Is there a better way to address the growing numbers of women who find themselves in jail?
One southern Indiana county has developed a program aimed at helping women—including those who have recidivated—gain the tools, skills and confidence to make their current stay behind bars the last one.
The program is the brainchild of Floyd County Sheriff Lt. Brett O’Loughlin and Michelle Cochran, a mental health worker contracted by the jail.
At the beginning of this year, the jail opened a separate block with room for 16 inmates who are committed to focusing on themselves, addressing their addiction issues, and supporting one another in their growth.
And some of the women inmates say it has already put them in the right direction.
“It teaches you how to change your thinking, which is where we all mess up,” said Heather Goff, who’s been in the Floyd County jail for almost a year and a half, and in the program for eight months.
“I was sober for nine years. Since I’ve been locked up, I’ve had time to reflect on where I went wrong and recognize how not to do it again.”
According to Cochran, the recent increase in the number of women in Floyd County jail — largely due to drug issues or drug-related crimes — makes it more important than ever to develop and maintain meaningful programming for them.
“So we started putting it together building a curriculum [with] evidence-based practice,” Cochran said.
The jail has recently been awarded a grant to expand the program to men; she said they started with the women because “that population seemed to explode in a very short amount of time.”
The women in the “program dorm” are given more freedoms and responsibility than those in the general block, and have access to more programming — like specialized classes and yoga.
Coordinators work with them to help hone in on the personal life issues that led to their brush with the law, and to help cut recidivism.
According to Lt. O’Loughlin, programs in other jails around the country are often limited to basics: 12-step program meetings or faith-based programs. While those can be useful, he said, they can lack the more personal focus the new Floyd County program offers.
“Every facility has some type of program, but it ends up being they try to cram everybody into that one-size-fits all,” he said. “They’re just spinning their wheels and the same people keep coming back.
“[This program is] not going to be a one-size-fits all. We’re going to throw everything we can at it and see what sticks.”
Each week, the women draw lots to see which jobs they’ll have for the week — they could serve as a mediator to help sort out interpersonal issues among the inmates, or they could facilitate weekly programming, enforce chores getting done or keep track of records within the program.
“This program means a lot to me because this is the first time that I’m addressing that I have a problem and I am an addict,” Mercedes Hall said. “And that means a lot to … my family. This is the first time in my life I’ve actually had structure and consistency.”
In Floyd County, the average daily female population has nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017 to 59 from 35, a rise that local law enforcement authorities attribute to the drug crisis that’s shaken Southern Indiana in the past several years.
The growth of the male inmate population has been more steady during that time in Floyd County.
Nearby Clark County law enforcement officials have seen similar growth, rising to an average daily female population of 131 in 2017, up from 56 in 2007.
Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel says the growth in numbers comes with challenges to spacing and increased health costs associated with women. On a recent day in Clark County, there were eight pregnant women in jail.
In 2016, Clark County initiated three new programs targeted specifically to address the needs of the growing female population.
A 12-week writing workshop, taught by local freelance journalist Amanda Beam, is designed to help women express themselves through written words. There is a separate group for women who are victims of physical, mental or sexual abuse, to help pave the way for them to become empowered survivors.
There’s also a pregnancy class for women who are, or believe they may be, pregnant.
“The more tools you can give an inmate, especially a female inmate, hopefully [means] they won’t return to jail and that’s what’s best for the family,” Noel said.
In Floyd County, nearly all of the women in the program said they have been incarcerated multiple times, and most are currently in for drug-related charges.
“Even if their charge isn’t a drug charge, it’s usually drug-related,” program member Goff said. “Whatever they’ve done, it was to get drugs.”
Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop said the program can change the course of a woman’s life — to keep her from falling into the old ways before jail.
Often, they end up in jail again soon because “they go back to the same environment they had,” Loop said. “The same friends, because they don’t know anything else.”
Cassidy Miller’s story lines up with this.
Miller, who has been in jail multiple times, admitted she intentionally courted arrest because she knew she needed a change from the life she was living on the outside.
“I was doing everything right on the outside [but] everything was still screwing up,” she said. “I was very, very tired, and I knew I wanted something different.
“We’re all just tired of that life. We want something different and this is the first step to that.”
While some jail opportunities, like receiving a GED or other certifications can mean credit off of their sentence, this is not the case with the new Floyd County program.
Cochran, the mental health worker, said this helps ensure that everyone in the program is there because they want to be, and because they’re committed to doing the work.
Because the women are housed in a separate dorm, they’re not around the negative influences of others in jail who aren’t ready or don’t wish to try to change, Cochran said.
The program effectively begins as soon as the women enter the dedicated block.
“[We ask] ‘what are your goals, what are you going to do different, where are you going to be that’s safe when you leave here,'” she said.
Program participant Miller said living in the dorm creates a sense of solidarity and mutual concern among the inmates.
“In here, we call each other on our B.S.,” she said. “Or if we’re thinking something wrong or we’re down on ourselves, we check ourselves and each other because we care enough to see everybody do well.”
Another inmate, Joanie Watson, recently received a certificate for completing a class that she helped show her that progress was possible.
“It’s a confidence boost, even doing your homework is a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “Something little you accomplished and something bigger and it just builds up.”
But the hardest challenge may come when the inmates are released.
The county Sheriff’s Department and staff say they are working to increase partnerships with community organizations who will be available for continued post-incarceration health and addiction care.
“That’s how we’re going to prevent recidivism,” Cochran said.
“That’s how we’re going to keep them clean, keep them sober and keep them medicated.”
Aprile Rickert, a crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in the News and Tribune as part of her Fellowship project. Follow Aprile on Twitter: @Aperoll27. Readers’ comments are welcome.