Helping women break the prison cycle
by Netta S. Eisler
For many prison inmates, there's something much harder than prison life--life on the outside. Many of those behind bars are repeat offenders who have never learned how to be successful outside of prison. Beth Pessner, Virginia Tech Powhatan/Goochland Extension agent, decided to help women prisoners break the cycle of repeated arrests by teaching skills to help them succeed in the community. The key, she says, is giving them the knowledge to build new lives and resist the bad habits that have caused them to get into trouble in the past. "Taking Charge of Your Life," a program Pessner began in 1993 at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, uses volunteers to teach parenting skills and money management, including how to use credit wisely. There is a waiting list for the program, which meets a day each week for four weeks. Many of the women in the maximum security facility in Goochland County have been convicted of credit fraud or embezzlement. Sixty-two percent are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. The majority of the prisoners have young children or plan to start a family when free. To date, 114 women have participated in the program. Of the 73 already released, few have returned to prison. While it's too early to know if the program has made a lasting difference, those involved feel confident it is worthwhile. "What I liked was learning that I can survive without doing something illegal," says one participant. Prison officials credit much of the program's success to the fact that it is taught by volunteers from the community, whom Pessner recruits and trains. For transition specialist Kim Hull, the critical thing is "to get human beings in contact with the offenders. The fact that someone cares enough to show up on schedule to teach tells these offenders, 70 percent of whom were abuse victims, that they are worth something." Hull says the program plays an integral role in bringing effective, as well as practical, methods to the two critical areas that bring people back to prison--financial mismanagement and dysfunctional families. Jean Ritchie, an attorney with the Virginia Credit Counseling Service who teaches the consumer credit component of the course, says, "About two-thirds of the women are here because of a crime involved with money. Many of them have never thought about saving or investing or even opening a checking account. We teach them how to do those things and how to get their financial life on the right track." The chance to interact on a personal level with the volunteers, successful women who can be strong role models, is very important, Pessner says. The classes are small, providing opportunities for volunteers to get close to individuals. "Almost everybody in each class bonds with someone," says Hull. Being taught by local residents helps the women realize they have community support. "When the volunteers get to know these women and realize that they're human beings with the same needs we all have, it makes them much more willing to help them after they're released," Pessner says. The volunteers make sure their students know about the services provided by Virginia Tech Extension offices. Pessner is still waiting for a "big" success story, but, for now, she is pleased that many of the former students are holding down jobs and rebuilding their families. The program is funded through a grant from AT&T given through the National Coalition for Consumer Education.
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 2 Winter 1995