Meeting Women I Could Know: My Visit to Indiana Women’s Prison
By: Becca Hanson, OPTIONS Class 13
I had heard that the visit to the Indiana Women's Prison was simultaneously an inspiring, heartbreaking and unforgettable site visit (it was). I so looked forward to our OPTIONS class visit, but I was very anxious driving through the prison gates. And I was petrified when those heavy metal doors slammed shut as we moved from one "zone" to the next.
"I am not happy to be in prison, but I am thankful to be here." These words were echoed again and again by the women we met at Indiana Women's Prison (IWP), the oldest women's facility in the country - founded in 1873. These women are thankful for the opportunities at IWP that have allowed them to create healthy blueprints for their lives. IWP has inmates as young as 14 and as old as 87 - serving terms for as little as one year to six life sentences. Some women are pregnant when they arrive.
Daily activities and programs include GED classes, yoga classes (that came as a surprise!), One Net-One Life, a mosquito net project–finished pieces are sent to Africa as part of a malaria-prevention program, and volunteering in the Community Outreach program, which includes making bed rolls for homeless veterans. Everyone works at IWP – as part of the kitchen staff, on the yard crew, training ADA dogs or as a nanny in the Wee Ones nursery (initial funding for which was provided by Women’s Fund). Women are paid $0.12/hour, earning approximately $25/month. Opportunities to pursue a college degree are slim, given budget cuts. Access to counseling is almost non-existent – 1 counselor is available for 1000+ women. This will ultimately impact successful reentries into our communities. Women at IWP need support once their finish their terms. The women were frank about the need for counseling and support from mentors, counselors, and therapists both while incarcerated and once they “reenter” life outside of prison.
My biggest take-aways from our visit:
- For many of these articulate, sensitive, compassionate women, the cause of their incarceration was "the first time I was ever in trouble." These are truly cases of a single bad decision.
- For most, two common threads have most negatively impacted their lives, and ultimately led to their incarceration: unstable, troubled childhoods (moving from foster home to foster home, teen pregnancies, abandonment by a parent) and volatile, unhealthy relationships with men. Yet, there is almost no access to counseling in prison.
- Of the six women we met, most had been imprisoned during their 20’s. Almost all were pregnant when incarcerated or had children that were left with parents or grandparents. As we’ve discussed in our OPTIONS class, there is a gap in services for 20-something women who have “aged out” of programming for girls, yet who desperately need guidance in creating a plan to pursue a college degree, finding a job (and ultimately build a career) and improving parenting skills.
Prior to our visit, I spoke with Jennifer Dzwonar, Co-Chair of the Women’s Fund Communications Advisory Committee, who had already visited the prison, and she said something that struck me – she shared that these women could have been in our high school class; they are women we may interact with at the grocery store or while waiting in line at the post office. She was absolutely right.
The women we met are dynamic, optimistic and compassionate. They accept responsibility for their actions and all are focused on serving their communities both inside of prison and once they are released. They talked most about their kids, their parents, their challenges and their dreams. This is the type of conversation I have every day with my friends.
Photo credits: inumc.org; The Indianapolis Star (Danese Kenon)
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