January 13, 2003
Program helps incarcerated women plan for life
By Jennifer McNulty
As a psychology graduate student working with women in the Santa Cruz
County Jail, Susan Greene saw women going through the revolving door
of the criminal justice system, being picked up, incarcerated, and released
only to repeat the cycle again and again.
|UCSC graduate student Susan Greene, left,
founded a program to help women inmates prepare for their release.
UCSC graduate Jolene Forman, right,coordinates the program. The
jail is in the background. Photo: Jennifer
Greene wanted to break the cycle, so she singlehandedly launched Getting
Out and Staying Out, a bilingual support program to help women inmates
prepare for a better life after their release. The program has proved
so successful that it now receives funding from the Santa Cruz County
"I saw a missing link between incarcerated women and the resources
that are available to support them when they get out," said Greene.
"These women desperately want a better life for their children
than they had, but they need help."
Indeed, the cycle is repeated across generations, too; research shows
that children of people who have been incarcerated are more likely to
spend time in jail than their peers whose parents have not been jailed.
Poverty and a high drop-out rate also persist from one generation to
Greene's program helps incarcerated women anticipate their needs after
release, from housing, employment, and bus fare to drug treatment programs
and educational opportunities. "We try to get them to close their
eyes and imagine themselves one year from now," explained Greene.
"We ask them, 'You're not in jail, so where do you live, and what
are you doing?' "
For many, those questions are difficult to answer. Most women incarcerated
in Santa Cruz County are what officials call the "chronically incarcerated,"
having been jailed an average of four times for violations such as illegal
drug use or possession, property crimes like petty theft, forgery, or
shoplifting, and minor probation violations.
Typically poor and in their early 30s with two young children, most
are high school dropouts, and less than half have worked outside the
home, according to Greene. Women of color are overrepresented.
"For most of these women, their day-to-day life is a hustle. Survival
is day to day," said Greene, who tapped UCSC undergraduate volunteers
to help her reach out to inmates in the Women's Facility, known for
years as "Blaine Street," where minimum-security inmates serve
sentences of one year or less.
Margaret Porter, the Sheriff Office's supervising correctional officer
assigned to the Women's Facility, called Getting Out and Staying Out
"a critical cog in this whole system."
"They're here three nights a week," Porter said admiringly
of the volunteers. "They're part of the process."
Greene and her volunteers are skilled at helping women envision a future
for themselves and mapping a step-by-step strategy for life outside.
But Greene doesn't measure the success of Getting Out and Staying Out
by standard measures of recidivism.
These women are facing such daunting challenges that she measures the
small victories, like helping a woman fill out a job or community college
application, or the day Cynthia, a mother of two, told her, "You
taught me to trust again."
"Every life counts," said Greene. "If a woman at Blaine
Street can articulate her goals, that moment counts."
Greene first worked with inmates in Santa Cruz in 1995 as a volunteer
with Friends Outside, a national organization that tries to meet the
immediate needs of newly incarcerated inmates. Inspired by research
conducted for her master's degree, she formed Getting Out and Staying
Out in 1998.
"There are so few people offering support that is consistent,"
said Greene. "I've always told the volunteers that the most important
thing they can do is show up."
Greene's dissertation research includes in-depth interviews with incarcerated
women, including three women she followed for one year after their release.
Chronic instability and traumatic childhood experiences underlie what
Greene calls the "cycles of pain" in the lives of incarcerated
women. As children, many witnessed domestic violence and experienced
physical or sexual abuse. Repeating the behavior of adults in their
lives, they turn at a young age to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
"There was never any time for healing, and most never talked about
what happened to them," said Greene. "They turn to self-medicating
to ease the pain, until it eventually lands them in jail." The
lucky ones get help, but many women, upon release, fall back into the
cycle of drug use and petty crime. Although Greene and her organization
are now inviting therapists to provide pro bono sessions to help
women deal with their underlying pain, Getting Out and Staying Out focuses
on immediate needs.
"We're not in a position to treat their addictions, but we are
helping them get a bus pass, find a job, and get a place to live,"
Greene takes great pride in the fact that the Sheriff's Office has
endorsed Getting Out and Staying Out, which recently merged with the
Santa Cruz chapter of Friends Outside, and has expanded to serve male
minimum-security inmates. The group receives some financial support
from the Santa Cruz Commission for Prevention of Violence Against Women
and the Community Foundation, and a twice-yearly annual campus clothing
drive provides inmates with thrift-shop vouchers so they can shop for
clothes upon release.
"I wanted this organization to go on beyond me," said Greene,
noting that support from the Sheriff's Office funded the hiring last
year of UCSC graduate Jolene Forman to coordinate the program.
As Greene turns her attention to writing her dissertation, she reflects
on what she has learned. "Whether or not you believe these people
deserve to be punished, we could be making society more dangerous by
ignoring the profound needs of so many people," said Greene. "If
people had more information about the realities of what goes on in people's
lives before they're arrested, and the hardships that get passed on
to their children, there might be more support for alternatives to incarceration
for nonviolent offenders."
For more information, call Jolene Forman at (831) 425-3434.
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