Inmates who complete their sentences in a Washington prison walk out the front gate with more than a handshake and release papers. The state provides them with suitable clothing, plus $40 and the cost of transportation to their new residence.
Since 1999, about 500 women also have carried a priceless gift upon leaving incarceration: the child they were blessed to raise behind bars. Fifteen babies and toddlers currently live with their moms inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy.
A story last weekend by News Tribune reporter Melissa Santos profiled a pair of 26-year-old mothers in the state’s Residential Parenting Program. Both were pregnant when locked up on drug-related charges. Both have gained sorely needed discipline and a positive life purpose while caring for their sons in this non-traditional nursery setting.
It’s hard to conceive of a better reason for a young woman to turn her life around. “I’ve gotta do it, for him,” said Skye Logue, who gets out of the prison near Gig Harbor later this year. “Even though he was born in prison, now I can take this and turn it into something where he won’t know this life ever existed.”
The program appropriately excludes women who have committed serious violent offenses or crimes against children. Eligibility is also limited to moms who will be released by the time their babies turn 2 ½ years old.
More research is needed to measure the program’s effectiveness at keeping women from backsliding into crime. Decade-old data show that only 19 of 131 participants between 1999 and 2007 eventually returned to prison. That’s a recidivism rate of less than 15 percent, a fraction of the overall 38 percent reoffense rate among adult felons in this state.
Washington should be proud to count itself among the eight states where female prisoners can live with and bond with their babies. They receive drug treatment, job training and parental coaching while soaking up the precious, impressionable early months of a child’s life.
It’s just one of the progressive ways Washington looks out for the well-being of families caught up in the justice system, while trying to curtail the revolving-door effect. It seems Washington is especially attuned to the needs of women trying to make a successful transition to society.
One idea that’s attracted bipartisan support in Olympia this year recognizes that homelessness is a major impediment. Senate Bill 5077, as TNT reporter Walker Orenstein explained in a weekend story, would pay for temporary housing aid to women upon release from either the Purdy prison or the Mission Creek Corrections Center, a minimum-security facility down the road in Belfair.
The rental vouchers wouldn’t buy a lot of time, but at least would give women three months to find their footing and establish themselves as solid tenants. Just getting in the front door is no easy feat, considering some landlords screen out otherwise qualified people due to their criminal records.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, comes with accountability measures. In 2020, the Department of Corrections must submit a report to the Legislature detailing how many women received assistance and how many retained housing at the end of the voucher period; it also must calculate the recidivism rate among those given help.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously. We expect an equally enthusiastic reception in the House.
If all goes well, and the DOC can afford it within existing resources, the program might eventually expand to some male inmates at risk of homelessness.
Better yet, why not offer longer housing assistance — say, six months or a year — to women released with children in custody? Think of the potential benefit to mothers who graduate from Purdy’s Residential Parenting Program.
For now, a housing voucher of any duration would be a prized item for a woman released from prison. She could carry it in the pocket of her suitable clothing — alongside the $40 cash and transportation stipend — as she starts life’s new journey, with or without a baby onboard.