Women Offenders-Our Place DC-DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2011/02/women-offenders-our-place-dc-dc-public-safety-radio/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From our nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  Today’s program is going to be on women offenders, and we have two people who are true experts on the subject. We have Ashley McSwain. She is the executive director of Our Place D.C., www.ourplacedc.org, one of the most comprehensive, if not the most comprehensive women’s reentry program in the United States of America.  We also have Dr. Willa Butler.  Dr. Butler has been before our microphones before.  She’s in charge of women’s groups for my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.  We are a federal parole and probation agency here in the District of Columbia.  Before starting the show, what I want to do is to do something rather unusual, and that is to promote two events.  We generally do evergreen radio shows.  Well, we don’t really tag events or tie events to the radio shows, but these are important coming up.  February 5 on a Saturday in Washington DC, we have the Women’s Re-entry Forum, which is one of the reasons why we’re doing a radio show on women offenders, at the Temple of Praise, 700 Southern Avenue SE from 8:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon, February 5, this Saturday, Women’s Re-entry Forum at the Temple of Praise Church, 700 Southern Avenue SE from 8AM to 3PM, come out and join us if you like.  Also, the Citywide Re-entry Assembly, which is something my organization does every year, where we bring those people involved in faith based mentoring, the successful mentors and their mentees together for a celebration of the hundreds of offenders who have been through the mentoring program.  That is at the St. Luke’s Center, 4923 E Capitol Street SE from 6:30 in the evening to 9:00, come on out and join us for a wonderful evening, an exciting evening, it is something that you have to really experience.  Again, the Citywide Re-entry Assembly at, this Saturday – I’m sorry, Saturday, boy, I’m screwing this up!  Thursday, February 10, Thursday, February 10 from 6:30 to 9:00 in the evening, and before bringing the ladies onto the radio program, what I want to do is to go over some statistics in terms of women offenders, and these I find startling.  Number one, if you take a look at male and female offenders involved in state and federal prison systems, the percentage growth for women is stronger than it is for men, so more women are coming into the prison system in terms of a percentage basis than male offenders, and we need to talk on the radio program about that a little bit today.  But if you look at other federal research, whether it’s HIV, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s physical or sexual abuse, or whether it’s drug use, whether it’s family violence, it is startling as to the difference between men caught up in the criminal justice system and women caught up in the criminal justice system.  Women seem to have higher percentages of HIV, mental health, astoundingly higher percentages of sexual abuse.  There’s a big difference in terms of male and female offenders.  That’s one of the things that we want to talk about on the radio show today, and also, in terms of physical and sexual violence, nearly 6 in 10 women in state prisons had experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past.  6 in 10 women, and 7 out of 10 women involved in the correctional systems have minor children.  So, I’ve laid out the stats, I’ve laid out the upcoming events that are coming out, and now to get back to our true experts on this topic, Ashley McSwain and Dr. Willa Butler, and to Ashley and to Willa, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Willa Butler:  Great, thanks.

Ashley McSwain:  Hello.

Len Sipes:  Willa, I’m going to start out with you.  Now the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, our agency, we have a different focus now on women offenders.  We’ve decided to reorganize how this agency approaches women offenders.  Can you tell me a little bit about that and why we’re doing it?

Willa Butler:  Yes, I’m excited about it too.  What we’ve done, we’ve gone gender specific.  We have three teams now under the mental health branch, two mental health teams and one general supervision team that only supervise female offenders, and the purpose of going gender specific is to answer the needs that women have.  We say women are needy, but it’s not so much that they’re needy, it’s just that their needs have not been met, and over the years, the traditional counseling or any type of counseling or therapy, even treatment or supervision has been geared toward the male dominated group, which was not feasible for our female offender population, and now at this day and time, which is good that we are able to answer that, and it’s 17 critical factors of vulnerabilities that hinders women or barriers, when it comes to supervision and that type of growth, and then it’s, our groups that we have, we have our WICA, Women in Control Again, which are psychoeducational groups to address the needs that the women, and address their mental health needs and the substance abuse needs and any other type of need that they may have, because women come with a multi-facet of things that are of concern, and that’s what we’re doing today.  We’re addressing these needs, and one of them, the main thing is their pathways to crime, how did they get into this situation?  One thing we’ve learned how to have an understanding of, we have an understanding of how they got there.  Now we need to move and have an understanding of how to get them out of that situation, and that’s what we’re working on today by having a gender responsive program.

