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January 13, 2003

Program helps incarcerated women plan for life after jail

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.

Photo of Susan Greene and Jolene Forman

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 McNulty

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 Sheriff's Office.

"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 another.

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," said Greene.

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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