Women Offenders – “DC Public Safety”
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Television Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/video/2011/05/women-offenders-%E2%80%93-dc-public-safety-television-2011/
Len Sipes: Hi and welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Today’s program is on women offenders, and one of the reasons we’re doing today’s program is the fact that there are more women coming into the criminal justice system, both in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country. Now the other issue is the fact that women offenders have higher rates of HIV, of substance abuse, of mental health problems. But the thing that really astounds me is the difference between sexual violence when they are directed towards women offenders as children. There’s a huge difference between the women coming into the criminal justice system, and male offenders. To talk about what we’re doing here in Washington, D.C., and the what’s going on throughout the country, we have two principals with us today. From my agency, we have Dr. Debra Kafami. She is the Executive Assistant for my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. We also have Ashley McSwain, the Executive Director from Our Place, DC. And to Debra and Ashley, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.
Dr. Debra Kafami: Thank you.
Ashley McSwain: Thank you.
Len Sipes: All right. Well ladies, we have this issue of offenders coming into the criminal justice system, and of greatly concern to us. And they’re different from male offenders, and we need to say that straight from the beginning, that there’s a big difference between male and female offenders, people caught up in the criminal justice system. Debra, our agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we’re reorganizing everything that we do around women offenders. Why are we doing this?
Dr. Debra Kafami: Well, CSOSA is an evidence-based organization, and a lot of research coming out has shown that women are very, very different from male offenders. And we started to look at what were we doing for female offenders. And they were kind of like just in with the men, and we weren’t doing a whole lot of specialized programming for women, yet they have very different needs and they have very different pathways into crime. So we started to realize that the numbers are also increasing. We had probably about 12% of our population ten years ago that were female offenders, and now we’re up to around 16%. And nationally, the women entering the criminal justice system have outpaced the men.
Len Sipes: Right.
Dr. Debra Kafami: From 5% to about 3.3% since 1995.
Len Sipes: Right. Now on the second half of the program, we’re going to have Dr. Willa Butler, she runs women groups for us, and we’re going to have an individual currently under supervision. So she’ll talk more about the practical reality of what we do at CSOSA in terms of dealing with women offenders. But one of the things that Willa’s group has been able to demonstrate is that they have a pretty good success rate, once you take women offenders, put them into a program, put them into a group setting where they can talk through these issues, where they can sort of help and heal each other. So we’re reorganizing in CSOSA, in Washington, D.C., around these groups, correct? And we’re going to add a day reporting component, and all women offenders are going to be reporting to one field agency.
Dr. Debra Kafami: Exactly.
Len Sipes: So we’re just reorganizing everything we do!
Dr. Debra Kafami: Yes. What we decided to do was to create three teams at one of our field sites, centrally located near Union Station and have the women report there. We’re establishing a day reporting center, just for female offenders, so they can come in one place and get services. And their programming will be completely separate from the male offenders, which we did not have before. Women behave differently even when they’re in groups, and they’re less likely to open up when they’re in groups with male offenders.
Len Sipes: Yeah, I’ve attended a couple of Willa’s groups, and I have to ask permission to come in, and the women have to get to know me and like me before they even allowed me inside the group. But once there, it was a really extraordinary experience.
Dr. Debra Kafami: We’re also especially training our staff to work with female offender.
Len Sipes: In terms of the gender specific?
Dr. Debra Kafami: Yes.
Len Sipes: Okay. Ashley McSwain, Executive Director of Our Place, DC. First of all, Our Place — and I’ve said this constantly — is maybe the most comprehensive one-stop service for women coming out of the prison system anywhere in the United States. It’s amazing! Instead of sending the people coming out of the prison system over here for legal assistance, over there for clothing, over there for HIV, you’ve got all of these services under one roof. I have no idea as to how you do it. And I’ve heard so many women caught up in the criminal justice system speak so highly of Our Place, DC. So tell me a little bit, what is Our Place, DC?
Ashley McSwain: Okay. We work with women who are currently and formerly incarcerated. So we actually go into the facilities and we offer employment workshops, legal clinics, HIV programming, and we offer case management prior to women ever being released. So we have really good relationships with the prisons, the jails, the half-way house. In addition, when a woman is released, she can come to Our Place and we have a drop-in center where she can just drop in, and we offer her tokens for the metro. We offer birth certificates, identification. We have a clothing boutique where she can get clothing. We have HIV prevention and awareness programming, so she can get condoms, and we have a HIV 101 that every woman is subject to. We have an employment department to help women get resumes. We actually have a legal department, so we have two full-time attorneys on staff, which is one of our biggest programs. We take collect calls from women. We get five hundred calls a month. We have a case management program so we work with women four months before they’re released, and then we work with them after they’re released. So it’s very, very comprehensive. We have a visitation program where we take family members to various facilities to visit their loved ones. So, yeah, we do quite a bit at Our Place.
