Breaking Free While Locked Up

Interview with Felice Davis


Felice Davis has worked in both sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy and has a well-established rapport with stakeholders in the Pierce County area. This includes nonprofit organizations, law enforcement, other government agencies and private businesses. Her drive to help at-risk populations extends to her volunteer activities as well. Davis is the current board chair for Rebuilding Hope the Sexual Assault Center of Pierce County and is on the Advisory Board for the Criminal Justice and Social Work program at the University of Washington, Tacoma.  Davis has a degree in Urban Studies from the University of Washington, which provided her with a thorough understanding of the social issues that may cause incarceration and the impact of recidivism on local communities.  

This interview was conducted in March 2018.

How did the Therapeutic Community (TC) get started?

What are the success stories of the Therapeutic Community?

If this program is so successful, why is it not more widely implemented?

How are inmates chosen for this program?

What is unique about the Therapeutic Community compared to other rehabilitation communities?

What models or methods was this program founded on?

What tensions exist, if any, between the Therapeutic Community and the general population?

How often do you interact with the TC versus the general population, and are these interactions different?

How did the TC get started?

We started as a result of a perceived increase in drug use at the facility. We observed that there was not enough rehabilitation for all the women that we housed. We house about 960 women, and we were serving about 100 a year. The goal was to get as much drug rehabilitation programming for women as possible by using the Therapeutic Community model. Other programs incorporate talking about trauma and acknowledging it in the cycle of drug use. We implemented the Therapeutic Community approximately two years ago and, as such, went from having 36 women at its inception to over 100 now in the program. Our goal is to increase the census in the Therapeutic Community to 130. I am really excited about it, as is the whole team.


What are the success stories of the Therapeutic Community?

I think every woman has their own version of success, and I also think it is defined differently per individual. There certainly are a lot of women who have achieved sobriety through participation in the Therapeutic Community. Women have also been able to open up about their trauma and begin healing. The TC escalates the conversation of how women can live authentically and with vulnerability.

There are mothers who have transformed their relationships with their children and are more able to connect because they’ve acknowledged their trauma. There are women who have broken cycles of violence and codependency in their lives. We have also seen a remarkable amount of women who have set clear and healthy boundaries with people. All of those factors lead to success. Most of us know someone who has struggled with addiction and stumbled through the process and perhaps failed once or twice. The important thing is that they continue to move forward, work through their issues, and hopefully change not only their life trajectory but the lives of their children.

If this program is so successful, why is it not more widely implemented?

The criminal justice system is complex, and each state’s correctional system is really different, which means their guiding policies vary. We prioritized implementing the TC program. The program acknowledges that sobriety can lead in a pro-social direction. We also acknowledge that the reasons that women use drugs are really different from the reasons that men use.  We recognized that we needed to give them the building blocks to build a healthy life. The tenets of the program are live together, program together, learn from each other, and hold each other accountable.


How are inmates chosen for this program?

Our particular Therapeutic Community is located on the minimum security campus, so applicants have to be within 48 months of release to be eligible. The first priority is given to inmates who have a Drug Offender Sentencing Act (DOSA) sentence.  After that, it's prioritized by people who have an expectation somewhere in the judge’s judgment and sentence to receive chemical dependency treatment, and then they have to assess at a level where they're in need of and eligible for the program.


What is unique about the Therapeutic Community compared to other rehabilitation communities?

What's unique is that we use social learning theory as the basis of the programming, so there really is a special environment because they don't go home at the end of eight hours. They're living together, acknowledging that they’re surrounding themselves with people who are healthy for them, and are also growing in the same ways. They also go through programs like Seeking Safety, which addresses the role of domestic violence and touches on all of the trauma work as well. We really focus on women and their needs in recovery in this particular Therapeutic Community because the reasons that they come to prison are often really different than men's reasons, and we really take the time to focus on their trauma history and acknowledge co-dependent relationships.


What models or methods was this program founded on?

The model is social learning and was implemented by us being gender-responsive, trauma-informed, and really seeing it through the lens of women. We were having really honest conversations about how to incorporate the needs of these folks and what were the differences with rehab communities that are not in prison.


What tensions exist, if any, between the Therapeutic Community and the general population?

I think there was an underlying tension, and part of that eases the longer the TC is at WCCW. As we watch the community grow, people are starting to understand why it's important for those women to not hang out with the general population while they are learning these new skills for a new life. They have different colored shirts, their own program, and they stopped hanging out with some friends that are in other units. I think the tension that existed early on was that some of the general population felt like the participants thought they were too good. The staff also had a learning curve around the theory of community separateness. Two years later, we see that it does make sense, and there is very little tension remaining.


How often do you interact with the TC versus the general population, and are these interactions different?