Len Sipes:  The organization is reorganizing.  CSOSA, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we’re reorganizing.  We’re reorganizing around this issue of women offenders.  So is it to play catch-up with the services in the past that have been given more to males in the criminal justice system?  Is it a matter of catching up, or is it a matter that there seem to be more women coming into the incarcerative setting where women, on a percentage basis, there’s a huge difference between the sheer numbers of men and women going into the prison system.  I don’t want to mislead the audience, by and large numbers, it’s predominantly male offenders going into the correctional settings, but the percentage of female offenders is rising.  So is it that, is it playing catch-up, is that one of the reasons why we’re going through this big reorganization?

Willa Butler:  Actually, it’s both, Leonard.  We’re playing catch-up, not only playing catch-up, but we are designing a program to address their needs, and when we say playing catch-up, because women have always been in the criminal justice system, far back as the 17th and 18th century, but they’ve never been treated fairly.  They’ve been put in dungeons, cast away.  They’ve even been put in insane asylums.  It’s like, we don’t know what to do, we don’t know what to do with them.  It’s not like we don’t know, but it’s like, they just fail to address this.  It’s like, we, we’re always looked on as being insignificant, overlooked, not recognizable, and even today, because I’m talking about 17th, 18th century, even today, you look at how women are put in the federal institutions, and they wear men’s clothes, nothing is geared towards them.  But now we’re trying to respond to what the women need, and like I –

Ashley McSwain:  I also think there’s a social stigma component that has –

Len Sipes:  Right.  This is Ashley McSwain, the executive director of Our Place DC.

Ashley McSwain:  So there is a lot of shift towards women, but a lot of what plagued women offenders has been this stigma that comes with just being female, which suggests that women shouldn’t get into these kinds of troubles, and so we’re not providing the kind of services and supports, because they really, you know, they’re not the population that behaves this way, and so it makes it very difficult to go to ask for funding when society doesn’t think that, you know, there’s a problem.

Len Sipes:  Now I do want to reintroduce Ashley McSwain, she’s the executive director of Our Place DC, www.ourplacedc.org, and I do want to say that Our Place is one of the most, if not the most comprehensive re-entry program in the United States of America for women offenders, coming out of the prison system.  This is a one stop shop.  They go into the prisons way before the offender comes out of the prison system, they make their initial contacts in prison, they extend the invitations, they will take this individual, they will provide housing, they will provide clothing, they will provide food, you have to come in and work with them and obey the rules, needless to say, but they work with individuals piece by piece by piece, rebuild them as human beings, if you will, and then get them ready to go ahead for the re-entry program, part of it successful re-entry.  Ashley, your program is just amazingly comprehensive.

Ashley McSwain:  Yes, it is.

Len Sipes:  I understand why you do it that way, but you know, the criminal justice system is made up of a housing piece here and a drug or a substance abuse piece there, and a legal part of it to get legal assistance over there, you’ve got everything under your roof!

Ashley McSwain:  Well, when you approach it as a female issue or a gender specific issue, then all of those different components have to fit within the needs of the female offender, and so that’s what Our Place has done, and so we recognize that there are other organizations that are providing legal support, but a lot of them don’t understand the experience of being a woman and being in the criminal justice system and all of the myriad of obligations that they have to meet in the same way that Our Place does, and so that’s the reason why the services are so comprehensive, so when a woman is still in custody, we can begin to provide her with some guidance and support.

Len Sipes:  You know, now that we’ve done the introductions, and we’ve given a sense as to what both organizations are doing here in the District of Columbia, let’s get into a larger discussion of women offenders.  They come out 7 out of 10, according to national statistics, come out, they have children in the community.  The males don’t.  Now that alone is just such an incredibly big bridge to cross.  Not only do you have to deal with your own substance abuse, not only do you have to deal with your own issues, and a lot of these individuals have histories of being abused as children.  A lot of them have histories of sexual abuse, flat out sexual abuse from young ages.  Much higher than the percentages than males.  The rate of substance abuse is higher, the rate of substance abuse is higher, the rate of mental health problems is higher, then they come out, and then they have to reunite with their own children.  That, to me, is almost impossible.  Considering the problems that we have with male offenders, and we say, 50% go back to prison in three years, that’s a national statistic, 50% don’t, by the way, but 50% do, so if that 50% are going back to the prison system, male offenders and female offenders together, throw on the obligation of taking care of your kids seems to be almost insurmountable, especially in Washington DC’s economy.  Any, who wants to take a crack at that?

Willa Butler:  Well, let me get back, address the reuniting with the children situation.

Len Sipes:  And this is Dr. Willa Butler.

