Women Offenders-National Institute of Corrections

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See www.nicic.org for the web site of the National Institute of Corrections
Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Len Sipes. Our show topic today is about women offenders and we have an extraordinarily interesting experience for everybody. We have 2 experts from the National Institute of Corrections. The National Institute of Corrections, I think those of us in the correctional and criminal justice system, we have huge respect for them. They are the premier source of information on correctional programs, not only in this country, but throughout the world. People I spoke to when I traveled to France and England and when I went to Amsterdam, have all made reference to the National Institute of Corrections. They are part of the Bureau of Prisons and they are part of the Department of Justice. Maureen Buell is a correctional program specialist and Phyllis Modley, another correctional program specialist and ladies welcome to D.C. public safety.

Maureen Buell : Good morning. Thank you Len for that very positive introduction.

Phyllis Modley: It’s great to be here.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. First of all, for the audience who may not be as familiar with the National Institute of Corrections as I am, give me a short synopsis of what the National Institute of Corrections is and does.

Maureen Buell : The National Institute of Corrections or NIC as we call it actually came into being in 1974. After the riots in Attica in 71, there was a major focus on corrections and the practice of imprisonment and as a result, NIC was created. Our function essentially is to provide training and technical assistance and information to the criminal justice entities across the country, so we work with state and local jurisdictions on issues related to pre-trial, jails, prisons, and community corrections.

Leonard Sipes: So the bottom line is that if people want to know does incarceration work to reduce crime, what is the state of the art in terms of reentry, or offenders coming out the prison system and reintegrating back into society the best use of staff time in terms of supervising offenders either on probation or while in prison, you’re the people that people come to to get those answers.

Maureen Buell : Exactly, we have terrific information resource folks at our information center and through out website www.nicic.org. You can also get to anybody on staff in a whole set of specialty areas.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, and there’s an 800 number?

Maureen Buell : There’s an 800 number, it is 1-800-877-1461.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, 800-877-1461?

Maureen Buell : Correct.

Leonard Sipes: Okay ladies, today’s show is about women offenders and you and I were talking, we were all talking before the show about an experience that I had in terms of training public affairs officers when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and I went out to a pre-release system we had our training in a prison, a pre-release women’s prison or center because they have a culinary arts program there and it was a very new and modern and so it was a great place to hold training. And I set this individual up to go and teach for an hour, so I had an hour with nothing do. So, I went out to the courtyard in those days when you could still smoke and I had my cigar and I was surrounded in about 5 minutes with about 30 female offenders who told me about their experiences. It was very interesting as to how quickly they became involved in the conversation with me. And some of the stuff that they told me was astounding. As one woman put it, she wants to stay in that prison and she wants to stay in that pre-release center. The whole concept is that she’s safe there, she’s not being beaten up by anybody, she’s getting her GED, she’s learning culinary arts, she’s getting ready for a job, she’s getting drug treatment. This is a safe world for her. Other women offenders were nodding their heads up and down saying that this was a safe existence for them. So what I learned from that is that there’s a difference between women offenders and male offenders and that difference in many cases is profound. Correct or incorrect?

Maureen Buell : We think that’s correct and I think that’s a very important observation and I think what that points out is that not only do we need to pay attention to the services for women when they’re incarcerated, but I think that it’s very significant for us to really be thinking about preparing women adequately and the community for their reentry.

Leonard Sipes: What’s the difference between male and female offenders?

Phyllis Modley: Right. We have done some work to assemble the characteristics of men and women along a number of different dimensions and they’ve helped us look at the unique aspects of women. One of them right off the bat is that they are much less involved in violent crime. Typical crimes are drug and property crimes, survival crimes, if you accept that, welfare fraud, writing bad checks. Also a great deal of prostitution. So on the whole they are less violent and involved in crimes in which arguably well there’s a public victim there themselves victims as well.

