children of incarcerated women.

“If we don’t look at that, I guarantee you these children will be the next generation of people we will incarcerate,” Stewart said. “Just by virtue of the fact that they have a parent in prison makes them high risk. Most people in prison are coming back to the community,” Stewart said. “Shame on us if they don’t go back with any better tools than they came here with.”

Nationwide, about 85 percent of women prisoners are mothers, and the preliminary research from WCCW mirrors that. Higginson is following up with individual interviews, asking mothers whether their children lived with them, who they live with now, if they visit them in prison, whether they intend to parent them when they are released and what their children know of their crimes. She will follow these families for 15-20 years, looking at recidivism rates among other factors.

“If they have children, that may give them something to live for so they don’t come back to prison,” Higginson said.

That’s how Rhea Peterson feels. Her baby’s father is serving time in prison, but she was scheduled to be released a few days later.

“I couldn’t have imagined having to leave her in a hospital,” Peterson says of her first child.

The program ensured she knows how to care for her baby and provided some supplies, as well as follow up and resources outside prison walls, she said.

“They do a good job of trying to keep families together,” Peterson said. “It’s a good incentive for me to keep straight.”

Lara Fountain ’04 completed an internship at WCCW, talking to mothers in the residential program and Head Start.

“They’re all really positive,” said Fountain, who will spend next year in the AmeriCorps program, based in Georgia. “They like talking about the program and how it’s helped them.”

Other programs have attracted the interest and help of PLU, and the collaboration is expanding. Professors Rob Wells in communication and Merle Simpson from the School of Business have initiated projects there, and a new group of students is starting work there this fall.

Russell is involved with the team studying inappropriate relationships between inmates and officers, and between inmates. She is tracking where and when such incidents occur, as well as other data to see if administrators can come up with solutions to help prevent future problems.

Autumn DeGraaff ’04, a social work major, helped the professors with the survey, and worked with the emerging mentor program, which trains community mentors and prepares inmates for release.

The program matches volunteers from the community with women who are about to be released. The women are guaranteed six weeks of work and the promise that someone on the outside is looking out for them.

“Hopefully they’ll have this one positive person to help them,” DeGraaff said. “When they come out they have this big stigma,” she said. “For me, working on their strength and their support networks is going to be important.”

In DeGraaff’s time there, she saw about 10 women released into the program. Two were unsuccessful, either because they weren’t going to work or were using drugs.

There are strict parameters established to ensure no mentors are taken advantage of or put in danger. During her time at WCCW, DeGraaff wrote an article about the family visitation process that was published in a national corrections journal. She hopes some PLU alumni might consider volunteering as mentors.

Amy Johnson ’04, a double major in communication and sociology, worked in the Prison Pet Partnership Training Program, in which inmates train shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities.

“I love dogs, so it’s a great way for me to combine both my interests,” she said.

Johnson took dogs home with her to continue training and socializing them.

She said she had preconceived notions about what the women would be like, but they were easily dispelled. One inmate was a college graduate who enjoyed talking statistics with Johnson.

“We joke around. They got to know me and ask me questions,” Johnson said. “They were always surprising me with things.”

It has been a learning experience for everyone involved. Most admitted to some hesitancy about how they would be welcomed by the women and how easy it would be to talk to each other.

“I had a lot of anxiety going into my first interview,” DeGraaff said. “The instant she walked in, we just started talking. They all want someone to talk to. Their resiliency is inspiring.”

All were surprised to see how well they got along, and how much they have in common with many of the inmates.

“If we met under any other circumstances, any one of these women could be my best friend,” Higginson said. “I think most of them are anxious to have someone to tell their story to. At the end of the day, we’re just women.”

“We have so many stereotypes and you find out they’re not all true,” Russell said. “You meet some of the women and you think they could be a PLU student if they had a different set of opportunities or made better choices.”

The learning that takes place on both sides encourages Stewart.

“PLU’s whole mission is about being of service to others, so you’re not just talking about it, you’re providing opportunities for students to have real experiences in their learning journey,” she said.

“Our relationship with PLU has been one of the greatest partnerships we’ve entered into. We are just scraping the surface of what it can be.

I believe the things we do together are going to make a difference.”

 

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© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Fall 2004

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