Vermont Works for Women increases re-entry support for incarcerated women during COVID-19
By Heather Newcomb, Women’s Program Manager
As we all learn to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, for some it has meant release from incarceration ahead of schedule. Since mid-March about 60 women have been released from Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), the only women’s facility in Vermont.
For the women who remain at CRCF, COVID-19 brought visitations with family and loved ones, programming, and – with the courts closed – many of their cases, all to a halt. The women are overwhelmed with frustration and fear, for their health and the health of their family and friends. While VWW staff are still not able to enter the facility to support these women, we are doing our best to provide encouragement and support to them through email and letters, until we are permitted to resume programming.
For the women who were released, there was little time to prepare or plan. VWW was a critical support, covering basic needs and transportation when needed. VWW received a list of needed items (clothing, hygiene, and feminine needs) for clients that we purchased and delivered to CRCF at the time of release. Typically, inmates may submit requests to caseworkers to receive vouchers for church/thrift stores, but with COVID-19 the stores are closed so the vouchers are unusable. For others we assisted with transportation costs to help women return to their hometowns throughout Vermont. For a few, we actually provided that transportation.
One woman released, Katie, was in need of transport from CRCF to a meeting with her probation officer in Morrisville, and then transportation to her new residence at a Vermont Foundation of Recovery house. Transportation is the most common barrier that these women are facing. Even when there’s access to public transportation, if they have multiple meetings in different places it takes an enormous amount of time riding on the bus and sometimes the bus only runs at certain days and times.
With my mask on, I picked Katie up at the doors of CRCF upon her release, to bring her to her appointments. Katie was incredibly grateful for this assistance and said, “Heather, you are the only person that I could reach out to for help.” During our drive, we discussed managing her fears about living in a new town, and strategies for building a support network. I could sense Katie’s anxiety for initiating contact with strangers and role-played different scenarios with her. “No one has ever taken the time to practice with me to lessen my nerves. Usually I’m told to ‘put your big girl panties on’ and do it, but that’s hard and not helpful. But practicing the conversation helps a lot.” In the past VWW has not served this region of Vermont, but now that we have transitioned to online meetings, we have been able to continue working with Katie to assist with her re-entry to society by having regular coaching meetings focused on gaining employment.
Some other women released through the pandemic response have maintained connections with VWW and continue with weekly coaching meetings by phone/video chat. We assist with developing their resume and share job search strategies. In addition to employment services, we meet to problem solve re-entry and life stresses that can sometimes trigger old patterns. During our coaching meetings, we have candid conversations about risk vs. reward, shifting their mindsets from crisis management into goal attainment, and expanding our clients’ awareness about their own potential and how their past doesn’t have to define them.
VWW believes we are defined by more than our mistakes.
We support women coming out of incarceration in persevering through rough times and assisting them to navigate the re-entry marathon under supervision. The finish line for this marathon is a moving target based on your ability to meet compliance, plan/prioritize, and advocate for yourself within a systemic structure of punishing consequences. Seamless communication and transition to community-based services needs to be developed, and the capacity for re-entry mentoring to help the women establish a foundation upon which to build their new lives.