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Women in the Travis County Jail Have “PRIDE”

April 24, 2009

When you turn off of Highway 71 onto Farm Road 973 it feels, for a moment, like you have finally reached the edge of Austin. The fields on your left open up into a dark green sea scattered with white and blue flowers that fade off into the hazy distance. On the right sits the Travis County Correctional Complex, an enormous, ominous-looking compound.

Topics:   children of the incarcerated, inmate programs

by Rachel Garringer, 2009, Austin

When you turn off of Highway 71 onto Farm Road 973 it feels, for a moment, like you have finally reached the edge of Austin.  The fields on your left open up into a dark green sea scattered with white and blue flowers that fade off into the hazy distance. On the right sits the Travis County Correctional Complex, an enormous, ominous-looking compound. The visitor’s parking lot was almost full at 8:30 AM on a Thursday morning in April, yet inside the room was empty except for a handful of guards joking with the receptionist. Huge ceilings, uniform plastic chairs, and huge signs listing the rules of visitation combined to create an unwelcoming feeling.

Jennifer Scott, director of the PRIDE Program, met me in the waiting room. We drove for several minutes farther into the complex before arriving at the unit for the inmates participating in PRIDE (People Recognizing the Inherent Dignity of Everyone). The four-week intensive program offers twenty-four women the opportunity to take classes and workshops together while sharing a dorm lined with homemade posters. The women are required to complete three focus areas: Emotion Coaching Parenting, Beyond Abuse with SafePlace, and Seeking Safety. They can pick from a variety of other courses including Money Management and Women’s Health. In contrast to the unwelcoming starkness of the visitor’s center, the PRIDE building has a homey feel. There are tissue paper flowers on the windows, and lawn ornaments and wind chimes decorate the entrance.

On this particular morning, Cynthia, a volunteer from Planned Parenthood led a class on Women’s Health. She began with a basic introduction to overall health including the importance of regular checkups, eye, and teeth exams. She then moved on to a basic introduction to Reproductive Health, including STDs, fertility, and menopause. The women in the class were engaged and excited. Cynthia then opened up a discussion about what the women had learned from their mothers and grandmothers, and she pushed the women to talk to older women in their families about menopause and parenting.

After the basic health lessons ended, Cynthia told the women that the most important thing they would need on the outside is strong self-esteem and a belief in their abilities to accomplish their goals. She then asked the women “How do you feel about your ability to accomplish your goals?” The room was quiet for a few seconds. Still. A woman in her forties spoke up first; she was worried about falling back into old patterns. She said she was grateful for this time to think and figure out her life, because she was not confident in her ability to change yet. Next, a younger woman spoke up; she said that she feels a lot more prepared to handle returning to the outside since learning about boundaries and forgiveness and realizing that she doesn’t need to fix everything. She feels worried that once she returns to her old life she won’t know how to set boundaries—boundaries that she now sees as crucial to her ability to avoid further domestic violence or drug abuse. Another woman talked about her fears about her low self-esteem and how it was linked to her addiction. She said that poor self-esteem would attract the “wrong types” of people who can “smell” someone who is vulnerable, either to abuse or addiction.

Cynthia next asked the group “What are your fears regarding your success?” There was a resounding response of the fear of failure, “of ending up back here.” Another fear was parenting. “I’m nervous about not being able to give my kids a better life than I got,” one woman said, and her eyes filled with tears. Cynthia advised the women to keep communication open, and to be able to let yourself know that you are doing the best you know how. An older woman, who laughed through stories of her four grandkids, spoke of a fear about the economic crisis, since jobs are scarce for people already on the outside, what will be available for them when they get out. The group ended with a conversation about anxiety and fear of new failures. One young woman explained that if she ended up back in jail it was a failure she had experienced already, but it’s harder to know how to deal with a new failure without breaking. When the class ended, Cynthia left them with a saying she learned in Post-Katrina New Orleans, “Hope is not a plan” she said. “Next week we’ll talk about how to have a plan to reach your goals once you get out.”

At the end of the class I asked the group, “What is the most exciting or helpful part of the program for you?” The answer was resoundingly the class on Parenting, which provides the women with new approaches and ideas for how to raise children. The second most popular focus was the class called Seeking Safety. In it, they learned about the Harvard study that argues that women who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, mainly caused by abuse and sexual violence, are much more likely to develop substance abuse problems, and that this substance abuse then creates a cycle of more violence and abuse. This section also instructed them on coping mechanisms and included group therapy. Several women said it helped them to be around other women who are “off track”—that seeing how others dealt with their problems was enlightening. Learning about themselves, their abuse, and how to heal from it in a supportive community of women is a combination that works, they said.

Jennifer Scott, director and founder of the program, came into the jail to work on Mental Health issues. She saw that the mothers inside the Jail needed a way to talk about their kids and to connect with one another about being separated from them. She explained, “We developed the program because we knew that the pathways to criminality are mostly different for women and men. Women’s criminal activity is usually linked to childhood trauma including sexual and domestic abuse. Our program addresses this trauma that many of the women have never addressed, and how it plays a role in their drug and alcohol abuse.”

Jennifer said one of the most amazing aspects of the program is that it is completely volunteer run. Since the PRIDE Program began, on February 14, 2008, 219 women have entered the program and 79 have graduated. The program started out with a weekly discussion group for women, and then snowballed into its full four-week form.

PRIDE’s mission statement is “With the intent of lessening intergenerational incarceration, the mission of the PRIDE program is to assist incarcerated Travis County women in building stronger relationships with their children and families. This is accomplished by providing the women with information addressing their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.”

Would it help women in other Texas jails? Jennifer was sure it would. She said, “We feel that PRIDE can be beginning of a new life for women and their children.”

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