Chaplains Help Incarcerated Women Overcome Challenges Inside, Outside of Prison

A group discussion at Beauty for Ashes, a re-entry program housed in Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo. (Beauty for Ashes photo)
A group discussion at Beauty for Ashes, a re-entry program housed in Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo. (Beauty for Ashes photo)

A woman released from prison faced a tough choice — return to her hometown, where her children lived, or start a new life elsewhere. She longed for her children, but returning home also meant reconnecting with friends whose influence led her into the drug use that resulted in imprisonment.

She chose a new life, hours from home.

“That took a lot of courage,” said Gina Hanna, executive director of a faith-based program in Platte City, Mo., that helps recently released prisoners re-enter society. “She had to believe that if she trusted God, he’d take care of the details.”

Eventually, she found stable employment and was reunited with her children. But her plight highlights the unique challenges incarcerated women across the country face.

Imprisonment is tough regardless of gender. But the more than 100,000 women behind bars in America — out of a total prison population of more than 2.2 million — face distinctive challenges.

An estimated 85 to 90 percent have a history of domestic or sexual abuse. About two-thirds are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, typically drug-related offenses. Black and Hispanic women are about three times as likely as white women to be jailed — a racial component that characterizes America’s prison system in general.

Challenges don’t end with release, however. Finding employment can be difficult, since some states place restrictions on people with certain convictions working in jobs such as nursing, child care and home health care — three fields in which poor women might otherwise work.

Because the prison population overwhelmingly is male, security guidelines often are developed without regard for women, said Lynn Litchfield, for 11 years chaplain at a women’s correctional center in Troy, Va.

“The policies were written for the men’s facilities, not the women’s,” said Litchfield, now the communications and development officer for the Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia.

That might mean omitting the hijab from lists of permitted religious garb or failure to understand distinctive religious practices that inadvertently exclude women from participation in sanctioned worship services.

Some facilities are unprepared for women’s health concerns, particularly pregnancy, labor and delivery.

“Folks just aren’t aware of special considerations needed for women,” Litchfield said.

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SOURCE: Associated Baptist Press
Robert Dilday

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