Working with female prisoners has posed different challenges for the OMI. Although women comprise only about 10 percent of the Oklahoma prison population, serving them is also a high priority, with the states female incarceration rate ranking, in 2004, the highest in the nation at 129 per 100,000 female residents. One-quarter of female inmates were married, and 81 percent had children, so relationships are key to what happens in their lives. The vast majority of them reported that they had been in abusive relationships. The experience of working with female prisoners in the OMI has underscored the importance of their past relationship patterns to defining services, the diverse values that draw participants to the program, and ways to tailor OMI services to women in their circumstances.
Female inmates histories of abusive relationships have led the OMI to focus on helping them prepare for future relationships even more than helping them nurture current relationships. In a survey conducted by the DOC, nearly three quarters of Oklahomas female inmates reported having been in an abusive couple relationship; as children, 35 percent had been sexually abused and 29 percent physically abused. According to the prisons chaplain, some of the women engaged in crime at the behest or under the influence of their male partners. In response to these patterns, the chaplain offered a domestic abuse recovery curriculum for inmates even before PREP was introduced at the prison.
Experience led the DOC to focus on the needs of women who were mostly single and had histories of abuse. When approached to pilot test the PREP curriculum, the chaplain at the Eddie Warrior facility was interested in its potential for helping female inmates identify and avoid or end violent and destructive relationships, for their own benefit and that of their children, who are also at risk of abuse from their mothers intimate partners. Eventually, they found its focus on sustaining marriage off-target for their inmates, who needed instead to address unhealthy or abusive relationships. Leaders of the OMI received the same message from local welfare offices that began offering PREP to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients, the vast majority of whom were single.
In response, the OMI worked closely with the authors of PREP to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of these and similar groups. The result was Within My Reach (WMR). While traditional PREP assumes that couples are in viable relationships, WMR aims to teach individuals how to identify, stabilize, and sustain good relationships; identify and safely exit from dangerous relationships; and make good relationship choices in the future. WMR began to be used at Eddie Warrior when it became available in 2005. Each workshop now begins with WMR, and then covers the standard PREP material as well, so participants can also learn skills to maintain healthy relationships. In all, 12 weekly sessions are held.
Womens reasons for participating are even more varied than mens. The workshop is highly popular with female inmates, so recruitment is not a problem. Inmates at Eddie Warrior learn about the workshop mostly from flyers posted at the educational center and by word of mouth. The program is well-attended, with 3 or 4 classes of 40-70 participants conducted each year. Interviews revealed that trust and rapport with the chaplain was an important reason for female inmates enthusiasm for the program; they saw her as experienced in the ups and downs of life and relationships, capable of understanding their situations, and able to share her experiences and life lessons with them. They referred to her as blunt and honest someone who would tell it like it is, but not judge them.
In addition to their interest in the quality of their intimate relationships, inmates have several compelling reasons for participating. As at the male prisons, the women receive completion certificates which are placed in their files, and which may reflect favorably on them during parole hearings. The women, however, have two additional reasons for participation: first, activity in any of the prisons educational programs helps inmates earn privileges on the compound, and second, staff members and inmates believe that completing the class could strengthen a womans position should she be involved in future child custody proceedings.
Both chaplain and inmates saw ways to make these highly appreciated workshops still better. The inmates felt that WMR helped them set rules or boundaries such as prohibiting a boyfriend from being alone with her children to reduce the risk of possible child abuse. Some inmates said that before WMR, they did not know how to say no to their partners or spouses, or even that they had a right to do so. They felt they had learned about the ingredients of good and bad relationships, and how to balance the fact that no one is perfect with the importance of having a partner who respects you and treats you well. They felt that, after the class, they would have a better chance of deciding what a good relationship is, rather than slipping into a bad one. Many had begun applying some of the skills and concepts they learned in the class to their relationships.
Inmates also offered suggestions for strengthening the class. Many had children by multiple partners, and wished that the curriculum included information on how to deal with the issues and challenges these situations create. Many said they would like to have the option of inviting their current partners to attend some of the later PREP sessions, though they recognized the logistical difficulties, such as the remote location of the compound where they were incarcerated.