I am out walking around the prison a couple of times a week. I walk around and talk to both general population and TC. I talk to both the same amount. There is a lot more general population women than there are TC women. The interactions among other women who are in trauma-informed programs are pretty similar. If you're comparing TC participants to people who aren't engaged in any programming, then you would find that they're very different. These are women who are in some ways peeling back the layers and are a little more raw. With a lot of them, the interactions are really interesting and positive. It's nice to see people who are that hungry for success and who really want it. They're up at five o’clock in the morning, and they're ready to go. They are working out, being healthy, and having honest conversations. Certainly, there are women who are doing the same thing in general population, but it's a more concerted effort with the TC participants. They have a sisterhood of 120 women.


How do public perceptions of prisons affect the female inmates in their rehabilitation process?

On one side, you have people who minimize the crimes that women are there for, minimize the role of incarceration, why it’s important, and minimize the victims’ rights. Until the incarcerated population acknowledges the harm that they’ve done to others, they can't fully heal. It’s part of the process of being genuine. What we want to see is that the public isn't minimizing why they're there. On the other end, we have folks who are pretty harsh. There should be a balance between understanding that these women made mistakes and understanding that they are willing to change their ways. I think somewhere in the middle is where we can acknowledge that they have both done harm to the communities from which they came and can also come full circle and give back in a meaningful way.


How do inmates typically respond to the level of regulation and discipline within the carceral community?

The responses are different depending on the person. Some people, incarcerated and staff, are really regimented in their home lives. For folks who are in treatment, we teach a regimented lifestyle. It sets them up for success. Having a time that they wake up and a routine that is not incredibly flexible is beneficial.


How do the women in the facility feel about the male correctional staff?

Again, you know there's 960 women, so the answers would vary. There are women who are early in dealing with their trauma who struggle with men in general. Hiring really great men who are willing to take on that challenge and in every way mentor the women and show them that these relationships can be safe is really important to our facility. Now certainly nationwide, there are people who abuse power and control in every role, and we have more power than others with a population that doesn’t have a lot of control, so it’s really important that we’re hiring the right people. We have a really great team, and the men who work on our team are pretty fantastic.


How do limited options to makeup or hair removal products impact the level of personal expression and personal control afforded to inmates? How are their personal perceptions affected by these limitations?

We have a cosmetology program that’s pretty great. They can get their hair done. They also have access to limited makeup and hair removal. Sometimes, the colors that they can buy aren’t great, but mostly they have access to many of the same products that they would have in the free world. I think for a long time the conversation around gender-responsive facilities for women did center on makeup and deriving self-esteem from makeup or hair products. They have a great salon where they can get foils and color. We’re trying to get them good options. We went through a period where we talked a lot about flat irons and curling irons. While I think those things are important for women doing deep therapy, like the Therapeutic Community, all of us know that until you do the internal work, none of that matters. We reinforce how important it is to feel beautiful inside.


How does this impact their self-confidence and personal comfort?

There’s this thought that we take everything away, and that just isn’t the way that our facility runs. They do have lots of opportunity for self-care with beauty products. But again, back to the conversations that focus on authenticity and internal beauty. That’s how we build up who they actually are. We help women focus on what’s inside. Have you worked through your past and let go of that? Are you driven to make the world a better place?  It’s pretty cool to watch that happen for women who are helping each other.


Considering increasing prison populations, what are WCCW’s plans to address this potential need for more incarceration space?

I think it’s a really difficult question. We have known that the population was growing since about 2008, and that has happened maybe a little more significantly than we thought. Currently, we have opened every small area of housing that we could within the facility. I think that the hope is that through legislative and sentencing reform, there would be less inmates coming our way. So for now, we were given legislative proviso money to house women in the Yakima County jail. Currently, we have 50 women who are housed there. We know that a jail bed is not a prison bed, and so we are looking for long-term options. There has been a lot of talk about how to reduce the prison population. All of that really comes through legislative reform. One conversation focuses on ways to get people treated and then out early. At the front end, funding and deliberately treating women with programming will help ensure they will get released and are productive.


If you could pick one thing to make people aware of about the prison system and its relationship to women, what would it be?

It’s the one thing that’s stumping me. [Laughs] I think it really is that there is a model that talks about pathways to incarceration for women, and most of them have to do with trauma. What brought me to work in a women’s prison in the first place was the understanding that sexual assault and domestic violence are really prevalent in that community. Getting treatment for those folks when they get in the door of the prison is critical to the next generation. I don’t go into my daily work thinking we’re going to fix all of these women, but most of these women have children, and we can change the way their family tree grows. We can help the next generation of kids to not end up in prison by really acknowledging sexual assault in young kids, by giving people the treatment that they need ahead of time, and really making a concerted effort to put our resources into their children. We have talked probably for the last five years about trauma-informed care for inmates in prisons and specifically in the women’s prisons. Often, we start this kind of thing in women’s prison, and then it goes into the larger population. It is important to me that people understand that our staff are here to help women affected by trauma.

Watch Felice's TED Talk:

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