Women's Treatment Center keeps inmates with their children

June 7, 2011

By Shannon Heffernan

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Updated at: 9:57 a.m. on 6/8/2011


 
From the outside, you’d never guess that inmates lived at The Women’s Treatment Center. It’s right in the middle of Chicago on Lake and Ashland Streets. There aren’t high walls or guard towers, and during the day, the doors aren’t even locked. The program, now in its eighth year, is an alternative for women who would otherwise live in prison. Instead, the women living at the center receive drug treatment while going to school or working. But perhaps the most striking part of the program is that the women’s children can live at the Center with them.

Loxie is a resident at the center. She was originally arrested for possession with intent to sell. She works an overnight shift at the Chicago Transit Authority and spends her days in drug treatment and parenting classes. During the day her children attend a preschool inside the WTC. The preschool caters to children who’ve dealt with traumas such as witnessing a parent's arrest or addictive behaviors, fitting with the Women's Treatment Center’s philosophy of comprehensive family treatment.

The family approach has worked well. Debbie Denning is the Coordinator of Women and Family Services for the Illinois Department of Corrections. She says the program’s recidivism rate for the last year is zero, while the recidivism rate for standard women’s prisons is around 50 percent.

For Denning, recovery programs like the WTC are an investment in public safety. She says, “what you have to do is invest in the human being. If you don’t invest in the human being they could come out of prison being angry, being bitter, because they haven’t learned anything from their incarceration.”

Despite the program's success, the Women’s Treatment Center is the only one like it in Illinois. Denning says funding the program is part of the problem. State budget cuts have leveled many drug treatment programs and without strong treatment partners like the Women's Treatment Center, it is difficult to expand alternatives to incarceration programs.  

Renee Lee, the director at Women’s Treatment Center, says that pulling funding for treatment, while continuing to put drug offenders in prison, won’t save money in the long run. Programs like the one at the Women's Treatment Center have a similar per-resident cost to incarceration and because of the reduced recidivism rate will save money overall.

According to Lee, part of the problem is that politicians are worried about appearing soft on crime. As more decisions about criminal justice are made in the legislature and not in the courtroom, approaches have become harsher.

Lee says, “From the conversations with participants, perception that it’s easy on crime far from truth. Often these women have not only done crimes, they’ve become dependent on society whether through Family Support, TANIF, or social Security. And here we are saying it’s time for you to empower yourself educationally and vocationally through work.”


Last names withheld by request for privacy.