Len Sipes: That is amazing. We did a radio show a little while ago, and I said, during the radio show, that if anybody out there is looking for a wonderful 501c3 tax exempt organization where they can donate money, they need to look at Our Place, DC. And the website for Our Place DC is going to be shown constantly throughout the television program.
Len Sipes: All right, so CSOSA, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, Debra, our agency, we’re a Federal Parole and Probation Agency. Women are a part of who we supervise, Ashley. Women come into Our Place, D.C. and get all of these comprehensive services. I love the fact that you’re inside the prison system, making contact with women long before they come out. So let’s get to the broader philosophical issues of women offenders, if we could for a second. There’s a huge difference between men and women. Certainly one of those issues is the fact that the great majority of women coming out have kids.
Ashley McSwain: Yes.
Len Sipes: And so, I don’t want to be overly stereotypical, and I’ll probably get phone calls, but the sense that I get from a lot of the male offenders is that they don’t see themselves as responsible. The sense that I get from the women offenders is they want their kids back.
Ashley McSwain: Yes.
Len Sipes: How do you do that? How do you come out of the prison system with all the baggage that you have to carry, in terms of finding work and re-establishing yourself, and taking care of a couple kids? That, to me, almost seems to be impossible. Ashley?
Ashley McSwain: Yes, it’s extremely difficult. And one of the things that’s happening now, since we’re looking at gender-specific issues, is this idea that women have to not only build a foundation for themselves when they’re released, but they also have to build foundation for their children. And acknowledging that as being their reality is helpful, as we help them prepare for their future. It’s very difficult. What we do at Our Place is try to build some of the basic foundations, you know, so housing, and dealing with whatever the underlying legal issues are, and helping them identifying jobs. And then we tackle this issue of getting custody of children and identifying visitation, and those kinds of very serious issues.
Len Sipes: We talked about higher rates of substance abuse, Debra.
We talked about higher rates of HIV. We talked about higher rates of mental health problems, and this astounding issue of the rate of sexual violence being directed towards them when they were younger, a lot of cases by family members and friends. Most of the women offenders that I’ve come into contact with throughout my career have got a rock-hard crust. If we’re going to have any hopes of — I mean, public safety is our first priority. We’re not going to hesitate putting anybody back in prison if that’s going to protect public safety. But if we’re going to really succeed in terms of getting these individuals through supervision successfully, we have to have programs. For the programs to be successful, we’ve got to break through that hard crust. How do we do that?
Dr. Debra Kafami: Well it’s not an easy job, that’s for sure, and that’s where our specialized programming comes into play, with our specially-trained staff that we have. I know Dr. Butler will talk about the Women in Control Again Program, but that’s just one example. We also want to address the substance abuse issues. Many of them don’t get enough treatment while they’re incarcerated, and they need that. We also work with them on traumatization and victimization issues. Housing — housing is another big issue for the women, trying to find stable housing.
Len Sipes: Especially in Washington, D.C.!
Dr. Debra Kafami: They face, really, an insurmountable — almost — number of problems. — And family reunification is another very big one.
Len Sipes: Right. But I mean, getting, breaking through that hard crust, I mean, sometimes they can be as hard as nails. When they come out of the prison system, they don’t trust you. Why should they trust us? We just put them in prison. Why should they trust government? Ashley, isn’t that one of the most difficult things when a woman comes out of the prison system and gets into Our Place, isn’t that one of the most difficult things that you have to deal with, and your staff?
Ashley McSwain: Well, one of the things that happens is that because we are working with the woman prior to her release, we’re actually establishing a relationship, a trusting relationship, with her before she’s released. Our Place has a really good reputation of being a safe place, and so when the women come here, there’s this welcoming environment that says that it’s a safe place, a safe space to be. And not only that, it’s a place where you can trust what it is that you’re sharing is confidential. We don’t send people back to prison. We don’t have those kinds of authorities, and so the dynamics are a little different. So we can build a trusting relationship in a way that CSOSA and other organizations may not be able to.
Len Sipes: Yeah. We would have a hard time because we’re a law enforcement agency, and at the same time we’re trying to break down those barriers and help them in terms of programs. We all agree, the three of us agree, that substance abuse programs, mental health programs, HIV programs, and programs to deal specifically with this history of sexual violence, are all necessary if that individual is going to successfully complete supervision. Am I right or wrong?