Leonard Sipes: Interestingly enough, what I’ve been told by people in the prison system in community supervision, the people who work directly with women offenders, is that in many cases, and I’m not making excuses for them at all, in any way, shape or form, but it is nevertheless true, it seems to be true that in many cases with female offenders that they are involved with significant others, principally a guy who convinces them either, just talking to them, threatening them, whatever it takes for them to engage in drug trafficking. A lot of women who, when I was a state trooper, who we would arrest trafficking in drugs up and down the interstate in 95, it was take these drugs in New York or I’m gonna to beat the dickens out of you. How true was this?

Phyllis Modley: I think that’s very true. I think that’s reflected in some of the anecdotal stories and some of the research that is emerging. I think it’s a true in observation and practice and I think that what was important for us at NIC is that we were hearing these stories and our focus has really been not only taking this information, but we really began to dig very deeply in the available research that supports the fact that there are some differences between male and female offenders.

Leonard Sipes: And tell me those differences because in many cases, female offenders have higher rates of substance abuse, they claim higher rates of mental health problems, emotional problems. I’m astounded that just about every index that I read in terms of comparing male and female offenders, it seems as if the female offenders have higher rates of whatever it is that were measuring. Correct?

Phyllis Modley: For the most part I think that’s true. A couple points I wanted to make. One is that the premise of our work again is that we do need to hold women accountable for their behavior that brought them in the criminal justice system, but I think that it’s also incumbent upon us to really focus on the behaviors that underlie that criminal behavior. So, when you ask the question is that true, I think what we are learning is that in fact some of those behaviors are happening with both men and women, but what we’re seeing is that the frequency of substance abuse, the frequency of trauma is significant higher for the most part in the female offender population.

Leonard Sipes: Especially what in terms of sexual violence. The sexual violence figure is astoundingly high for female offenders compared to male offenders.

Phyllis Modley: That’s right. What we’re finding is that yes, both young boys and young girls experience childhood abuse and trauma, but the rates of sexual abuse among girls are higher and the abuse continues into adulthood for women.

Leonard Sipes: Yes

Phyllis Modley: So that they continue to be victims from adult partners.

Leonard Sipes: So what do we do? The bottom line in all of this is that we have a unique difference between male and female offenders. We speculated back in Maryland by the way, and you don’t have to respond to this directly, but we speculated that we could probably take up to half of the female population that we had incarcerated and if they had sufficient programs on the outside in terms of housing, in terms of childcare, in terms of drug treatment, in terms of mental health treatment, in terms of GPS tracking, if you will, we could probably safely take half that population and put them out in the community and probably not have an adverse impact on public safety. Again, because the sense was that for many female offenders they’re “not as dangerous” as the male offender. Correct? I mean, am I in the ballpark?

Phyllis Modley: I think you are definitely in the ballpark. There are women certainly who do have that are a risk to public safety, but that percentage compared to men is significantly smaller and so again, instead of just relying on some of those anecdotal observations, we really began to pull together the research and one of the things I wanted to mention and these documents are available from our website, is that we began to look at what some of the differences were between men and women and we actually had a project that over a period of about two years, we pulled together national researchers, practitioners, not only criminal justice issues significant to women, but we also looked at issues external to criminal justice, like mental health issues, substance abuse, medical issues, and we began to cull together that research and as a result of that work we created a product called gender responsive strategies and there are six principles that we have begun to build our work on when we provide assistance to state and local jurisdictions on women offender issues. We really work around these six principles in helping jurisdictions improve their outcomes with women offenders.

Leonard Sipes: And they are? Those six principles?

Phyllis Modley: The six principles are, very quickly:

1. Gender makes a difference.
2. Create an environment based on safety, respect and dignity.
3. Develop policies, practices, programs that are relational and promote healthy connections to children, families, significant others and the community.
4. Address substance abuse, trauma, mental health issues through comprehensive services and appropriate supervision.
5. Provide women with opportunities to improve their socioeconomic conditions.
6. Establish a system of community supervision of reentry with comprehensive collaborative services.

So, these principles don’t let women off the hook, but it really helps us focus our interventions with the issues that have brought them into contact with criminal justice.

