Yesterday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ, the state prison system) unveiled a first-of-its-kind women’s reentry program designed to help incarcerated women address and heal from trauma, as well as connect with jobs that will be waiting for them upon their release. The program is small—only 31 women in the inaugural class, though TDCJ is aiming to double it by the end of the year—and it starts late—during the last 12 weeks of a participant’s sentence. But it is a step in the right direction.
My advocate partners and I know that this program was a long time coming. In spring 2018, TCJC released a two-part report series on women in Texas' criminal justice system. Those reports shed light on the fact that women in Texas prisons have access to far fewer educational and vocational opportunities than their male counterparts. The reports also included survey data from incarcerated women, which showed the majority of women felt the prison system was not adequately addressing their employment training needs.
We followed the reports with the launch of a webpage dedicated to women’s justice, which includes stories of women impacted by Texas’ justice system – stories that have been critical to reform. We also partnered with Lauren Johnson (ACLU of Texas) and Brittany Barnett (Girls Embracing Mothers, Buried Alive Project) to establish a statewide coalition of system-impacted women and advocates, which has worked alongside many other passionate individuals and groups calling for women’s justice.
TCJC also co-hosted Women Unshackled: The Next Step with the Coalition for Public Safety, which brought together individuals from throughout the country – bipartisan lawmakers, notable policy experts, impacted individuals, justice system practitioners, and advocates. Panelists and attendees discussed the growth of women in the justice system and identified solutions that would both stem women’s flow into incarceration and fundamentally change the experience of incarcerated women to one rooted in dignity.
Most recently, during Texas’ 2019 legislative session, our women’s coalition partnered with State Representative Donna Howard on House Bill 3227, which was signed into law by Governor Abbott and went into effect this month. This new law requires TDCJ to develop and implement policies that increase incarcerated women’s access to educational, vocational, and other rehabilitative programs.
And now, as our Justice for Women campaign continues, we are excited about TDCJ’s new program announcement. I do hope the program can continue to grow, serving not only more women, but also being duplicated in men’s units across the state. I hope the trauma component will be expanded beyond the last 12 weeks of a woman’s sentence, ideally starting the day a woman arrives in prison. I hope the entire criminal justice system becomes more trauma-informed, down to law enforcement who should be diverting a significant number of women into services for substance use disorder treatment, mental health treatment, and trauma recovery services, rather than arresting and prosecuting them for what are ultimately symptoms of trauma and victimization.
But, again, this is a good start, and small changes like this take a lot of people working very hard.
If you are one of the people who has helped TCJC elevate the experiences of women incarcerated in Texas over the last two years—thank you! Raise your glass and toast to a small step for womankind!