Ashley McSwain: Yeah, that’s correct.
Dr. Debra Kafami: Definitely.
Len Sipes: I mean, we’re living in a day and age of cutbacks. We’re living in a day and age of limited government. So we’ve got to be able to tell people that these programs save tax dollars. You know, one of the programs that we have, the great majority of people successfully complete the program, which means they don’t go back to prison, which means they save tax-paid dollars, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of tax-paid dollars. So there’s an economic incentive as well as a social incentive to be doing these things, correct?
Ashley McSwain: Yes. I would also say that Our Place helps a woman begin to implement a plan. So many of the women, while they’re incarcerated, they don’t know where to begin. And so this idea of saving tax-payer dollars, you know, someone has to have a plan in which to begin to develop in order to stay out of prison. And so that’s one of the really important services I think we offer is the ability to work with a woman so that she has some hope and some ideas about what her next steps are going to be.
Len Sipes: Okay. And Debra, the national research does show that if you’re gender-specific in terms of your approach of dealing with women offenders, you’re going to have a much higher rate of success in terms of them successfully completing supervision.
Dr. Debra Kafami: Yes, and better outcomes. And I did want to add that when the offender comes to CSOSA, the first thing we do is a risk-and-needs assessment, and we also come up with a prescriptive supervision or an intervention plan. We work very closely with Our Place staff too, so our Community Supervision Officers are on the same team, with Our Place staff, to try and help guide the offender.
Ashley McSwain: I just want to say, one of the things we do is that we don’t actually create release plans. We help implement the plans that were created by CSOSA and the Bureau of Prisons, which is really helpful for the women.
Dr. Debra Kafami: And sharing information.
Len Sipes: And sharing information. It just strikes me that — and Debra, you and I come from the same system in the State of Maryland — the women offenders just came home and they were home. That’s all there was to it. I mean, there were no programs specifically for them. There were no efforts. We have CSOSA and we have Our Place DC. I mean, there really is a focus now on making sure that that individual woman gets the programs and assistance that she needs, and if we do that, fewer crimes are going to be committed and fewer people are going to go back to prison, saving a ton of tax-paid dollars.
Dr. Debra Kafami: Well, not to mention too, that the women, most of them have children, and that separation from their children is not good for the children or the mother, and if we can help the women be successful and not go back to prison, it’s going to only help their children.
Len Sipes: Right, by every woman offender we help, we’re helping two or three or more other individuals have a much greater chance of having a pro-social life. Research is clear that the rates of the children going into the criminal justice system or having problems in school are much higher if a parent is incarcerated. So this is not only dealing with her, it’s dealing with three or four other human beings.
Ashley McSwain: Right. And that also speaks to this issue of gender-specific. When a woman goes to prison, you’re not only dealing with that person — woman being a mother, she’s someone’s daughter, you know. So all of these people are impacted when she’s incarcerated, and also they’re impacted when she’s released.
Len Sipes: Right. So I think we’re going to out the program with that. I really appreciate the fact that you two were here and set up this whole program. On the second half, ladies and gentlemen, what we’re going to do is talk to Dr. Willa Butler. She runs groups for women offenders, and we’re going to talk to an individual currently under supervision. Please stay with us as we explore this larger issue of women offenders in the criminal justice system. We’ll be right back.
Len Sipes: Welcome back to D.C. Public Safety. I continue to be your host, Leonard Sipes. We continue to have a conversation about women offenders. In the first half we did talk about the fact that there are more women coming into the criminal justice system, and the question becomes what is our agency, the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency, doing about it, and what’s happening throughout the country. With the bottom line behind all of that are gender-specific programs, and the research is pretty clear that if you have these gender-specific programs, programs and treatment specifically designed for women offenders, they have much better outcomes. And we have two individuals to talk about much better outcomes, Dr. Willa Butler, she’s a group facilitator for my agency, the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency, and Talynthia Jones is a person currently under supervision by my agency. And to Dr. Butler, to Willa, and to Talynthia, welcome back to D.C. Public Safety.
Dr. Willa Butler: Thank you.
Len Sipes: Willa, this whole process with the group — you’ve run the group. I have seen some of the groups. It is an amazing place to be when the women under your supervision open up. Some of the stuff that they talk about is scary. I always like to refer to it as a trip to Mars, because their experience probably is not your experience. It certainly hasn’t been my experience in terms of all of the issues that they have had to deal with in life. A lot of these individuals come to us battered and bruised, and we’re not making excuses for their criminality, and we’re not saying we’re not going to send them back to prison. We will in a heartbeat if that’s going to protect public safety. But your group has a good track record of getting them through supervision successfully, and considering the issues they bring to the table, I find that astounding. So tell me a little bit about this group process.
