Until recently, men and women were treated the same in Washington state prisons. They wore the same clothes, ate the same food, were given the same services. But it doesn’t have to take references to Mars and Venus to know that men and women are different. So recently, a lot of changes have been made at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor thanks to something called the Gender Responsiveness Action Plan. It covers seemingly small things, like offering women emery boards, women’s socks and more options than the standard sports bra.
“If you’re a woman, you know how important a bra is!” says 27-year-old inmate, Felicia Dixon.
“It’s something small, but it’s something that needs to be addressed. A bigger busted woman can’t wear a sports bra and get the support she needs. Not only that, being in a women’s facility and having men around a lot, it’s important that you’re wearing a proper bra.”
Women can now purchase Midol from the canteen.
“When you’re dealing with menstrual symptoms, it can get kind of rough during that time,” says 38-year-old offender, Tanya Wilson. “So it was really a godsend for them to recognize that and to make it available.”
Tanya has been incarcerated for 12 years for two counts of first degree attempted murder in a drive-by shooting. A nail file or Midol may sound like nothing, but try to think about your life without them.
“A lot of things make your life bearable. Not comfortable, but just bearable,” said Tanya. “We really understand that our punishment for committing crimes is to be in this place. I think a common misconception is that after we get here, there are things that we should lack that should be extra punishment. Our punishment is to be away from our family, it’s to have our autonomy curtailed, not to make us feel as if we don’t deserve small creature comfort. That is one of the things that make people feel like humans and make them feel like they’re a part of something, which is important for somebody who is going to reintegrate back into society. Because you want somebody to feel a part of as opposed to isolated from.”
WCCW Superintendent, Jane Parnell, says it makes a difference in a woman’s recovery.
“Just think about self-esteem when you feel better, when you look better. That way the focus is not on these dang socks. Then the focus can be on ‘What changes do I need to make in life?'”
But even more important than these tangible items, which cost the state absolutely nothing since the inmates or their families are purchasing them, is how the inmates are treated.
Superintendent Parnell says 75% of women in prison have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused. They need counseling to realize that the crimes they committed are a result of the abuse they were subjected to. So when a woman like Felicia leaves prison, she won’t make the same mistakes.
“I deserve an education because if you put me here at 18 and you send me out at 35 and I have no education? I’m coming back. If I come back, it’s just going to continue over and over again. But if you equip me with the tools while I’m here, to educate myself, to understand where I fit into the bigger world, then I’ll be able to make it, I’ll be able to adjust, and I’ll be able to hopefully change the world as cliche as that is.”
All of the prison employees are now required to do a two day trauma training so they can see what might trigger a woman who has been abused.
“When you think about going to a dentist’s office and often times you have this heavy thing put over you for the x-rays, and you’re laid back on your back and you’ve got somebody working on you,” explains Superintendent Parnell. “Now think about the powerlessness of that position. So, for example, what we’re trying to train our staff is to just recognize the powerlessness and how that might feel for a woman who has been abused or traumatized. Just little awarenesses that give women (their) power back.”
There are also many elderly female inmates with dementia and other ailments who need care, so WCCW is selecting 60 long term inmates to go through a certified nursing assistant program.
“They’re partnering with Tacoma Community College to get a training program here so that she will be fully equipped and trained to take care of fellow offenders who have reached an advanced age and who need extra care,” said Tanya.
Also, nursing offenders are now allowed to pump their breast milk so it can be frozen and picked up by their baby’s caretaker on the outside.
I think the most important thing to remember here is that these women are people. People who made mistakes, but need guidance if we want them to reenter society as law abiding and responsible members of society. We should help them, bring them up. Not make them feel worse than they already do.
“People see us as felons, as convicts, as these horrible, heinous people who committed all of these crimes,” said Felicia. “When the reality is, for the most part, they’re usually one time incidents and they’re things that, yes, happened, but they don’t make us who we are. How would you want your mother to be treated if she came to prison? Do you want her to be stripped of her identity, to lose who she is? Or do you want her to find better choices and come out a better person than when she came in here?”