Saturday, June 27, 2009

Treatment Instead of Prison - A Cost Effective Alternative

A recent audit of Wisconsin's inmate population identified 31% of prisoners as having some form of mental illness. The Women of Block 12 are no exception. They talk openly about their depression and anxiety or family history of mental illness. Some are aware of more serious diagnoses such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol believing they are just plain losers.

The issue of undiagnosed, untreated, mental illness is a major problem for our nation's prisons and jails. Punishment of the mentally ill is inhumane and archaic. We need a more effective system of care that prevents incarceration. Communities across the country are exploring treatment alternatives that are proving to be more effective and less expensive.

In a June 26th article from the Albany Times Union, writer Paul Grondal, discusses one program for dealing with mentally ill individuals who would otherwise go to jail.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

The War On Drugs

The Women of Block 12 rarely discuss their criminal cases but they readily admit to their addictions and the shame of being incarcerated. Over the past 7 years, I have learned the following:

  • The women grieve the things they have lost as a result of their choices - jobs, homes, family ties, reputations, the right to care for their children.
  • For many this is not their first arrest but just one stop in a seemingly endless cycle of substance abuse and incarceration. Their drugs of choice include alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and others.
  • Many are mentally ill and take drugs to self-medicate.
  • They feel helpless to change their circumstances.
  • Most are non-violent offenders incarcerated for crimes related to their addiction.
  • According to the Department of Justice, the Women of Block 12 belong to a growing population of over one million non-violent offenders incarcerated in prisons and jail across the United States. These offenses involve neither harm, nor threat of harm, to a victim.
  • Offenders, such as these women, are hopelessly entangled in "the war on drugs" a flawed system of beliefs and policies that has failed to solve the problem of their criminal activities.
  • There can be no end to the cycle of addiction and incarceration until we see clear to separate those who have social and medical needs from those who are violent offenders.

Do You Remember Me?

One evening, in the visitor's lobby of the jail, a young woman walked up to me. "Linda, do you remember me?" she asked.

I scanned my memory for recognition and before I could answer, she filled me in. "I'm Tanya from Block 12. I was in your class last year. I'm going to college now and I'm doing really good!"

She put her arm around the young girl standing next to her. "Honey, this is one of the ladies who took care of mommy when she was away."

The Tanya I remembered bore no resemblance to the beautifully groomed, self-assured young woman who stood before me. A year ago, in our jail ministry class, she looked like all the others, tired, depressed and dressed in orange. What a joy to see her on the outside!

"I came to visit a friend," she said giving me a hug. "I knew you'd be here tonight. It's Wednesday. You always came on Wednesdays. I can't thank you enough."

You're welcome, Tanya. Your success is all the thanks I need.

Women Offenders

"Women tend to commit less violent offenses and are more known for committing what are commonly referred to as female offenses: prostitution, embezzlement, forgery, and counterfeiting." (Fact Sheet, female Offenders, Terri Adams-Fuller, Institute for public Safety & Justice, 2001).

This is truly a profile of the women we meet in our Jail Ministry group on Wednesday nights. While the women do not share the details of their offenses, they admit to many of the above mentioned crimes. Over the past seven years, many of the women have shared their personal stories for my upcoming book - The Women Of Block 12: Voices From A Jail Ministry.

Read Melissa's story, now posted at

Holy Ground

When I visit the county jail, on Wednesday nights, there is never a time when I feel afraid or threatened. Of course, officers in the control room watch our every move and each volunteer wears an alarm for emergencies. The alarms work very well, by the way. We tend to be careless and set them off from time to time.

But my sense of security comes from another source. Christ calls us to visit him in prison (Matthew 25:36) and I believe he is there when we answer the call.

Music At The Jail

Thirty years ago, I met a praying woman who changed the course of my life and although her name is erased from my memory, her ministry is not. She led a women's prayer group at the church I was attending and taught us how to praise God with words and music. She would offer a prayer and teach us a song (accompanied on her auto harp) - prayer, song, prayer, song until the petitions of everyone in the room were brought before the Lord. Only then would the evening end.

I saved all the copies of those songs. A few years ago, I rediscovered them while rummaging in the bottom of the piano bench, bought myself an auto harp (the new electronic one by Suzuki), practiced awhile, and took it to the jail.

Every Wednesday night we sing our little hearts out and the women tell me it's the best part of our time together. They memorize those songs and take them home to their families or on to prison, sharing them with other inmates.

THANK YOU music and worship lady - whoever you are! You have blessed hundreds with your ministry.

Our Heart's Desire

We had fifteen women in the Wednesday night group. The limit is twelve but I have a hard time saying 'no.' While passing out pencils and notebooks, I commented, to one of the regulars, that some of them might show up for the free stuff.

"Oh, no!" she said. "We discourage that in the block. I tell them not to bother coming to this group unless they want to learn something. "

We read excerpts from Joyce Meyer's new book, 100 Ways to Simplify Your Life. The topic was "Follow Your Heart." They were asked to think about their heart's desire - what God has called them to do.

All fifteen raised their hand to speak. The usual giggling and silliness stopped, for a moment as each listened to the dreams of the others.

"I want to get clean and sober and be an example for others."

" I want to be a good mother."

"I want to be a missionary."

I'd like to join the Peace Corps."

"I want to be a singer on American Idol."

"I'd like to volunteer in a NICU. My children were both preemies."

'I want to build homes for children in Africa."