Dr. Willa Butler: What it is, WICA — Women in Control Again. It’s a group that I developed some years ago for the agency, and it deals with the issues and concerns of the female offender. — Their pathways to crime, how they got started in the criminal justice system, and knowing how they got started lets us know how we can keep them from returning and breaking that cycle of pain. And what we deal with in group, we deal with first of all we start with who they are. And a lot of women don’t know exactly who they are, because they’ve been out in the drinking and drugging for so long, and at such an early age, it’s like, “I really don’t know who I am today. And now that I’m clean, I’m trying to find myself”, in a sense. And that’s what we deal with, things of that nature. And we deal with the substance abuse, and the whole gamut, the parenting skills, housing, whatever issues that concerns them. That’s mainly what we deal with. There’s basically seventeen critical issues that we deal with in that group process. But the main thing is showing empathy, showing that you care, and developing a trusting environment, where they can not only trust you, but trust each other.
Len Sipes: The criminologists call it cognitive restructuring, and there is plenty of research out there that indicates that that works. Now “cognitive restructuring” to the average person listening to this program is helping individuals think differently about who they are and what they are. My guess is that a lot of the women involved in your groups have never dealt with that subject before in their lives, have never had an opportunity to say, “Who am I? What do I want to do? Where do I need to go?” Is that correct?
Dr. Willa Butler: That’s correct. And when you talk about cognitive restructuring, it’s basically getting to the core, getting to the core factor as to why I do the things that I do. And once we find that out, then we can start changing, because that begins to empower the person. And we know what our limitations are, and we also know what our assets are as well, and it helps us to develop.
Len Sipes: I’m going to go over to Talynthia in a couple seconds. But you and I have had other programs together about this topic, and my favorite story is when I was with the Maryland Correctional System and sitting down with a bunch of women offenders, and they actually told me that prison, in this pre-release center, was preferable to going home at times. And I always found that astounding, why would an individual find prison to be preferable to life on the outside. And they said to me that they’ve never felt safer. They’re getting their GED. They were getting at that point a food certificate, a culinary arts certificate. And they were running groups. And for the first time in their lives, they weren’t trying to figure out who they were and where they were going with their lives. And also, it was safer in prison because they had been so beaten up on the outside. So there’s a larger, really societal issue that is at play here that we’re not going to be able to solve. But Talynthia, over to you. Thank you very much for being on the program.
Talynthia Jones: You’re welcome.
Len Sipes: I really appreciate it. Now you’re currently under supervision by my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, and you’re currently involved in a lot of groups.
Talynthia Jones: Yes.
Len Sipes: Okay. Does that group process work for you?
Talynthia Jones: It’s working very well for me. Dr. Butler is a good counselor. She’s helping me to deal with me, to learn me, to get inside myself, to know what’s going on with me and why I keep using, why I keep doing the things that I’m doing to go back in the system. And I’ve been doing this for too long. And as we do the group sessions and the work papers that we do, you know, in the groups, it’s helping us to not just wonder how dominate we can be to stay strong, but how dominate that we can put ourselves into another place, to learn how getting your life together is much better than to just cover it up with some mess. And I’ve just been feeling good about myself here lately.
Len Sipes: Wonderful.
Talynthia Jones: And I love, I love every minute. I get up early in the morning, I’m always there early, because I can’t wait to talk about me. Because I’m tired of just having all this bottled-up junk inside me that’s keeping me going back into the places and the phases that I’ve been doing.
Len Sipes: Is this the first time in your life that you’ve had an opportunity to really sit down and talk with other people about everything that’s happened in your past?
Talynthia Jones: Yes. It’s actually been the very first time that I’ve actually even dealt with women, because I have women issues. And Dr. Butler is teaching me how to communicate with women, how to communicate period. And it is very good, it’s very good.
Len Sipes: Now in terms of sharing that information, I mean, was I right before in the program where I said that a lot of women who come out of the prison system were rock-hard. They don’t trust anybody. They don’t trust any one for any reason. How did Dr. Butler break through that barrier to get to you?
Talynthia Jones: She broke the barrier with me because I don’t see Dr. Butler as a Court Service Agency. I see her as a mother figure.
Len Sipes: Right.
