Nonprofit educates, empowers women behind bars

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DALLAS — Sitting in a circle at the Dallas County Jail one evening, 20 women tell their stories of heartache, danger and hope. One woman describes how she’s been abused in a relationship. Another admits to addiction and prostitution.

A third woman explains why she is addicted to crack cocaine: guilt. With loved ones telling her she was a bad parent, she has succumbed to the drugs. “I may not have been the best mother,” she says, “but what was I?”

“A mother,” her fellow inmates reply, as though in a church congregation.

The women in this life-skills class are part of Resolana, a nonprofit that educates and empowers women behind bars. The inmates listen to one another in a safe space and, in effect, build their own community. They are given the opportunity to nurture and be nurtured — and they help one another on their difficult journeys to sobriety and safety.

This past spring, Kays Tower at the Dallas County Jail launched a pilot program in which women who participate in Resolana classes are placed in the same living unit. Inmates take classes in art, yoga and parenting, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous sessions. Previously, women lived in different units and only saw one another in class.

As many as 64 inmates live in the unit on any given day. Since Resolana started in 2006, about 1,000 women have gone through its programming at the Dallas County Jail. In Dallas County, taxpayers pay $57.49 a day per inmate in jail.

Resolana’s goal is to use private donations and grants to invest in the women — $10 per woman per class last year — in hopes of keeping them from returning to jail, ultimately saving taxpayer money.

“These are delightful women,” says Bette Buschow, the program’s founder. That might explain the 60 hours a week logged by volunteers. “The women in jail are connected to all of us in some way. We all have a stereotype in our mind of what women behind bars must be. They don’t fit that stereotype — at least not the ones who come to class.”

Buschow’s first encounter with women behind bars came in 2003, when she attended a Lockhart Correctional Facility graduation ceremony for women who had taken classes similar to Resolana’s. Buschow was moved by the inmates’ speeches.

She volunteered with arts and literacy programs in Austin and Dallas jails, and then founded Resolana, which in Spanish means “sunny side of the plaza.”

Introductory classes take place about every two weeks for as many as 12 women. The turnover rate of Resolana is high, because the women are in a county jail, not a state prison. Some of them might be in jail for as little as a few nights. Others may be there for more than a year.

Buschow hopes Resolana’s budget will grow from $157,000 to $320,000 in two years. She wants to hire more staff and establish a resource center near the jail. There is no report on recidivism rates among Resolana alumnae because the organization has not had resources to track women once they are released.

Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii at Manoa criminologist, says Resolana’s programming is unique, especially because it’s in a jail, where women only stay short-term. Its strength, she says, is that it focuses on relationships between the inmates and volunteers.

“It’s a great program, because it started as a grass-roots program,” Chesney-Lind says. “People think these women are so different from us. Really, the volunteers find that they have so much in common with these women. They find that rapport can be established, despite divisions between class and race.”

In three decades, the number of women in state and federal prisons has grown by 325 percent. In 1979, 16 in every 100,000 women were incarcerated. Today the number is 68 in every 100,000. The number of men has increased by 137 percent. In 1979, 402 men in every 100,000 were incarcerated. Today the number is 954 in every 100,000.

According to Joycelyn Pollock, a criminal justice professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, 75 percent of women in prison and jail are mothers of children younger than 18.

Chesney-Lind says the criminal justice system needs to recognize that the needs of female offenders are different from their male counterparts’. In general, men’s drug use can be attributed to risk-taking tendencies or the need for adventure. For women, Chesney-Lind says, “It’s self-medication. They have unhealthy relationships with men. These women are not a public safety risk.”

Jeri Blankenship, 38, searches for a dark green marker. She wants to draw a picture of her eyes for art class. Ivonne Acero, a volunteer teacher, has told her and the others to journal about something positive in their lives and then to draw.

Blankenship draws green eyes at the top of her page. Then green grass.

Then the word “FREEDOM.”

Blankenship has taken part in Resolana since January. She is a recovering alcoholic who was bulimic. She sometimes still thinks about an abusive relationship that nearly killed her and her baby. “Resolana has given me the strength and hope to conquer my addiction,” she says. “I’m so thankful for this journey.”

Authenticity — or as the ladies call it, “realness” — is one of the commitments the Resolana community came up with when deciding on rules. One rule posted in the classroom states: “We try to let our outsides match our insides as we explore and share the mysteries within us.”

Blankenship stands up when it’s her turn to share her work. She begins by reading what she wrote on the back of her art. “I miss my pretty clothes and my makeup,” she begins. “I want freedom. I want grass, the kind you can lay on. I just want to lay in the grass with my kids, y’all.”

Blankenship explains how she has forgotten herself while caring for her boyfriend’s children and her friends. She has four children, one of whom she gave up for adoption earlier this year. She tells the women that she’ll focus on herself to find freedom. Not freedom from jail — freedom to be a good mother.

Women in the class echo her sentiment. Some draw fond memories; others draw their hopes. One woman, Tiffany, performs a rap of her journal entry. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” she chants, snapping to her own beat.

Michelle Tuggle, 40, has been in the Resolana unit for four months. She grew up with an abusive mother, then was raised by her grandmother. She ran away from home and was involved in a few abusive relationships. She spiraled into drugs and lost custody of her three children.

During an anger-management session, Tuggle takes a deep breath. Her eyes are closed; her face relaxes. Lesley Mohney, a volunteer therapist, asks the women in class to talk about how they have used the anger-management skills learned the week before.

Tuggle offers an anecdote: She had dinner with her fellow Resolana “sisters,” as the ladies call themselves. A conflict broke out. She was tempted to become aggressive. Instead, she thought twice and called a guard to resolve the situation.

Donna, an older inmate seated across from Tuggle, offers her advice: “You ladies need to calm down.” She explains that small mistakes can lead to larger consequences. Tuggle nods. She gives a faint smile as though she is getting a lesson from a maternal figure. The rest of the women thank Donna for her wisdom.

In midsummer, a new group joins the Resolana class. After learning about the rules and expectations, the women express themselves through drawing and painting. Christi Ruplenas looks at her art and breaks down. She says she feels guilty when her daughter tells her that she’s used to her mother going to jail.

“It feels like I’m never going to heal,” she tells them. She says she wants this time in jail to be different.

“What’s going to be different this time?” Mohney, the therapist, asks.

“This is for me now. I tried quitting for my kids, for my friends,” Ruplenas says. “I’m going to die if I keep doing drugs.”

The women sitting next to Ruplenas console her. Mohney hands her a sheet of paper. “Write that down,” Mohney tells her.

“Sign it and keep it with you.”

Ruplenas will be supported as she tries to make the change. As they’re about to leave the circle, the women describe how they feel. Some say “inspired.” Others say “anxious” or “happy.” When it’s Ruplenas’ turn, she smiles despite her tears.

She says: “I feel like a beginning.”

Printed on Monday, August 29, 2011 as: Life skills class empowers women in jail.