Decreasing Gaps in Service for Women Who Are Incarcerated

By: Jenny Stasio

Pretrial Services Victims Women in Jail August 2, 2019

American jails are housing more women than ever before. Some studies show that in the last two decades, the number of women in jail has grown twice as fast as that of men.

In Maine, we have long recognized that women enter the criminal justice system with a complex set of needs, including an extensive history of victimization. An internal study from 2003 showed that 93% of women incarcerated in Maine experienced abuse prior to incarceration, with many experiencing abuse across their lifespan beginning in early childhood.[1] Until recently, however, we were unable to address this issue. We were granted the opportunity to reach underserved women who are incarcerated and provide vital services to address these complex needs with the receipt of a Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund award.

Through These Doors is the domestic violence resource center located in Cumberland County, Maine’s most urban county. Maine Pre-Trial Services (MPS) and Through These Doors (TTD) have a history of partnering to hold people charged with domestic violence crimes accountable and to keep survivors safe. Our new initiative—Project Safe Release—builds upon this existing partnership and works to provide services for even more people impacted by this issue.

Project Safe Release was developed as an effort to decrease the gaps in services for women who are incarcerated, identify women who are in need of trauma services, and coordinate services. We began by cross-training the staff at our organizations to make connections and build buy-in for the project. During the first quarter of the project, the training covered domestic violence dynamics, the history of pre-trial services, and service delivery. Working within the justice system to address survivors’ complex needs is a daunting task fraught with barriers; approaching this work in collaboration creates built-in support and camaraderie for employees.  We then created protocols that will sustain the program for new staff, as well as written materials about our services and contact information.

The next step was to research, identify, and implement an assessment tool (we selected MOVERS: Measure of Victim Empowerment Related to Safety scale), and created a data system to monitor our progress. It is difficult to measure and quantify safety related to domestic and sexual violence because survivors do not have control over whether the abuse continues. The goal of MOVERS is to assess safety by measuring victim empowerment related to safety and understanding the level of empowerment survivors feel to manage their safety.

To date, 73 female defendants have been screened pre-arraignment at the Cumberland County Jail by MPS. Forty-five of these women self-identified as survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence. Of these 45, 38 voluntarily accepted written information about TTD and 26 signed release of information to allow for coordinated service delivery.  Over the past nine months, there has been an increase in referrals to TTD and enhanced partnership between both organizations. An increase in referrals indicates that more women are connecting with TTD for comprehensive victim services during their incarceration and post- release, which we believe correlates with increased safety-related empowerment.

We are honored to be part of the Safety and Justice Challenge to provide vital services to incarcerated survivors. This project presents a unique opportunity to safely release women who are on pre-trial contracts while also ensuring their safety in the community from partners who cause harm, thereby reducing the amount of time women remain in custody awaiting court proceedings.  As the project continues, we look forward to evaluating the data to determine if women report an increase in safety and sense of empowerment over time.

[1] “Building Bridges: A Support Group and Advocacy Program for Incarcerated Survivors of Domestic Violence in Cumberland County, Maine.” Kurzmann, Joanne (2003).

Implementation Guide

Interagency Collaboration Pretrial and Bail Women in Jail October 12, 2018

Case Study: Implementing Alternatives to Incarceration for Women in Rural Communities

Urban Institute

This case study examines how Campbell County, a rural community in Tennessee, designed and launched the Women In Need Diversion (WIND) program to address the particular needs of women in jail. Drawing on direct program observation and in-person interviews with WIND stakeholders, this case study looks at design and implementation of the program and its early outcomes. The study also highlights lessons for other rural communities, including the importance of relationship building, collaboration across local agencies, nonprofit organizations, and faith communities, and assessment tools to build knowledge about served populations and overall system capacity.

Keeping Women Out of Jail, One Mother at a Time

By: Nissa Rhee

Jail Populations Victims Women in Jail September 21, 2018

A special public defenders office set up to help women is keeping families together.

When Linda Meachum was arrested in Tulsa, OK last year for not paying her court fees and fines, she prepared to say goodbye to her two young granddaughters.

“I was doomed,” Linda told me. “I was fixing to be sent to prison to do the term of four years.”

Women are the fastest growing population behind bars in the United States today. And like Linda, nearly 80 percent of women in jail are mothers, according to a 2016 report by the Vera Institute of Justice. The same report says that women are now held in jails in nearly every jurisdiction across the country. Most of them are single mothers or the primary breadwinners for their families.

The devastation wrought by this trend is apparent in Oklahoma, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. For over 25 years, Oklahoma has put more women behind bars per capita than any other state.

In Tulsa, the jail has gone from housing an average of 8 women per day in 1970 to over 300 women per day in 2017. Most of the women have been charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes like shoplifting or failing to pay court fees.

Separated from their families and forced to leave their work, these women sit idle in large “pods,” watching TV or chatting as they wait for their cases to be resolved. It was in the Tulsa County jail this spring that I met Kami Barrett, a 30-year-old mother of three.

“Not being able to see my kids, that’s the hardest thing,” she told me. “I had them every day. Now I don’t have them at all. That’s what sucks.”

