From Jail to Prison and Back



Late last winter I received an email from NAMI Iowa. Was I interested in helping them put on a Peer-to-Peer training in a women’s prison? They needed a second “state trainer” with incarceration experience. (State trainers teach people how to facilitate the Peer-to-Peer class.)

Boy, was I interested! Facilitating Peer-to-Peer in the Washtenaw County Jail with Renee Blaze and Darlene Wetzel (and this term with Gizem Yagci) has been a deeply rewarding experience. The women are so very appreciative and so in need of information and support regarding how to live a better life with a mental health condition.

Incarcerated women may have attended Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, including while in jail or prison, or maybe in the past they’ve even been to substance abuse treatment facilities. By far most of them, however, have never had a chance to focus on the role their mental health challenges have played in their lives. It’s like offering water to people walking across a desert.

Picture for a moment what a prison and its inmates might look and feel like. . . . Do you see a large, dark, fortress-type building surrounded by barbwire and armed guards atop towers? Do you anticipate the women look like stereotypical, hardened criminals who don’t get along well together, are prone to violence and never laugh? That is what I assumed it would be, but it is not what I found, except the part about barbwire and guards.

The Iowa Correctional Institution for Women at Mitchellville is out in the country near a very small town about 40 miles from Des Moines. It looks and feels like a very small college campus. In late May there was green grass, trees and flowers, benches and picnic tables, and open walkways connecting the various buildings. The women I trained already knew each other and for the most part got along really well together. And, oh, the laughter!

I was surprised by their freedom to roam the campus without being escorted by guards. In the Washtenaw County Jail, inmates are always escorted and always in a group. Also, in the Iowa prison every woman had a job (which paid a paltry sum) and educational opportunities, whereas in our local jail the women are desperate for things to do with their time.

The training takes three long days, and it’s always an intensive experience — providing an opportunity for the trainers and trainees to get to know each other. I want to share some of what I learned about these 12 women. It changed my life, and now, just writing to you about it brings tears to my eyes.

In telling their stories (which is one small but very important part of Peer-to-Peer) most of them reported very serious abuse and neglect in early childhood — a great deal of trauma — which they carried forward into adult relationships involving sexual and other physical violence. Many of them “started going to jail” as teenagers.

Three of the women said what finally brought them to prison was “taking the rap” for a boyfriend or husband. They did this because, for example, “he would have gone to prison for the rest of his life, and I would only get 10 or 12 years.”

It was astonishing how many of them reported multiple suicide attempts and even being “brought back from the dead” by heroic measures. Some regretted surviving.

Few women mentioned the length of their prison sentence. A couple said less than five years. One woman, whom I liked enormously, has been there for 32 years and is “grateful to the state for taking care of me.” Another one, who could be my granddaughter, will be there for 21 years.

I don’t mean to be sensational. I’m trying to express their unique humanity. I treasured getting to know these women even a little bit, and I don’t know if I’m conveying the effect they had on me.

I went from being apprehensive (a little afraid) and judgmental to being filled with love, respect and even admiration. I am so incredibly fond of them! I am now more accepting of all people. I see so clearly I am the product of my experience — and so is everyone else. I guess you could say my heart has opened. . . .

My dearest hope is to be invited to return to Mitchellville to reconnect with these 12 dear souls and have a chance to get to work with another group of them.

Afterthought 24 hours later: I have no negative judgments about the Washtenaw County Jail, and I have a high regard for Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who is committed to providing mental health services to the great number of inmates living with mental health conditions. Jails and prisons are very different places, as I understand it, plus I think Mitchellville may be a very unique prison. I only know one jail and one prison. My experiences at both places have all been positive. But I don’t want to live there!

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