Gazette opinion: Community must connect with prison inmates

2014-07-14T00:00:00Z 2014-07-18T15:34:06Z Gazette opinion: Community must connect with prison inmates The Billings Gazette
July 14, 2014 12:00 am

Alta Littlelight is training her eighth dog in Prison Paws. She is one of 34 inmates whose good behavior has earned them a spot in the dog pod.

These women train adoptable dogs from local animal rescues and shelters so they will be better pets. Prison Paws is just one of many ways the Billings community is helping inmates at Montana Women’s prison.

Vegetables flourish in a large garden and greenhouse on the prison grounds. Tended under the direction of a master gardener who volunteers, the garden provides regular jobs for eight inmates. Inmates working in the prison garden also started most of the vegetable plants now growing at the Billings Food Bank garden in Oscar’s Park.

More than 300 people volunteer at the prison, including many from faith-based groups, said Warden Joan Daly. The prison also contracts with several community organizations to bring in parenting education and other classes.

About 80 percent of the inmates have minor children. Family Tree Center, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child abuse, supervises mother-child visits and provides parenting and nutrition classes for inmates who are moms. Executive Director Stacy Dreessen said her agency is talking to the prison about adding more contract time so Family Tree Center staff can do more advocacy for inmates who need to address issues for themselves and their children.

‘Thinking for Change’

“The prison in the past two years has really focused on re-entry,” Dreessen said. “The staff is innovative.”

Alta Littlelight last saw her daughters in 2007. They are now teens and live out of state with their father. Littlelight, 31, first went to prison at age 23 and has been there for most of the

years since.

The longest time she was out was nine months in a Department of Corrections addiction treatment program. Then she walked away from prerelease and went back to prison for escape.

Her last time outside was a 10-day furlough during which she “gave up” on doing all the things she needed to do by herself the way her parole officer said she needed to do them.

“I got high on meth, that’s why I went back to prison,” she said in a recent interview.

Still, Littlelight said she has gained insight into her criminal thinking and alcoholism. She didn’t run away and she didn’t drink. She credits a new prison class “Thinking for Change,” for helping her learn how to behave differently.

She hopes to resume that class in August. Her next parole board hearing will be in June 2015.

Asked what would have helped her re-enter the community, Littlelight said: “We need people to be supportive of us. We do stumble and fall.”

Mentors needed

Larry Gaalswyk has worked to build that support, first as a volunteer in TEAM mentoring, now as part of a Montana State University Billings program.

Several years ago the MSU Billings extended campus was awarded a federal Department of Justice grant to start a formal mentoring program for inmates. The program begins with group mentoring in prison and continues with pairs of unpaid volunteer mentors continuing to work with women after their release.

The university project served 45 inmates, Gaalswyk said, “We clearly have reduced recidivism.”

Unfortunately, the grant has run out so the MSU Billings program is ending. However, Gaalswyk has committed to providing mentors for the inmates already in the program through TEAM mentoring.

The benefits of having Montana Women’s Prison in Billings are clear: Many opportunities for positive community connections in Montana’s largest city. Those connections must be maintained and expanded so that when female inmates “stumble and fall” there is someone to help guide them to a better path. The prison and DOC must continue reaching out to community resources. The community must respond. Right now the need is for mentors.

Tuesday’s Gazette opinion will focus on the Montana Legislature’s role in reducing recidivism.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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