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I work as a therapist in an all-female prison. My clients all have extensive criminal histories, addiction problems and mental health issues. The women I work with are on track to get released in the next year — our program prepares them for that.
Every morning, I walk through a metal detector and then through two glass doors. There’s a person in between the doors who decides if your attire is appropriate. I once wore skinny jeans and they had to bring the lieutenant down to decide if it was okay. I don’t wear skinny jeans anymore. I’m allowed to have with me: a small cosmetic case-sized clear bag, my prison ID, a Chapstick, a factory-sealed water bottle, and two small granola bars. I’m allowed to carry change, but no pennies, because pennies are conductive in bomb-making. Bills can only be 1’s and 5’s and can add up to no more than $25. The only thing you can use money for in the prison is the vending machine anyway. I can have Tylenol or Advil but it has to be a closed travel-pack. I can’t have snack food at all. I can’t have M&M’s on my desk.
The women I work with are dealing with tremendous fear. Mostly, it’s about getting a job and adjusting to the outside world. It’s very hard, because they will be lucky to land a job at a gas station making $50 a day. And they know that they’ll be able to make many times that by pushing drugs in the streets or selling their bodies for sex. I try to guide them to making better decisions.
The inmates in our program are mostly well-behaved, because their parole will be violated and their sentences will be increased if they act violently or threaten anyone while in our program, which lasts 6 months. Around 20 percent don’t make it through the program, mostly they’re kicked out for acting violently or breaking confidentiality rules. So if a woman is going around the prison saying, “In group today, so-and-so admitted she had molested her younger brother,” she will be kicked out for gossiping. If women are plotting something illegal they’ll also be kicked out. We had some women who were organizing a prostitution ring and trying to recruit other women in the program to be part of it.
It’s hard to deal with people you don’t have much compassion for — whether it’s sex offenders or someone who just strikes a nerve with you. Sometimes you remember someone from the newspaper.
“Lifers” — women who’ve been in prison for decades — work as mentors in our program. It’s hard not to have empathy for them. Most of them really messed up when they were 18 or so, and now they’re going to be here for the rest of their lives. They had a threatening boyfriend, or got caught up in a gang, and ended up in a car full of drugs next to a dead body. At this point, you’d pretty much let them babysit your kids. But they’re here, brushing their teeth with a two-inch-long prison toothbrush for the rest of their lives. Their greatest pleasure is getting to have vanilla ice cream once a year.
It’s hard for them to have compassion for some of the girls who are back for a second or third sentence. They don’t have compassion for these people who got a second chance and ended up back here anyway. They know the world out there is tough, but they’d do anything to say, get to go to their son’s funeral who was shot in the streets.
My family and friends think I’m going to get killed on my job. I’m not. My job is very stressful, but these women are not animals. They’re good people who did really bad things.
As told to Hillary Reinsberg