The responses were both surprising and heartwarming. And while many of those dreams are unrealistic (for now) I believe God put them in their hearts to help them reach for higher goals. And if this moment of dreaming helps the women of Block 12 in their struggle toward sober living I have reached my own heart's desire for the day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Our Nation's Non-Violent Offenders

"Women are the fastest growing and least violent segment of prison and jail populations. 85% are behind bars for non-violent offenses." (John Irwin, Ph.D., Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg, America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners (Washington DC: Justice Policy Institute, March 1999) pgs. 6-7).

THE WOMEN OF BLOCK 12 certainly seem to fit the above criteria. Over the last 7 years I have met several hundred inmates (10 or 12 at a time) who attend our Wednesday evening group. They are housed at the county jail for a variety of reasons: drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, petty theft, DWI, parole violations etc.

None of the women have ever said to me, "I don't belong here." They understand and accept the consequences of breaking the law, but they continue to do it over and over again because their options are limited.

Studies have shown alternative methods (i.e. mental health/substance abuse treatment programs, housing, job training, education opportunities) cost much less and are far more effective in reducing recidivism that locking offenders up for a few months or years and then returning them to the streets with the same coping skills. These women will be our neighbors whether or not we get involved.

Drumming At The Jail

Since the beginning of our ministry, we have been blessed by the talent of several young musicians who volunteered their time teaching the women to drum. Angie, a music therapist got us started several years ago, helped us to chose the right instruments (which our St. Dismas Ministry paid for), and sold everybody on the idea that drumming was great therapy. Next, we had April and more recently Judene and Kristie. Their contributions have been a true blessing!

Drum night (1x per month) is popular - 14 women yesterday. They came to us sad and weary from the stress of living in jail. One has not been outside in the fresh air for 2 years (still waiting for trial and prison). An hour later, everything had changed. We were drumming to our little hearts' content. What a joy to see their faces! We made beautiful music together. The jail captain paid a surprise visit bringing members of her church to watch us. I heard she was smiling!

Thank you, ever so much, Angie, April, Judene & Kristie.

Why Jail Ministry?

People often ask me, "Why Jail Ministry?" Seven years ago, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to write a newsletter for our county jail. You might say I was 'called' to the job - the story can be found in chapter 3 of my upcoming book The Women of Block 12: Voices From a Jail Ministry. A year later, I found myself leading a weekly writing group for women inmates - and I'm still there. It has been the most incredible and rewarding journey of my life.

A recent article by Lois Solomon in the Sun Sentinel talks about faith and character based programs offered by correctional facilities in Florida and other states. She quotes National recidivism rates of 50 - 60% and says that institutions offering such programs are helping to lower the rate of prisoner returns. Preliminary Florida state statistics are indicating recidivism rates as low as 10% for faith-based programs.

Why Jail Ministry? My answer is simple. "I believe it works."

The Women of Block 12

My father used to say, “Those people are cut from a different cloth,” referring to anyone who didn’t act or live the way we did. The phrase was his response to news stories covering crimes of passion, drunk driving accidents, even race riots. It was his excuse for religious wars in the Middle East and the unusual lifestyles of Hippies and Flower Children. With words like, ‘cut from a different cloth,’ Dad somehow justified a person’s actions giving him the benefit of the doubt and placing some burden of guilt on his circumstances. I believe it was a term he used to explain the behaviors of people he didn’t understand and it helped him to make sense of a world that was supposed to be filled with love and kindness.

It was the 1950’s. Our family belonged to a group of educated suburbanites who went to church every week and believed Ozzie and Harriet were our neighbors. Crime was something that happened in the city and people of a ‘different cloth’ rarely crossed our path.

I learned to see myself as better than others and came to define our family and the place we lived as somehow superior. In our neighborhood, people followed the rules – or tried to. Never mind the man who had a heart attack two blocks from home in his girlfriend’s bed or the mother who drove the family car into the garage and closed the door with the engine running. And there was the pastor who favored altar boys and the football coach who slept with cheerleaders. Those were the exceptions. We were different. Our cloth was of a finer grade.

As a child of that culture, I learned to play the ‘judgment game,’ a flawed and cruel custom in which I measured others by the yardstick of my own self-worth. It was easy to play and I’d catch myself practicing whenever I was in the presence of others. On the job, in public, at church, I’d search for comparisons; people who were younger, older, fatter, thinner, smarter, or wealthier. The options were endless and someone always came up the loser.

While my parents served on church committees, I served myself. They taught me to sit in the front pew. I felt safer in the back. From there I could critique the rest of the congregation and give at a distance – checks in the offering plate, groceries for the food pantry – and never touch anyone who was different. Over the years, the burden of these beliefs weighed heavily on my life and I turned inward, pulling my finely woven cloth firmly around me to shut out the world and other hurting people.

God knew I needed a large dose of humility, the kind you swallow when you realize you’re no better than anyone else. So, he called me to ministry at the county jail where I was asked to teach a journaling class. There, in a tiny barber-shop-turned-classroom, I met the women who would change my life forever.

We gathered on Wednesday nights, a mismatched group of strangers crammed into a room just big enough to seat twelve around a table. I handed out paper and pencils to women dressed in orange who lived in suburban mansions, working class row houses and the ghetto. Over the past six years, there have been hundreds of them – mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers. They represent every race, religion and ethnic group in our community.

Any ideas I had about being different have been put to rest. The jail is a great equalizer and the barbershop a melting pot. In that room, no one really cares which neighborhood you come from or the cut of your cloth. We are simply women and the boundaries that separate us have become less defined, ragged, like edges of a torn piece of fabric that you can never quite piece back together.

I came to the jail to be a teacher, but God had other plans. He wanted me to learn. And my instructors are women of a ‘different cloth,’ women who have opened their hearts to teach me about life, faith, and the meaning of friendship.