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RI’s Female Offenders Offered Opportunities to “Shape Up” for Release

Cranston, June 26, 2008 – Patricia Threats, Principal Public Health Promotion Specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, and Debbie Matthieu, RIDOC’s Dietician, have teamed up to address the unique needs of the state’s rapidly growing population of female offenders. For the past year, the two have been going into the women’s facilities to offer informal programming on diet, exercise, and life skills with the goal of better preparing the women for their eventual release. About 100 women have participated in the sessions since they began, and all are welcome. “I knock on doors and invite them to come,” says Ms. Threats, who is passionate about the importance of gender-specific education that addresses the whole person.

Whereas similar programs in the men’s facilities have waiting lists and male inmates often bulk up while in prison, women typically aren’t as motivated to focus on their health and well being. Although not the case across the board, women in prison, unless they are pushed, become listless and less likely to take care of their health and wellness according to Assistant Director for Rehabilitative Services Roberta Richman. Richman served as warden of the women’s facilities for 10 years and saw scores of women coming in addicted to drugs and in pretty rough shape.

“Healing has to happen from the inside,” says Ms. Threats of the approach she and Ms. Mathieu take with the female offenders. “Many are illiterate, haven’t graduated from high school, believe they are nothing. They are embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. They need to know that we are all human and that we are here to offer education and moral support.” Noting that many of the women in prison don’t know how to put their skills to good use, Ms. Threats says that “self esteem is a huge issue, and they need constant reinforcement.”

Many inmates complain that all of their choices are removed when they get locked up, but they do, in fact, have choices in prison. Whether to come to meals, what to order through the commissary or purchase from the vending machines, whether to hibernate in their cell or socialize with other inmates (unless in disciplinary confinement), whether to go outdoors during recreation time, whether to participate in available programming – all of these choices have a major effect on how well they do in prison and how they will fare when they leave.

Life skills, such as how to pay the bills, are also incorporated into the curriculum. Tonya Dana, a Clerk in Medical Records who is working on her Masters degree, teaches the women about the physiology of exercise, offering tips such as little one can perform while standing in line or within the limits of the prison setting to get into or stay in shape.

Coping and moral support are key ingredients in the program. “I’m trying to get them to develop a sisterhood,” says Ms. Threats. “Many of the women bicker over silly things and we see enemy issues all over the place. I try and tell them ‘you’re all here -- deal with that,’ and get them to support each other rather than be divided.”

Information on communicable diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV as well as mental health topics like depression is offered. Proper personal hygiene is discussed, along with the importance of proper diet. “Women are the gatekeepers of food for the family,” says Ms. Mathieu, “so teaching them the importance of proper nutrition is a way of helping the family they’ll return to when they leave.” “Fun” activities such as dance exercises have been very popular.

In addition to the ongoing bi-weekly sessions, the first-ever mini health fair was held at the women’s facilities in May, in recognition of National Women’s Health Month. Members of RIDOC’s nursing and public health staff offered blood pressure screenings, weight checks, information on self breast exams, mental health, exercise, nutrition, sexually transmitted disease, and more. Approximately 45 women participated and the goal is to make the health fair an annual event in the women’s prisons.

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