2 years ago
BILLINGS- Only one inmate in the Montana Women's Prison is currently serving a life sentence. That means at some point roughly 265 offenders will be released back into society.
"The bottom line is, they're going to be your next door neighbors. They may be watching your kids. Their children will be working in schools with your children," Montana Women's Prison Public and Victim Information Officer Annamae Siegfried-Derrick said.
For these reasons, the prison focuses on building the women up, so they can be productive members of society when the time comes.
"Instead of waiting until the last few months, or when we knew they had parole, to start this re-entry, we're trying to start the day they come in. I want you to start looking at what do you need to do here to prepare yourself when you go. We try to get that into their minds immediately," Montana Women's Prison Warden Jo Acton said.
An MSU-Billings program, 'New Path, New Life', helps train and mentor prisoners, focusing on housing, employment and relationships.
Women also have the opportunity to get their GED, take college courses, or participate in a vocational education program while in prison.
"We were able to obtain some courses for medical transcription, phlebotomy, and that type of thing, which is a lot of hard work," Acton said.
Pam Elliot has developed an interest in graphic arts in the industries program, where inmates have the opportunity to gain real life work experience in prison manufacturing items to sell to schools, clubs, and non-profit organizations.
"Before I came to prison I really didn't have a direction in my life I didn't have a good work ethic. I didn't like to work. Pretty much everything I've learned about jobs, working, job skills, things like that, has been learned basically here in prison, Elliot said.
Three months before an inmate is released on parole, the prison works with her to find housing options, obtain social services, and find employment.
Inmates who do not enter a pre-release center or treatment program when they are released have ten days to secure a job. Some businesses are open to hiring ex-convicts.
"I would say about 50-percent of my employees are in the houses or ex-offenders who have made it and are doing well on their own and are really trying hard to live the good life now," owner of Stella's Kitchen and Bakery, Stella Ziegler, said.
Prison officials hope new reentry programs will reduce the recidivism rate.
"I think this is a safe place for the women, so I think we have some women who come back because this is home," the institutional probation and parole officer for the prison, Jennie Hansen, said.
Hansen says if someone has a job, a place to live, and healthy relationships, she is less likely to return.
The Billings community is the first in the state to launch a Reentry Task Force to address problems offenders are facing.
Any interested community member is invited to attend meetings, which are held on the second Thursday of each month.
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2 years ago
BILLINGS- Montana has received national attention for its problem with impaired driving and substance abuse, and that problem is evident with those serving time.
One inmate says she experienced the devastation of drinking and driving when she caused a car accident that took her daughter's life.
"I had less than a year of drinking. You know, it shows people that you don't have to be a chronic drinker, you know drink every day for ten years, to go to prison. I would sit here for ten years, in a cell, if I could have my daughter at the end of ten years. That's not going to happen," inmate Kacy Laingen said.
"All of our programs deal with addiction to some degree," Warden Jo Acton said.
About 90-percent of the women within the prison walls struggle with an addiction to alcohol or chemicals. While that may not have been what landed them there, it is often a contributing factor.
"Previous history with drug or alcohol usage may have contributed to other criminal behaviors in that they might have done a felony theft in order to fund their drug habit," Public and Victim Information Officer, Annamae Siegfried-Derrick, said.
The prison offers a variety of programs addressing addiction.
"We are trying to do a holistic approach to the person. We have to look not only to the chemical dependency but also to what are the triggers in their recovery," Warden Jo Acton said.
"The programs, they help build up skills that I never had before or see different aspects that I didn't really notice before," inmate Nicole Moore said.
One prisoner says the programs have helped her discover that low self-esteem is her trigger.
"When you don't believe you deserve anything, it is really easy to put yourself in situations that aren't healthy and to make bad choices. I don't believe that anymore," inmate Roberta Murphy said.
The warden says she hopes addressing these core issues will lower the recidivism rate, which is currently about average for a prison.
One inmate says she has been given the tools to keep her out of trouble and stay clean when she reenters the community.
"After the time I've spent in here, I'd like to consider myself pretty strong. It will be a struggle, but I know I can do it," inmate Yolanda Stanley said.
In addition to the treatment programs focused on substance abuse, some women say religion and culture have helped them.
The prison offers religious services in which volunteers from different denominations and Native American communities come into the prison.
2 years ago
BILLINGS- The Montana Women's Prison sits in the heart of Billings, housing approximately 265 women from across the state who have committed crimes ranging from felony DUI to homicide.
The prison appears different than what is typically depicted on television. Women are not usually confined to a cell, and there are very few bars because they could be used by prisoners as a tool to hang themselves, according to the prison's warden, Jo Acton.
Acton says security is the top priority.
"Our job is to make sure people don't go out. We also need to make it a safe environment for community members and our staff, and also for the women who are housed here," she said.
The only weapons in the facility are pepper spray and tasers.
"We have chosen not to have weapons. Women by and large do not make weapons, whereas, if you go to a men's facility, something is going to be sanded down to make what they call a shank," Acton said.
Inmates spend their first 60 days in the intake unit where they learn skills they will utilize for the rest of their time in the facility as well as when they reenter society.
The prison is based on what is referred to as a right-living community where the women hold each other accountable for their behaviors in a community setting.
"It was like a community effort how I learned to be bad, so now I'm using a community effort to learn how to be good," inmate Rebecca Fowler said.
After women leave the intake unit, they continue programs they started during their first weeks. However, their schedules are more open, allowing them to take on a job in the industries unit or schedule vocational or parenting classes.
"They are really supportive of women in here who have children. We have a great parenting program. Me and my son's relationship was pretty much non-existent for about four years, and just this last Mother's Day I got a surprise visit from him. It was pretty heartbreaking. He is my reason to do good here, and he's my reason to get out of here," inmate Emily James said.
Everybody has their own reason to get out. For some, that reason is hostility within the prison.
"When I first got here, I was told if you have one friend in prison you have too many. It would be nice if more people could come in here and experience it. I mean like judges and county attorneys. Could they come in here and spend a while? I mean, before they really sentence somebody so harshly," inmate Kacy Laingen said.
While that is life in prison, some choose to see the silver lining, saying the women have been really supportive.
"When I first came in, I didn't have any self-esteem. I felt like a loser and a nobody. In God's will, He sent me here, and I got my self-esteem back and my spirituality. Everything, I got it back," inmate Annie Coature said.
The cost of housing an inmate at the women's prison is roughly $116 dollars a day; whereas, the cost is approximately $73 dollars a day to house an inmate at the men's facility in Deer Lodge.