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Maine Redoubles Efforts to Lower Number of Women in Prison
10/09/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Criminal justice officials from all over the country are in Portland this week for a conferenece focused on the issues around women in prison. More than 200,000 women are currently behind bars in the United States, as that population has grown significantly in the past 20 years. Maine has had a simiar experience: In 2002, the state had 25 women behind bars; 10 years later, that number had risen to 140. The state's incarceration system, which was built with male offenders in mind, has found itself ill-equipped to deal with the influx of female inmates - many of whom have returned to prison for a second or third time. But recently, the state has redoubled its efforts to cut those recidivism rates, by paying more attention to how female inmates are treated and released. Jennifer Mitchell reports.

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At the Women's Correctional Unit in Windham, it's not hard to find someone who has been here before.

"I just left about a year ago, for about 14 months I did for violation of probation," says 30-year-old Kayla. Kayla (above right) says she's back in prison now, with a four-year sentence for drug trafficking. "I lasted probably a month and half before I started using," she says. "I didn't have any job. I didn't have a place to live."

Kayla says her troubles started more than 20 years ago, when she was living on the streets at age 10. She's says she's been a drug addict for much of her life. And her story sounds similar to that of her friend Missy (above left).

"I'm doing 18 months as of now, but I have pending charges," Missy says, "so I'll probably end up with a consecutive sentence. This is my fifth time being back here."

And Missy's story is not that different from Amanda's. "I started being an addict at a young age, and I'm in here for burglary," she says.

women prison 2But there is one difference: Twenty-eight-year-old Amanda is in a half-way program, and when she's released, it will be from the Southern Maine Re-entry Center in York County, rather than from the prison in Windham. Like the other two women, she's been in and out of the corrections system for years, and says multiple spells behind bars did nothing to change the path she was on.

But this time, she says, it feels different. "My whole outlook on life is different," Amanda (right, in photo at right) says. "I don't have any desire to get out and continue the lifestyle I was on before, of constantly doing drugs, and breaking the law and doing things I know I shouldn't do. I'm not as rebellious as I was."

At the Re-entry Center, she says she's finally been receiving the counseling she's needed. And when she reenters society, she will have already worked in the community for a while, saved up some money, and will have a release plan to follow.

The greater freedom and privileges she's experiencing now at the Re-entry Center, she says, gives her courage - and something to hang on to. And she's not under lock down, as she was in Windham.

Center Director Amanda Woolford is leading a tour of the facility. It's not fancy. It's got plain vinyl floors, energy-saving bulbs humming overhead, and a concrete shower room. But unlike the center in Windham, there's no electric gate or razor wire. Women can wear street clothes to work and many of them hold jobs outside the facility.

It's not a summer camp, says Woolford, but it doesn't exactly feel like prison either. "A lot of women change their behaviors because they know the opportunities that await for them down here," she says.

The Re-entry Center is a reboot of a program that started in Bangor in 2007, which was contracted out to another group. The program never really got off the ground. It never operated at full capacity and the work release program was almost non-existent, says Woolford.

Last year, the state took the program back. They moved it to York County, hired staff, and started a comprehensive program to treat female inmates, with gender-targeted substance abuse programs and mental health services. It's only been running for a year, but Woolford says the center has already cut the number of re-offenders.

Women who walk away from the Corrections Center in Windam have about a 30 percent recidivism rate, she says. The Center's rate so far is about 0.5 percent in its first year. Out of 200 inmates, just one person has returned to prison.

If the Center can keep those stats long-term, Woolford says the numbers of women in the system should eventually fall. And that, she says, is crucial, because all of Maine's designated women's prison beds, at about 140, are currently occupied.

Photos:  Jennifer Mitchell

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