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Recidivism is one of the biggest challenges for the Montana Women’s Prison. In fact, the entire Montana Department of Corrections system is stressed by recidivism as more people keep coming into the system and many of them are coming back.

Warden Joan Daly is working to reduce recidivism by better preparing women to re-enter the community. A dozen detention positions have been converted to “re-entry officer.” One of these officers is responsible for working with each inmate throughout her prison stay to make a re-entry plan and get started on it while in prison.

The new programs at Montana Women’s Prison are all “best practices” endorsed by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But Daly didn’t get additional staff to change the prison and instead has been relying on community partners, such as The Family Tree Center, the Center for Children, and Families and the Mental Health Center.

The prison counts more than 250 active volunteers, many members of faith-based organizations who support the prison ministry program. Others are mentors to the women while in prison and continue that relationship after release. On a recent spring morning, the prison had 206 inmates, 12 more than its capacity.

The top goal is keeping people safe while avoiding long-term costs of prison expansion.

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Daly is “trying to create an environment more conducive to rehabilitation” with “no more space.”

Call it prison in-reach. The keys are mental health services, chemical dependency treatment, the re-entry blueprint inmates design for themselves, and the help of volunteers.

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Eighty-five percent of new Montana prison inmates come in because of probation or parole revocation, said Batista. Montana imprisons “a lot of low-risk inmates. We have to do a better job of sorting them out.”

Batista admits that DOC doesn’t have as many probation and parole officers as it needs. Some now carry caseloads of 85 inmates, compared to best practices standards of around 50.

The DOC is under pressure to reform quickly. If the growth trend continues, Montana’s prison population will exceed all capacity by November of this year, according to research completed last fall by the Pew Charitable Trust and National Governors Association.

— Billings Gazette

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