Just about every woman who finds herself behind bars in New Mexico will get out eventually. The question is, will she be able to restart her life, rejoin her family? There aren’t enough services in this state for all the women who want to break the cycles that landed them in jail or prison.
Women planted vegetables and herbs in a raised garden bed in the shared yard of a small set of apartments in Albuquerque. It was Saturday morning at Maya’s Place—a transitional living facility for women with mental health and substance abuse issues. Treatments there are tailored to people who’ve experienced trauma.
Life skills classes cover things like cooking, sewing, self-care and budgeting. Residents also participate in group therapy and job training to help them as they step back out into the world. But this program is one-of-a-kind in New Mexico—most treatment programs and halfway houses aren’t designed specifically for women.
Amanda Hamilton stayed at Maya’s Place for eight months after she was released from jail in October of 2013. "Whenever I first got there, like I was really nervous, but after a couple of days, I felt really safe," she said. "As times goes on, you start building relationships with the other women, like a sisterhood. You grow with each other."
Hamilton graduated to The Crossroads, a program that provides apartments for women and their children. There, people work to pull their families out of homelessness or put an end to a string of stays in places like the Metropolitan Detention Center—or MDC—in Albuquerque. Even the basics of leaving detention require special consideration for women.
"Whenever I would leave MDC, and I would get transported on the van, for me, getting out Downtown in the middle of the night was kind of scary," she said. "You just have to walk."
KC Quirk is the executive director of Crossroads For Women. She said women don't get into or out of incarceration the same way men do. "Women get into the system a lot more for petty crimes, for drug-related crimes," she said. "Sometimes there’s property crimes that are connected to addiction issues that haven’t been effectively addressed."
So women go in for different reasons than men, and the release can be more dangerous. Plus when a woman’s in lockup, there aren’t sufficient services to help her maintain contact with her kids. "In our experience, the moms have continued to remain primary caregivers for most of the kids," she said. "So when they get out, it sometimes feels like starting from scratch. And no matter how you slice it, mom is always going to be mom."
Women leaving jail and prison have told Quirk that what they really need is a chance to learn some skills, and time to get themselves stabilized so they can start feeling confident about tackling the future.
Rose Bobchak, acting director of the state Probation and Parole Division, said cutting that number would save taxpayers money. And transitional living centers around the country have been proven to do exactly that. "Success for an offender is also success in the community because if the offender’s successful, then we’re providing public safety for that community as a whole," she said.
The Department of Corrections confirmed there are very few placement options for female inmates, especially in rural areas. So the department is looking to expand services around the state and plans to partner with programs like Maya’s Place and The Crossroads.
And Amanda Hamilton is proof that once you’re in the system, you don’t have to stay there. She did eight rounds in the county jail. She says she didn’t understand what a better life could be. "That started to be my history, but I was able to build that foundation of recovery," she said. "For myself, I feel successful. And all of this came from transitional living."
Hamilton has a job as a senior vocational intern at Crossroads and is entering her third semester in community college.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.