Gazette opinion: Too many inmates return to Montana Women’s Prison

2014-07-13T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Too many inmates return to Montana Women’s Prison The Billings Gazette
July 13, 2014 12:00 am

Montana’s only women’s prison is out of space. With a capacity of 194, it had 196 inmates on a recent weekday. Twenty-eight other inmates were being held in county jails, awaiting a bed at the prison on South 27th Street.

One of the biggest factors in the prison population size is that many women are released only to return again and again. Between 2000 and 2009, the Montana Women’s Prison recidivism rate fluctuated between 26 percent and 43 percent, according to the Montana Department of Corrections biennial report. For 2009, the most recent year for which the recidivism rate has been calculated, the rate was 36.8 percent. That means more than a third of the women released from the prison came back within three years.

Only 9 percent of inmates released were convicted of new crimes. The rest violated the conditions of their community supervision. Each instance of recidivism is a failure of the individual and of a system that is just beginning to ramp up the many supports inmates need for successful re-entry to the community.

Former inmates need housing, jobs, health care and people who can help them maintain a law-abiding, drug-free lifestyle. Female inmates also must provide for their minor children. About 80 percent of the women in the Billings prison have young children.

The average time in prison for those women who get released is 17 months, according to DOC. Each average stay cost us taxpayers more than $54,400 in 2012. Most of the women in this prison are addicted to alcohol or other drugs (meth and prescription narcotics are the most prevalent after alcohol). Policy changes are needed to provide:

- Mentoring for all women for several months before release and after release.

- A re-entry plan for all inmates that the inmate helps to write because she is the one who has to make it work.

- Affordable access to health care, especially mental health and addiction treatment.

- Jobs and affordable housing.

Tami Kinshella is serving 120 months on convictions for theft and robbery. She tried to hold up a casino with a BB gun while intoxicated.

Kinshella is on her fourth stay at the prison. She says drinking and drugs contributed to her problems with the law and the loss of her children. But in a recent interview, Kinshella said she has finally changed. Her plan upon release is to work with a faith-based organization that helps youth avoid the addiction problems that she has suffered. For now, Kinshella works in the prison kitchen four days a week.

“It’s actually a good place,” Kinshella said of the prison. “I’ve gotten close to God. I’ve got peace. I learned patience and tolerance.”

Kimberly Bloss went through the six-month WATCh treatment program for felony DUI offenders, was released and got another DUI and received a 60-month sentence. She cleans the prison chapel, assists the chaplains and helps in the library.

“I absolutely will not drink and drive,” she said in a recent interview. “Drinking has not served me well.”

Among six inmates The Gazette recently interviewed, all expressed optimism that they will make it on the outside next time they are released. But statistics indicate that two or three of them will come back.

“We’re learning so much more about what makes that happen; we hope to cut it,” Warden Joan Daly said.

Under Daly’s leadership, new classes and treatment programs are being introduced because they meet “best practice” standards. That means scientifically valid research has shown that the program improves outcomes for inmates. Twelve detention officers have been trained and reassigned as re-entry officers to work with inmates on the inmates’ plans for building a life in the community.

What do inmates need to succeed? Daly has a list: support systems, a livable wage, housing and hope that comes from family or friends.

Monday’s Gazette opinion will focus on Billings community resources for reducing recidivism.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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