National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women

Innovator: Superintendent Jane Parnell and Washington Corrections Center for Women: Progress in Implementing Gender-Responsive Action Plan/Women’s Village Concept

The population of incarcerated women in Washington State has increased steadily since January, 2011. In January 2014, more than 1,300 women were incarcerated in Washington State Department of Corrections’ facilities.

In 2008 the Washington State Department of Corrections hired a group of national consultants to conduct a policy analysis and develop a Master Plan for Female Offenders. This report provided the department with key findings and recommendations for action in a number of key areas including: gender responsive assessment, classification, and case management for women; evidence-based and gender-specific programs; and housing, programming, and service capacity and development.  The analysis that led to the development of the Master Plan was also the impetus for the department’s commitment to developing and implementing policies and practices specific to women. In 2013, the department formalized its Gender Responsive Initiative, which among other activities, has led to the development of an agency policy for Gender Responsiveness and deliberate efforts to design and implement a gender responsive risk and needs assessment.

The Washington Department of Corrections develops gender-responsive policies and procedures under its Gender Responsive Initiative.  Goals of the initiative include:

  • Defining a culture that is relationship focused, trauma informed, sensitive to the sexual/gender orientation and needs of the individuals.
  • Reviewing the Offender Health Plan to ensure gender responsivity.
  • Implementing a gender responsive assessment tool and developing a corresponding case management process.
  • Ensuring the classification system accurately assesses the female population.
  • Increasing gender responsive programming to serve female offenders.

To read more about WADOC’s goals, desired outcomes, and accomplishments, click here.

Interview with Superintendent Jane Parnell

The NRCJIW had the opportunity to interview Jane Parnell, Superintendent of the Washington Corrections Center for Women, the largest facility for women inmates in the state, about her experiences supporting the state-wide effort to improve responses to women inmates. She also described the Women’s Village, an inmate community concept that has successfully changed the culture in the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Q Can you tell me a little about your career in corrections? How did you become interested in working with justice involved women?

A I wanted to work in corrections since I was in 8th grade – I actually wanted to be a juvenile probation and parole officer. And then in college I became interested in women’s studies in addition to corrections. Over my 34 years with corrections I have worked in facilities, in the community, and in headquarters. As a probation and parole officer, I had both women and men on my caseload but hadn’t thought about the differences too much. It was when I became Associate Superintendent of WCCW that I found my passion to work with women. My mentor Belinda D. Stewart (Superintendent at the time) had helped me to understand the differences between working with women (versus working with men). I have served as Superintendent of Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) since August 2010.

Q It is our understanding that the Washington Department of Corrections is currently implementing a Gender Responsive Action Plan to address the unique needs of women. How did the department come to recognize the need for a gender-responsive action plan?

A When I was hired in 2010, the Department Secretary at the time told me that I was to be a voice for women in corrections. I would sit in Superintendent meetings with 15 of my peers and the majority of the conversation was about the male offenders since they outnumbered the women. Shortly after I become Superintendent, a new Secretary (Bernard Warner) came on board; he has provided more support for gender-responsive approaches than we’ve ever seen before. The department worked with Dr. Emily Salisbury to update the department’s master plan for providing gender-responsive and trauma-informed services. The conduct of a Gender-Responsive Planning and Implementation Summit followed, which built momentum by bringing together key stakeholders to develop action steps for meeting our goals.

Q What are some of the steps you are planning or have taken to enhance gender and trauma-informed care at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW)?

A It’s a work in progress. We have for more than five years now provided “Pathways and Perspectives” Training to all staff members (including uniform staff, educators, medical staff, cooks, etc.). This is a 2-day training that covers the pathways that bring women to prison and the important differences between men and women. It is required for every staff person prior to working at WCCW.

“Many women do not even recognize the role that past trauma has played in their pathway to crime. Our staff must recognize [the importance of trauma] before we can expect the women to.”