Leonard Sipes: The reality is that you were involved in trafficking drugs, you were involved in this, you were in involved in that sort of behavior, it is purely illegal, it’s dangerous to a larger society and if you do the crime you are going to have to be held responsible for that crime. But, once again, we’re saying that there are differences between male and female offenders and I think your six principles comes down to if we had sufficient programs in place, would their rate of recidivism, their rate of coming back to the criminal justice system, their rate of criminality, would decrease.

Phyllis Modley: That’s right. What we are discovering is that those factors in the women’s lives that some people look at as needs for programming, we are learning that those needs also predict their re-involvement in recidivism. So we have been able through recent research and gender informed risk and need assessments for women to understand that an issue like housing safety creates risk for women and that is,

Leonard Sipes: Housing safety means what?

Phyllis Modley: Housing safety means a safe and sober home where someone is free from continued abuse.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. They’re not going to be beaten up.

Phyllis Modley: Where they’re not going to be beaten up. If a woman goes back into abusive relationship when she gets out and she is trying to go to substance abuse treatment, she is trying to access mental health services, and she has an argument with her husband and her husband or her partner beats her up, she is going to go back and take drugs.

Leonard Sipes: Right. Right.

Phyllis Modley: And that creates risk for her.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Phyllis Modley: So housing

Leonard Sipes: And creates risk for the entire society in terms

Phyllis Modley: exactly

Leonard Sipes: of her continuing criminality.

Phyllis Modley: And it makes housing in absolutely essential for women offenders. And anecdotally, we understood this, that where we had the access to housing for women, we got much better results. But now we also have some data that shows that this really does produce risk, if they’re not in safe housing settings. Another area is that the mental health screens have looked at really primarily mental health issues from men and among women, serious depression and psychosis are more frequent as a mental health diagnosis and those are not always tapped by the current array of assessment. So we are now recommending that we actually assess for those factors and so we are doing a much better job of identifying what the current circumstances of the women are.

Leonard Sipes: And I think what I hear both of you say is that is has to be a comprehensive package. So many times that we in the criminal justice system and people outside the criminal justice system who fund us have this sense that oh, okay, fine we did drug treatment so this person’s going to be fine. It’s really a matter of addressing her housing issues, her reality that she has children on the outside in the vast majority of cases, that she has mental health issues, she has drug treatment issues, she has employment issues and these things must be addressed concurrently, that it’s just not one or two, but it’s a package.

Phyllis Modley: I think that’s really true Leonard and one of the other things that you point out, you mentioned earlier if we had more programs that were more focused on the needs of women, I think programs are important, but what you’re talking about is systemic kinds of issues that we have to look at our supervision practices with this population. You bring up a very good point. When a woman leaves a facility, if she immediately gets her children back and has not a safe place to live, but has to be concerned about going to her own drug treatment, getting the children in school, being sure that they’re fed, she’s got to get to her probation and parole meetings. I think that again we don’t want to not hold women accountable, but we really need to look at our systems, what we’re asking of people. Can they really accomplish these things? So there are some distinct difference sometimes in community settings for women.

Leonard Sipes: I’m going to tell two stories and them I am going to go and give the 800 number again and give your names once again. We did a conference here at the court services and offender supervision agency for women offenders and one woman stood up and said that she was living with a friend of a friend and that this woman had pulled a knife on her and she had to pull a knife back and that she desperately needed housing. She had her 2 children there. What were we going to do about her housing arrangements and that was the reality of what our parole and probation agents whether there in the District of Columbia, whether there in California, it doesn’t matter, that’s the reality of what it is that we in this system have got to deal with. The other was a woman who I met again on community supervision who went through a variety of programs and, you know, this woman had a lifetime of criminality and drug use. She, through programs, she was had her own home, she was a manager of her own business, she was reunited with her children and that’s fine and that’s good, I asked how many crimes do you think that you committed on a year-to-year basis including all the drug deals and thefts and being involved in the lifestyle and being part of a criminality that was also violent, not necessarily taking direct part in that violence but she was a part of it? And she simply said, oh probably about 1,000. So that’s 1,000 thefts, drug deals, other indiscretions, other illegalities on a year that we as a society no longer have to put up with because she got the programs that she needed. We don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with her kids from the social services point of view because she was back, she had a decent job, she had medical benefits, the kids had medical benefits. So this is profound in terms of the benefits that it has to our larger society.