Talynthia Jones: Because she don’t look at us as criminals. She look on us at people, as children, you know, children of God, you know. And she loves us unconditionally, and she’s willing to help us. When other people out in society, they look at us, “Well, she’s nothing but a drug addict. She’s nothing but a criminal. She keeps doing this and she keep doing that.” But Dr. Butler doesn’t see us that way.
Len Sipes: And in terms of this group process, if you weren’t involved in this group process, where would be now? If you came from the prison system and all we did was supervise you and put you under GPS and drug test you and hold you accountable for your actions — if that’s all we did, we didn’t supply this gender-specific approach, this group process, where would be now?
Talynthia Jones: I would be still using. I would be back in the penal system. Because all drugging do is cover up your feelings, covering up your emotions. It’s covering up what you dealing with instead of you dealing with it on your own, or dealing with it with someone that’s going to help you to get involved with yourself, to let all these emotions out so that you won’t cover it up with drugs.
Len Sipes: Right. And how to cope with life without turning to drugs.
Talynthia Jones: Yes.
Len Sipes: And so, you said you had women’s issues or issues with dealing with other women, how difficult was that? — Because you’re in these groups, you share that experience. You share all these ugly things that have happened to you throughout your life, sharing that with a group of women. Was that easy or difficult or what?
Talynthia Jones: It was difficult when I first got in, until I saw Dr. Butler, because I was able to talk to Dr. Butler before. And she really lets you know that it’s okay. It’s okay to talk about what’s going on with you. And see, I’m a person that’s afraid to talk about what’s going on with me because I’m afraid of what somebody going to think of me. And that’s what most women think, you know. And doing the things that we do, if we talk about it, somebody won’t think something bad about us. It’s always come to me and my attention, as brought up, that what I did was my fault. And I know everything that I do is not my fault.
Len Sipes: Right. Well, before we get back to Dr. Butler for the close of the program, getting back to that whole issue of how other people think about you — most people, you’re coming out of the prison system, they’re going to say, “You’re a criminal. I don’t want to fund programs for criminals. I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Let’s give it to the church. Let’s give it to the PTAs. I don’t want programs for criminals, and I don’t want to hire criminals.” Okay, you’re a criminal, technically.
Talynthia Jones: Yes.
Len Sipes: Okay. That stereotype — that’s the difference between what people have in their mind of criminal, and there you are, a pretty young woman who’s successfully dealing with all the issues in her life. How do you feel about that?
Talynthia Jones: Well, it makes me feel bad for the people out there, because they don’t realize that the women here are dealing with so much emotional things, and because they are dealing with it in the wrong way, and the people don’t want to help them, it shows that they only think of themselves. They’re worrying about themselves. They’re not caring about what we feeling and what we going through, why we’re doing this.
Len Sipes: And you’re not that stereotype, is the bottom line.
Talynthia Jones: I’m not that stereotype. I want the help. And some women are out here that don’t want the help, they just want to get off paper. But me, I want the help. I know I need the help, not for me, but for my family. And I have to think about me first, because if I don’t care of me, I can’t take care of no one else.
Len Sipes: Understood. Completely understood.
Talynthia Jones: And see, and that’s what the society needs to know, that if we get the help that we need, and not only from the government, well maybe from family members, the support that we need, the love, the care and affection that we didn’t get back in our childhood that causes us to grow up in adulthood to do the things that we do.
Len Sipes: Right. Willa, the great majority of the people that are in your groups complete them successfully.
Dr. Willa Butler: Yes.
Len Sipes: The rate of successful completion is much higher than it is for men. It’s much higher than it is for everybody combined. I think what Talynthia just said, and it was very impressive and I thank you for sharing that story, is the heart and soul of it. She’s getting the help she needs and she’s doing fine because she’s getting the help she needs. Is that the bottom line behind this?
Dr. Willa Butler: Yes. And that is the main bottom line behind, like you say, is to give them the help and support; but not only that, but to have an understanding of what’s happening. Most of the women who have been through the criminal justice system have been raped or molested at a very early age, and that’s something that comes out in the group process. And it gives them an understanding, like Talynthia said, and why we drug through that. We’re not using it as an excuse, but when you’ve gone through a trauma like that, and then there’s no one out there to help you or assist you, and that’s one thing that the women don’t have as children, they didn’t have that support, that healthy network and system. So they turn within by using drugs or whatever else was out there, and then they ended up in the criminal justice system, because they’re trying to support their habit or whatever, and live out of the normal society.
Len Sipes: And you’ve got the final word. First of all, thank you very much, ladies, for being on the program. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for watching us as we explored this issue of women offenders. Look for us next time as we look at another important topic in today’s criminal justice system. Please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.