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Inside Olympia – Women’s Prisons and Post-Prison Reentry

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October 14, 2021

During her two decades in the legislature, State Sen. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma has advocated for rehabilitation and treatment in state prisons rather than a punitive approach. Now, Darneille is stepping down from the Senate to be the first director of a new Women’s Prison Division at the Washington State Department of Corrections.

Darneille describes the approach she will take to women’s prisons as “trauma informed” and aware of gender differences. She said one thing nearly all incarcerated women share in common are multiple “ACES,” or adverse childhood experiences — violence, sexual abuse, and other incidents that happened early in life, before the child had a choice to avoid them.

Treating incarcerated women with this trauma in mind, and keeping in mind gender differences, is key to preparing women for life on the outside when released from prison. As an example, she points to a program at the Women’s Prison at Purdy, in which some women who have babies while incarcerated are able to keep their babies with them while in prison.

What happens to people when released from prison? How to reduce the chances of recidivism, or returning to prison? For four years Christopher Poulos has headed up Washington’s Statewide Reentry Council, which advocates for policies that help formerly incarcerated persons succeed on the outside — which he says is a win not only for the former inmates, but for public safety.

He says the biggest takeaway he sees from four years of reentry work is a recognition not only among policy-makers but among the community, that successful reentry is the responsibility of the larger community. And, benefits the larger community.

The past legislative session saw reentry related bills win approval, including a proposal to restore voting rights to former prisoners, and another to enroll inmates in Medicaid prior to release. Poulos said housing remains one of the biggest challenges for inmates upon release. He also said during the upcoming 2022 legislative session the Reentry Council will seek funding for a large study that assesses the effectiveness of reentry services in preventing recidivism.

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