-Jane Parnell, Superintendent, WCCW

While we provide trauma-informed programming to offenders at WCCW (the facility offers Moving On, Healing Trauma, Helping Women Recover and Beyond Trauma, e.g.), we recognize a need to include trauma informed information in our in-service training for staff. We are adding more about the results of women’s trauma to a new trauma-informed care curriculum which we will pilot in May 2014. An example of some of its content is for staff to be aware of body language and how close they stand to the woman. For instance, we have a male chemical dependency officer who is really large and we realized that his physical presence in itself could be intimidating for a woman. He now realizes the importance of sitting down when he talks to offenders. We also have become aware of the possibilities of triggering a traumatic response from women when they visit the dentist. Being in a chair with her feet higher than her head – in a powerless position – could be retraumatizing for a trauma survivor. The dentist now explains to the offender what will happen ahead of time and lets her know that she can take a break if she needs to.

Q What have been some of the most challenging parts of building a more gender-responsive and trauma-informed facility?

A At times it has been challenging to coordinate changes in policy and practice across the different DOC divisions. For example, in order to put a program at WCCW, we need get approval from the Department’s Division of Programming. Therefore, it is essential that they understand the need to tailor programming for women. Another example: When the DOC originally developed its offender health plan, it did not take into account the differences between women and men (with the exception of OBGYN services). We have to make sure that the Department’s health services division is bought in so we can ensure that dental and medical services look different for women.

There was some push back from officers who thought that our new practices with women would not hold them accountable. Some thought being gender-responsive meant that we would give women everything they wanted. We learned that it was critical to talk with staff and educate them that you can do both – be gender responsive and hold women accountable for their behavior. I emphasize with all new staff that we want to hold offenders accountable but we also want them to be successful. An example I often use is a woman who has a positive urinalysis. I tell staff that we need to both hold her accountable but also understand that she uses drugs for different reasons than men. If we only respond to her usage of drugs, but not the underlying reasons why she is using (e.g., trauma), we are wasting our time and resources. We must understand what is driving their behavior.

Q I understand that you are currently operating a program called The Women’s Village. How did the program get started?

A The Women’s Village is an effort developed primarily by inmates for inmates. It started in February 2011 with about a dozen women at WCCW who were long term offenders who wished to create a safe and positive environment in which to live and work – for both women and staff. Some staff were also involved in the creation of the Village; a Mental Health Provider and the Associate of Programs provided oversight. About 350 offenders currently participate in The Village.

The Women’s Village Mission:

Encourage and foster an atmosphere of change in our community by harnessing our unique strengths, together as individuals, to create a new culture based on the pursuit of excellence.

The Women’s Village Values:

  1. Respect
  2. Honesty
  3. Compassion
  4. Diversity
  5. Self-empowerment
  6. Education
  7. Usefulness
  8. Commitment

To read the Women’s Village pamphlet, click here.

Q Are there selection criteria for inmates to participate in The Women’s Village?

A The Village is open to all women. While other programs at the facility are incentive based – that is offenders can only participate when they display good behavior – the women who started The Village thought that the inmates who needed it the most were those women with infractions. Membership in The Village is therefore granted based on commitment, not behavior.

Q Can you tell me about the key components of the program? What are the roles and responsibilities of the inmates and staff?

A A village council provides leadership to The Village, meeting twice per month with the Associate of Programs. Each member chairs one of eight subcommittees: Education, Violence Reduction/Morale Building, Re-entry, Sustainable Accountability, Peer Support, Health and Wellness/Spirituality, and Family Support. Offenders are expected to develop and regularly update a strategic plan for each subcommittee’s work. A staff person provides oversight to the subcommittees.

Members of the village are expected to participate in three orientation sessions, complete two self-help classes per year (these may include for example, NA, AA, education classes, religious groups), maintain the values of The Village (and sign an agreement stating this), and develop at least one personal goal to work towards. Members also have the opportunity to meet in accountability circles to discuss the challenges they are facing with other women in The Village and to report back on progress in reaching their personal goals.

Q How is conflict and/or violence handled within the Women’s Village?

A When a woman is sent to segregation, she takes a survey and is given information about peer mentoring. Through this survey the woman has an opportunity to discuss her issues in writing with another offender, who is part of the Village. Once she is release from segregation, the offender then has an opportunity to participate in peer-to-peer groups. The benefit of this is that it may prevent future violence from taking place. Another option the women have is called “restorative circles/conflict resolution.” This is a formal process in which a woman can ask to participate in a meeting with staff and the conflicting parties to see if they can resolve their issues. We are also working with Dr. Marilyn Van Dieten of Orbis Partners to pilot a class about healthy relationships for the women.

