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How a virtual health and wellness reentry course is helping incarcerated women

Women face different obstacles during reentry than those of their male counterparts

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Residents of the Helen B. Ratcliff Work Release in Seattle participate in the facility’s first virtual health and wellness and personal reentry education series. Much of the curriculum is gender-responsive, focusing on unique needs of incarcerated women.

Stacy Fitzgerald

By Rachel Friederich, Washington State DOC Communications

From locating reproductive healthcare to learning how to be resilient after years of exposure to violent relationships prior to incarceration, justice-involved women face different obstacles during reentry than those of their male counterparts. Considering limited in-person contact with community support organizations due to the pandemic and the challenges can seem insurmountable.

But officials at the Helen B. Ratcliff work release have found a way to help its female residents get access to these resources virtually.

A group of about a dozen women residing at the work release recently completed the facility’s first-ever virtual Health & Wellness and Personal Reentry Education course series. Over the course of 10 weeks, the women used donated computers to participate in video conferencing sessions with experts on reentry topics to complete personalized reentry plans. Reentry plans are a written “road map” incarcerated individuals create to help them set attainable goals for a successful transition back to their communities after incarceration.

Gender-specific health and wellness topics included developing healthy relationships, gynecological self-screenings, building self-esteem and personal empowerment.

Community Corrections Supervisor Stacy Fitzgerald has worked in the Department of Corrections since 1999, supervising both males and females. In 2008, she began working at the Helen B. Ratcliff Work Release. The Helen B. Ratcliff Work Release is one of only two work releases that are exclusively female. The only other all-female work release is the Eleanor Chase House in Spokane. Of the 10 other work release facilities in the state, two are all-male facilities and the rest are co-ed.

Fitzgerald said working at the Helen B. Ratcliff work release has given her a better understanding of the unique needs of incarcerated women.

“My years of experience working with justice-involved women has made me understand how vital a gender-responsive environment is in female incarceration,” Fitzgerald said. “I am a strong advocate for women in the work/training release environment. The women here have an amazing willingness and ability to learn, making this an incredible opportunity for Corrections to have a positive impact on who they become.”

Historically, correctional practices and programs were designed to address the needs of incarcerated men. However, women have become one of the fastest-growing criminal justice populations in recent decades, according to the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women. A recent study that examined worldwide rates of female incarceration found that with the exception of Thailand and the U.S. as a whole, the top 44 jurisdictions with the highest rates of incarcerated women were individual American states.

The If Project

The Health and Wellness course was created about four years ago in cooperation with The Village, a leadership group comprised of incarcerated women at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). The program has guest facilitators, many of whom work in health and wellness professions. The women in the program get personalized feedback on healthcare goals and concerns about other reentry issues in preparation for their release from incarceration.

Since the curriculum’s inception, an advisory committee of officials from WCCW, incarcerated women and staff from The If Project continuously reviewed and refined the program. In February, The If Project donated to the work release six computers with video conferencing capabilities. The Helen B. Ratcliff Work Release added the virtual curriculum to its reentry programs and launched the courses in April.

Fitzgerald said having the computers has helped ease tensions caused by the pandemic. As an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Department of Corrections temporarily suspended visitation at work releases and correctional facilities statewide. Video capabilities allowed residents to visit with children and other family members. They were also able to partake in virtual meditation sessions, attend substance abuse group therapy meetings, search for employment and take online GED courses.

“When prisons and reentry started restricting visitors and volunteers during the pandemic, I was forced to quickly think outside of the box,” Fitzgerald said. “The computers opened up all kinds of opportunities. I’m happy for the opportunities this has opened up for all the women who have transitioned through Ratcliff Work Release and for those who will transition in the future.”