Willa Butler:  That is one thing of concern, because when they come out, the main thing is, their focus is trying to be reunited with their children, and the hard part is that sometimes the children have been adopted, or they’re in foster care, they’re not, they’re going through the process of trying to get their children back, and in some instances that they really can’t get them back because of what all has, they’ve gone through while they’ve been away, while they were incarcerated –

Len Sipes:  Somebody else has been mom and dad while they’re away, and in some cases, they haven’t really come into contact, direct contact with their children for years.

Willa Butler:  Years, and some of them don’t know their children –

Len Sipes:  That’s right.

Willa Butler:  And since, and it’s kind of hard, and when we talk about the different programs being integrated, which makes it even better for the women to come out and try to work together in not only getting their kids back, but also getting themselves back together again, when you talk about an integrated treatment modality, which is feasible for addressing all of their concerns.

Len Sipes:  But again, you go back to my larger question, and that is that it’s very difficult for male individuals to come out of the prison system and find work, even if their criminality is behind them, and we have people on our caseload, by the way, that have been, it’s been years since their last positive drug test.  It’s been years since their crime.  So they’re pretty much adhering to the rules, yet they still can’t find work.  Now you have a woman offender coming out with the same set of circumstances, although she’s got kids to raise.  I mean, there’s a certain point where you can [ph] pall up so many obstacles to the point where, for women offenders, it sometimes seems impossible for them to cross the bridge.  Ashley?

Ashley McSwain:  Well, when you start thinking about the fact that this is the experience of female offenders, and you start looking at taking a gender specific approach, those are the things that you factor and consider.  Some of the women have not only their own issues to deal with, but they have the issues that come with having children, and as long as we acknowledge that that’s a part of their reentry process, then we can provide the kind of supports that they need to move forward.  Prior to this dialogue, you know, people didn’t acknowledge that women coming home also had to now deal with the responsibility of taking care of their children, and so, I mean, this is a great conversation to have to begin to think about what are the interventions that are necessary to ensure that a woman does not recidivate, or that she does not fail.

Len Sipes:  And the other part of it, and I have to close in a couple seconds to reintroduce you, not close, but reintroduce the two of you before we go on with the rest of the program, is that most of the individuals, because of that history of being abused and neglected, pushed around, you come out, you have substance abuse issues, a lot of the women caught up in the criminal justice system have led very hard lives.  They don’t trust anybody.  They don’t trust me, they don’t trust either one of you, and yet both of you put women in groups and begin to break through those barriers.  That, my guess is that out of everything that we’re going to talk about that mistrust of the system, and both of you are in one way, shape, or form, part of the criminal justice system, breaking through that barrier is the hardest part.  Am I right or wrong?

Ashley McSwain:  Yeah, I would agree with that.  I mean, one of the things we try to do at our place is create a sense of community for the women.  I mean, it’s called Our Place for a reason, so that the women can get some support from each other, you know, and some hope for some differences or some changes.  I mean, that’s what the women are seeking.

Len Sipes:  All right.  Go ahead, Willa.

Willa Butler:  I sort of piggyback on your name, Our Place, and that’s kind of our perspective in what we did when we put all the women in one building, and it’s like our place now.  This is your home, and we’re here for you, and we try to present empathy and mutual respect and develop a type of rapport, and that relaxes them –

Len Sipes:  Yeah, but we can still put it back in prison.

Willa Butler:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  I mean, it’s empathy, it’s rapport, but at what point –

Willa Butler:  – a little different.  Right now, we’re going with trying to be firm, holding them accountable, and being firm as well, but also less confrontational.  In other words, we’re trying to work within –

Len Sipes:  I understand.  I’m just pulling your chain.

Willa Butler:  You know, work with them, and let them know that they can really, they can really do this.  We’re moving more into motivating them for change and working on their recidivism and bringing it out, because it’s in them, and they just never had anybody to bring it out of them, and that’s what we’re doing today, just bringing something out of you that’s already there in a –