Why should WCCW endorse The Women’s Village?

As women are empowered to change, the environment will change, as well. The facility will become a more secure, stable environment as people change themselves and their behavior. WCCW will become a place of growth, learning and rehabilitation. This will result in the added benefit of releasing healthy, whole, well-equipped and educated women back into the community.

-The Women’s Village Handbook, 2014

Q What benefits have you seen in WCCW as a result of The Women’s Village?

A Overall we have witnessed intangible benefits from the Women’s Village such as increased offender accountability, women with enhanced self-esteem and a greater sense of civic responsibility, and less tension between offenders and staff. We’ve also seen an increase in participation in classes and programming.

The work of the subcommittees in the Village has produced a number of benefits for the facility’s culture.  The Environmental subcommittee created a recycling program in the facility and has created a Certified Wildlife Habitat recognized by the National Wildlife Federation. The subcommittee also created a project that now offers "sustainability lectures" each month for the women. The purpose of the project is to bring science and nature into prisons and help reduce the environmental, economic, and human costs of prisons by inspiring and informing sustainable practices. Scientists and community members active in conservation and sustainability share their passion and knowledge with the women on wide ranging topics: wildlife biology, hydrology, innovations in composting, energy and biofuels, native plant identification, and reconciling science and religion.

Perhaps one of the most striking benefits has been an increase in educational opportunities for the women.  Since there were no public funds for higher education in correctional facilities in Washington, the Education Subcommittee sent requests to colleges and universities in our area asking professors to volunteer their time to teach the same classes at WCCW that they teach to students in their universities.  Out of this work the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS) was developed. This program has provided more than 12 college courses in WCCW since 2012 in which the women can receive college credits.

The purpose of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS) is to promote the importance of quality higher education opportunities to people in and after prison.  We offer a rigorous college program inside the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW) and work to increase access to educational opportunity for prisoners and former prisoners in Washington State.  We strive to build a model of accreditation and college-in-prison that can be replicated state-wide and to collaborate with universities through research, teaching and conferences.  To see more, visit: http://fepps.org/.

Q How have staff reacted to The Women’s Village?

A When the program first began, custody staff were concerned about letting offenders work one-on-one and mentor each other. A lot of staff had heard rumors about the Village, but didn’t understand it.

One of the ways we dealt with this was to add a class on The Women’s Village to the annual in-service training for the facility. Some of the staff working with The Village’s subcommittees teach the class. This really helped.

Having them see for themselves the changes in the women’s behavior also helped staff to gain more acceptance of the Village.  For instance, staff would say they couldn’t have imagined a certain offender turning around without seeing it for themselves. While there is still dissent among a small portion of our staff, the majority of staff today understand the Village and support it.

Q Have there been any internal or external evaluations or reviews of the program?

A In the past Department of Corrections received training from the Vera Institute on how to measure process and outcome data in our programs. Using the skills we learned from that training, we are hoping to develop a plan to measure outcomes from The Women’s Village. Some of the measures that we plan to collect include: infractions, grievances, investigations, violence, costs (transfers), use of segregation, visitation, completion of gender-responsive programming, communication between staff and offenders, homeless releases, and number of children reunited with parent upon release.

Q What lessons from your own experiences working with incarcerated women can you share with your colleagues around the country?

A My advice to my colleagues is to never give up on being a voice for women offenders. Women will always be the minority. If we don’t speak for them, we only help them to continue being powerless and we will not be doing the right thing. Never give up being a voice for the women.

Q What resources have you found to be particularly impactful or helpful in your efforts?

A The technical assistance and resources provided by the National Institute of Corrections and the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women have been very helpful to us. Also, we appreciate the work of Dr. Marilyn Van Dieten of Orbis Partners, Dr. Emily Salisbury, Portland State University, and Maureen Buell of NIC in helping us to develop gender responsive policy and practice.

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