Maureen Buell : I’m with you on that and our emphasis in terms of our work in all of NIC is on evidence based practice on effective interventions and what we’re finding is that supervision by itself does not produce the kind of risk reduction, recidivism reduction we want. It has to be linked to targeted programming and we talk about that programming as targeting risk factors and this becomes a critical rationale for reducing risk by looking at each, doing an assessment of each woman and saying what are the primary risk factors for this woman and let’s start working on those. The more we can work on over a period of time, the higher is our opportunity for actually reducing risk. And I think the collateral impact on children, that women in our system, they offer an opportunity to work with the next generation and that makes them doubly important.

Leonard Sipes: The toll-free telephone number for The National Institute of Corrections is 800-877-1461. The National Institute of Corrections Information Center website is www.nicic.org. When mom goes off to prison statistically speaking, the kids have higher rates of problems, dramatically higher rates of problems, dramatically higher rates of substance abuse, of not doing well in school and of criminality. So it’s just not that woman, those three kids have a much higher degree of involvement in the social services and the criminal justice system.

Phyllis Modley: There is a huge ripple effect when a woman goes to prison. One of the statistics that’s out there and has been out there for some time is that when a man goes to prison about 75 to 85 percent of the time, his children stay with the other natural parent, so there is some continuity. When a woman goes to prison, the converse of that, usually about 75, 85 percent of the time, that child goes with somebody other than a natural parent which means the child goes to a friend, the child goes to Grandma who is struggling day to day herself, doesn’t have the ability to kind of control who comes in and out of the house, so supervision for the children is an issue. A small percentage of children go into foster care. So it’s not that these kids are bad kids or had not been raised right, it’s that there are just so many uncertainties in their lives because their whole world has been turned upside down, so we are concerned about this whole intergeneration cycle of offending.

Leonard Sipes: Where do we go to? I mean we are talking about 10 more minutes in this program and the larger issues here are profound. There is a tremendous amount of abuse and neglect. We’re talking about, in many cases, women being coerced and in some cases violently coerced to get involved and to take part in criminal activities. We are talking about rates of mental health issues amongst women offenders, substance abuse issues that are higher for women offenders and then it’s the prison experience and then it’s the whole issue of transferring or reintegrating back into society. It sounds like the deck is stacked so far against the women offender who really wants to, in many cases, come back out, get her GED, get her plumbing certificate, reunite with her kids, find safe housing. I mean, what are the odds of actually doing that and if they’re so dire, is there any particular sense as to why they’re so dire.

Phyllis Modley. You bring up an interesting point when you talked about the women really wanting to do the right thing, and so I think that they’re, it looks like the decked is really stacked against this population and there are a lot of challenges and barriers, so a couple of things. One is that the work that we do with state and local jurisdictions is really helping folks sort of rethink how they work with this population. But there’s two other things that I think are important to mention. One is that one of the things that’s quite amazing about this population as these women are survivors to have gone through what they’ve gone through and still be upright and standing. You have to give them some credit so, this population really has a significant amount of strengths that a lot of our work has really been trying to tap into. I think another thing that we don’t do in criminal justice is we don’t listen to the voices of the women. A lot of the research that we’ve been accessing and that support the gender responsive strategies project is that we listen to the voices of women who talked about what got them into trouble, what they need in order to support them getting out in the community. They have a pretty good idea what they need to be able to become citizens in their community. I don’t think that as a system we listen to these voices enough.

Leonard Sipes: It’s a tough story to listen to, don’t you think. I mean, when I sit down with women offenders, I just simply find that it’s just a tough story to listen to. You know, when a women offender tells me about being neglected at a fairly early age, of, in some cases being pushed around and then more than just a couple of cases being sexually abused and as you said before Maureen, the sexual abuse continues in many ways. There is a certain point where this is overwhelming, this really is overwhelming yet this is the reality that those of us within the criminal justice system, whether you’re in law enforcement or corrections or in the court system, this is the hard cold reality that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. But, I think what we’re seeing collectively is that the programs work. Is that, the programs have an impact, that there is lower rates of recidivism and these women have a better chance of going on to be taxpayers instead of tax burdens, if you will. Correct or incorrect?