Len Sipes:  Want to reintroduce both of our guests.  Ashley McSwain, she is the executive director of Our Place DC, www.ourplacedc.org.  Ladies and gentlemen, somebody out there has got some money, somebody out there has got some deep pockets, and if you’re ever looking for an organization that desperately needs financial assistance, and an organization that produces incredibly good results, reuniting mothers with their kids, taking care of the kids, taking care of the moms, moms becoming taxpayers instead of tax burdens, this is the place where you need to devote a buck or two.  Our Place DC, www.ourplacedc.org.  Also in front of our microphones, Dr. Willa Butler, who’s funded by the Federal Government, as I am, so we don’t need your money.  Give it to Our Place.  She’s in charge of women’s groups for my organization, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, www.csosa.gov.  All right, ladies, back to the second half of the program.  Okay, so, okay, so you finally break through that barrier, that woman gives you, and sometimes, hard as nails barrier, and you finally break through, and the woman comes into either one of your groups and sees that the other women are being taken care of, and she opens up a little bit.  Once she opens up, she’s going to get involved in a history that would scare the bejeebies out of most human beings, and then you start getting into the psyche of the background of the individual, why they got involved in drugs, why they got involved in crime, why their behavior is so self-destructive, and once you’ve crossed that bridge, you have just wandered into an incredibly difficult arena, that all the problems that those individuals bring to the table in terms of their background.  Am I right or wrong?

Ashley McSwain:  Yeah, you’re right, I mean, but the objective is to really break it down into smaller pieces, because it can be very insurmountable when you start thinking about all of the life experiences that brought her to the moment that she’s there, so I mean, I wouldn’t recommend that we approach it from this broad, you know, place, excuse me.  Right now, we really deal with what the woman needs at the moment that she’s there with us, and then we build from there, and we often find that the women come in for one thing, but through our dialogue and conversation, she begins to identify that there are other needs and that there are other areas of support that could assist her as she moves forward.

Len Sipes:  Right.  She comes to Our Place for legal assistance, and maybe a place to stay for a while, and suddenly, she gets involved with the other groups, and the process begins.

Ashley McSwain:  That’s exactly right.  Oftentimes, they’re coming for employment, and there’s just some underlying legal stuff that has to be addressed, and she doesn’t have any clothing, so there are some very foundational things that she needs, and a lot of times, the women we see, they don’t know how to ask for what it is that they want.  They think that it’s safe to ask for a birth certificate, but there are so many other things that they really need that they don’t feel that they can ask for, but given the right setting, you know, they’ll begin to explore a little more about what it is that they really need.

Len Sipes:  And that becomes a key issue, actually, the right setting, because a lot of people, and when I respond to emails, and comments on these programs, a lot of people are saying to themselves, look, for the love of good god, Mr. Sipes, these are criminals.  What is it about the right setting?  I just want you to protect me.  That’s your job.  Protect me, protect me, protect me.  But one of the things that the research and our own experience has pointed out pretty clearly that, if you put a human being in the right setting where you hold them accountable for their actions, I mean, public safety is CSOSA’s top priority.  Protecting the public is CSOSA’s top priority, but if you’re going to break through those barriers that he or she brings to us and work on the reasons why they’ve spent the last ten years in a bottle, or why they spent the last ten years snorting, or why they spent the last ten years with a needle in their arm, they have to be in the right setting.  We’ve got to create an environment where they’re comfortable enough to talk about who they are and what they are.

Ashley McSwain:  Yeah, the research talks about women make changes through relationships, and so, I mean, as abstract as that might seem, you have to build relationships with women in order to build trust and in order for them to become accountable for the choices that they’ve made, and that’s our objective, is to help people become aware of who they are and how their choices have affected their past and how their choices will affect their future.

Len Sipes:  And the bottom line of all that, Ashley, is that it protects public safety.  If the woman is dealing with her substance abuse, dealing with her own history, she’s going out and getting a job, she’s reuniting with her kids, that makes her a thousand times less likely to go out and reengage in criminal activity, which protects you and me and everybody else.  So we talk about the right setting, the comfortable setting, but the flipside of that is what we’re talking about is public safety.

Ashley McSwain:  That’s right, and it’s everybody’s job to provide this level of support.  I mean, these women are your mothers and your sisters and your cousins, and you know, you certainly want to make sure they have the supports they need so that they can be productive, and we all can move forward.

Len Sipes:  Right, and we as taxpayers don’t have to constantly shell money out.  If they’re off of drugs, and they’ve got their kids, and the kids are taken care of, and they’re working, that’s exactly what everybody wants!  But it’s the right setting that gets us there, and the public needs to understand that.  It can’t all be hard on the offender, hard on the offender, there’s got to be a balance.  Willa, when I talk to the different people involved in your group and Marcea’s group, you know, they praise you and Marcea, and they praise the group process, because for the first time in their lives, they’re dealing with issues that have bedeviled them for their entire lives.  For the first time, they’re actually talking about who they are, what they are, and what they need to do to kick drugs, kick mental health issues, reunite with their kids, get a job, and it’s that group process that really does seem to bring all that out.