Her youngest daughter, aged five, was staying with Kami’s sister while her former partner was taking care of her  eight and nine-year-old. Such separation of siblings from mothers can have serious consequences. Kids with parents behind bars aresix times more likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves, and the numbers are worse for children of incarcerated mothers than fathers.

Kami could have walked out of the jail that day if only she could afford the $5,000 bond prescribed by the judge. But without the money, she was stuck behind bars, waiting for the court to decide whether she was guilty. Nationally, women are less likely than men to be able to bond out of jail.

Women behind bars are also more likely to have a history of trauma and abuse and have higher rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders.

For Linda Meachum, that combination meant her fate was all but sealed. The 57-year-old had been in prison twice before and her health was failing. A survivor of domestic violence, she told me she struggled with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder while living on less than $250 a month.

When the court mandated that she pay the government $40 every month as part of her probation in addition to the court fines of a previous case, she said she reached a breaking point. When Linda stopped paying the court fee, the sheriff issued a warrant for her arrest.

But Linda was one of the lucky ones. She ended up spending just eight days in jail. With the help of Still She Rises,  a mother-focused law firm in Tulsa, she was able to convince the judge to give her a second chance. Since being released in January, she has completed a 60-day rehabilitation program and is doing community service in lieu of paying the court fines. She even has plans to start a prison ministry to help women behind bars.

But not every woman arrested is so lucky. There are 212,000 women incarcerated in prisons and jails today—30 percent of the total number of incarcerated women worldwide. It is time we start hearing their voices and helping them find their way back to their families.

*Nissa Rhee is a reporter based in Chicago whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Reader, and Radio Netherlands Worldwide. She reported on women in Oklahoma prisons for 70 Million, an open-source podcast from Lantigua Williams & Co., made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Addressing the Unique Needs of Women with Mental Illness in the Justice System

By: Abbey Stamp

Jail Populations Mental Health Women in Jail August 30, 2018


In Multnomah County, Oregon, we are committed to addressing racial disparities in our local justice system, and to addressing the unique needs of those most directly impacted by jail incarceration.

One population that is particularly vulnerable to justice-system involvement is people with mental illness. In 2015, we conducted a study to identify ways in which we could safely divert these people away from jail and into other treatment services. Through our Mental Health Jail Diversion Feasibility Study, we discovered that African Americans who struggle with mental illness are over-represented in the local jail.

This was compounded by an additional report in 2016—released by Multnomah County in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge—that found African Americans in the county were six times more likely than whites to be in jail, despite only representing 6 percent of the local population.

Further, data provided by the county’s Department of Community Justice in 2017 showed that women with mental illness were sanctioned to jail more frequently on probation violations than women who were not struggling with mental health concerns. And, once in jail, women with mental illness stayed longer.

Based on these findings, Multnomah County’s public safety partners realized that we needed to develop more tailored responses to women—particularly women of color—who are involved in the justice system and suffering from mental illness.

This Fall, we are excited to launch one of these strategies: the first-of-its-kind transitional housing program in the county for adult women involved in the criminal justice system. The Diane Wade House will provide gender-responsive, trauma-informed services that are also Afrocentric. This means that residents, who must be referred to the program, will have access to culturally specific mental health stabilization and support services.

In addition to dormitory-style housing, the Diane Wade House will offer a variety of daytime services, including mentoring and life-skills programs. It is intended to be a low-barrier, transitional housing program, meaning that its eligibility requirements aim to reduce barriers to entry rather than place undue burdens on those who need housing and services.

The home will serve 38 justice-involved women referred by the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice and Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services. Twenty-one of those beds will be funded by the Safety and Justice Challenge, which supports efforts like ours to reduce unnecessary incarceration without compromising public safety—particularly for those struggling with mental health or addiction issues.

Diane Wade

Diane Wade has a special connection to Multnomah County. A parole and probation officer with the county’s Department of Community Justice, she was a leader in the African American community and best known for her advocacy and passion for justice-involved women. Wade worked with adults in Multnomah County from May 1999 until she passed away in October 2010. Most of her work was with women of color as a lead parole and probation officer with the African American Program as well as the Gang Unit.

As part of community-involvement requests from both the Safety and Justice Challenge and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, community members are providing input and feedback for the women’s program. This includes women who are currently or previously involved in the justice system. The Department of Community Justice will also launch a Community Advisory Board, made up of justice-involved women, to help guide ongoing program development and operations. The Advisory Board will include a current resident of the Diane Wade House.

Through these efforts, Multnomah County seeks to reduce the overrepresentation of women with mental illness in the criminal justice system, and help women develop a foundation for future stability and success.

Implementation Guide

Interagency Collaboration Jail Populations Women in Jail December 20, 2016

Effective Programs and Practices for Women in the Justice System

National Association of Counties

While the overall jail population in the U.S has increased nearly five-fold since 1970, the number of women in jails has increased fourteen-fold, making women the fastest-growing population in jails. Watch this webinar to learn from the Vera Institute of Justice, St. Louis County, Mo., and Solano County, Calif., about what is driving the increase in women’s incarceration and ways that counties can reverse the trend.