Phyllis Modley: I think that that’s correct. That’s what we expect and one of the problems that we face is that most of the studies on effective interventions have been done on large samples of men and there’s a dearth of really good evaluative research on women offender programming. This is beginning to come out. What NIC has done has built on the research on effective interventions that’s gender neutral, that it was presumed for men and women and integrated that with research on women and we’ve created a, what I call an aspiration model of improved supervision for reentry and probation and what it does is it, it is strength based, it insists that the woman’s voice be heard and that she be part of a team case management. It is, it builds on a gender specific risk and need instrument so we have a higher change of identifying the real risks for this particular woman. It builds on engagement, which is the motivational interviewing, research that the whole country, in fact, internationally, we are using that motivational process to improve outcomes.

Leonard Sipes: Which is basically listening to what they have to say.

Phyllis Modley: It’s listening.

Leonard Sipes: And encouraging their feelings and their thoughts because that’s how they produce change.

Phyllis Modley: That’s right and it’s getting them step by step to set their own plans for improvement. And it’s building, it’s a strength based model which, from our research, is taking the strengths they do have and building connections in the community that build on that strength. And there’s a lot of promising research going on now about what are called resiliency or strength based factors. So this sort of aspirational model we’re now testing in 2 sites with some good research and I’m very encouraged by what it may offer the field in terms of a good solid example of how we can do a better job here.

Leonard Sipes: You know it’s interesting that we’re all bureaucrats, we’ve all been serving government and serving citizens through government for so long and when I first started doing radio and television years ago, somebody said you never give an opinion. Boy, you’re being a typical bureaucrat. So I’m not gonna ask you guys for an opinion. I’ll offer an opinion. My guess is that if the programs were in place comprehensively, both in the prison setting and in the community correction setting for women, my guess is that you could probably reduce the amount of recidivism, the idea of helping that person not return to the criminal justice system, which means they’re not committing crime, they’re not doing drugs, they’re taking care of their kids, they’re doing the right thing. My guess is that we could probably, oh what do you think, maybe a 40 percent reduction if all those programs were in place. It would be a substantial reduction. That’s my guess. I’m not asking you to give your own opinion in terms of percentage reduction, but I think it would be considerable.

Phyllis Modley: I would add that we know that the dramatic increase in prison population among women has been driven by mandatory sentencing on drug offenses and we also know that women are less culpable in terms of being the kingpins driving the drug trade. They are more likely to be the drug mules, the woman driving the car and so forth. So they are being swept up in a wave of mandatory sentencing, determinate sentencing.

Leonard Sipes: A variety of states now California comes to mind, the state of Washington, Kansas, Texas are using what you’ve referred to as a evidence base approach. They are looking at the research and their proposition is that we can reduce the burden to taxpayers significantly by not building more prisons, not building as many new prisons and in the state of Maryland, it was $25 million on average a year to maintain a prison. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that really do not have to be shouldered by the taxpayer if we had these programs in place and if we had lower rates of recidivism. So it’s just not an issue for the women offender or the male offender, it’s also lessening the burden on the average taxpayer in terms of what they have to pay out for correctional services. Correct?

Maureen Buell : Absolutely and I would add to that a special interest of mine which is that we really need to do better pre-trial screening and reentry at the jail door. And I don’t mean reentry just for individuals serving jail sentences, but for individuals held pre-trial. I’d like to call people’s attention to Hamilton County, Ohio, Cincinnati has developed a women specific, a gender informed screen and has successfully worked to get women out of jail pre-trial and into services and then to continue those services once sentenced to probation.

Leonard Sipes: The contact points for The National Institute of Corrections: www.nicic.org, that’s National Institute of Corrections Information Center.org. The 800 number is 800-877-1461, 800-877-1461. At our microphones today has been Maureen Buell, a correctional program specialist and Phyllis Modley, a correctional program specialist. Ladies and gentlemen, this has been D.C. Public Safety; I’m your host Len Sipes. Please have yourselves a very very pleasant day.

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