Willa Butler:  Yeah, during our group process, first of all, we start off with the question, who am I?  They have to identify who they are first.  They might, whatever they were a drug out of, an offender, an ex-offender, right now, this is what, who I am, but now I’m working on some things, and a lot of times, when women in group, a lot of things, they’ve never talked about before, and they’ve repressed their feelings, they’ve repressed everything that has happened to them, and then it comes out in group, and we start talking about it, and then we start being able to not only to talk about it, but to get them help, to get them treatment, and we talk a lot about, a lot of our women are mental health.  They have concurrent disorders, they have substance abuse disorders, they have mental health disorders, and we try to put them in a place where we can treat both of that, not only that, they suffer from, like I say, victimization.  A lot of them have never talked about the part that they’ve been raped before, I’ve been molested a few times, I’ve been raped a couple of times –

Len Sipes:  Or a lot of times –

Willa Butler:  Right, or a lot of times, and all of this comes out, but yet, we’re still able to give them the help and the resources that they need.

Len Sipes:  Now my favorite story about women offenders, and the real eye opener to me was when I was with when I was the director of public relations for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, which was law enforcement and corrections, and we’re training public affairs officers at a women’s minimum security prison, because they had a culinary arts program, and we could feed the different people who came for training.  So I’ve got people training, and I didn’t have anything to do for two hours, so I go out in the courtyard, and I light up my cigar, and those were those days where you could actually have a cigar in prison, and the women who started coming out to the courtyard to have their cigarettes, and they know me because I was in the media a lot, and they sat down and started talking with me, and there was a two hour session in that courtyard with those women offenders, and where they took me, it was like taking me to Mars and back, because they freely talked about their lives, and one person said, Mr. Sipes, you know what?  I don’t want to go home.  This is the first safe place I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m getting my GED, I’m getting my culinary arts certificate, I’ve never talked about my issues before, but now this is the first place I’m talking, here’s a human being who says I find prison to be safer than the real world.

Willa Butler:  Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.  You get three meals every day, you know where you’re going to sleep, you know, it’s unfortunate –

Len Sipes:  You know you’re not going to be abused.

Ashley McSwain:  Right, and that’s what I was going to say, because a lot of, the abuse started from the home, you know, and when, like I said, when women leave prison, you think it should be a happy time, but it’s like a road down perdition again, because there’s no change, and I’m going back to the same situation, a double up situation, I don’t have a place to stay, I don’t know where my children are, and if they’re there, somebody else is raising them, and –

Willa Butler:  And they don’t fit in.

Ashley McSwain:  Right, they don’t fit in.

Willa Butler:  And you know, we’re actually doing some research on that, and one of the things we’re finding is that the women, while they’re still in custody, they’re very hopeful, and three months after they’re there in the community, that declines.  I mean, it’s just, you know, the options are so limited, and that feeling of empowerment that they felt so excited about is reduced when the reality of not having housing and the options for employment, you know, they really set in, and so these women start out very hopeful.

Len Sipes:  And my guess is, and we’re going to wrap the program up very quickly, so any quick responses, my guess is, if Our Place DC did not exist, and Willa, if your groups here at CSOSA did not exist, I, my guess is that there are going to be thousands, and I’m not exaggerating, thousands of women would have been, went right back to crime, right back to the criminal justice system, would have cost taxpayers tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and the two of you together, and Marcea and everybody else involved in this program, I mean, you’ve saved lives, and you’ve saved literally thousands of lives.

Willa Butler:  Yes.  Yes, we do.  Right now, our place is really encouraging women to be literate, educated, be curious, knowledge, reading, I mean, that’s, we think that that’s also going to be part of their ability to be sustainable in the community.

Len Sipes:  All right.  And I just want to make the offer, I’m going to come over and wax your car, walk your dog, do whatever you need, if you get a check to Our Place DC, because the program is that worthy.  Our guest today, Ashley McSwain, executive director of Our Place DC, www.ourplacedc.org, www.ourplacedc.org.  Dr. Willa Butler, in charge of women’s groups here at CSOSA, www.csosa.gov.  I do want to remind everybody about the upcoming events that we have on Saturday, February 5.  We have the women’s re-entry forum, Temple of Praise, 700 Southern Avenue SE from 8AM to 3PM, it will be on our website, www.csosa.gov, and also on February 10, a Thursday, the Citywide Re-entry Assembly at St. Luke’s Church at 4923 E Capitol Street from 6:30 in the evening to 9:30 in the evening, to talk about successful mentors and mentees involved in our faith based program.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes, watch for us or listen for us next time when we explore another very important topic in the criminal justice system.  I want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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