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30 More Inmates Graduate Moving On Program at Mission Creek Corrections Center Program Helps Women Inmates Cope With Trauma

November 24, 2015

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications Department of Corrections

Students pose for the class photo with some of them proudly displaying their completion certificates.

Students pose for the class photo with some of them proudly displaying their completion certificates.

BELFAIR – Shaneeka Opulencia has spent the past 10 years in and out of prison. She says the trauma of having an incarcerated father is what made her lash out at the world and fall into a path of crime.

“I was lost and resentful. I was selfish with low self-esteem and made bad choices,” said the 35-year old, who is currently serving a sentence for possession of stolen property. “All my life I felt abandoned and I always asked myself, ‘What did I do to make Daddy go away?’”

Opulencia credits the “Moving On” program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) for finally helping her move past the trauma that consumed her for so long.

“I had been carrying this around for 30 years and this class taught me to forgive him after I couldn’t myself. We’ve reestablished contact with each other and now we write each other letters. I feel like I’ve been given back a part of my life that’s been missing and I can piece back together my life.”

Opulencia is one of 100 of offenders to graduate the program, which is offered at both Mission Creek, and Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor. Opulencia graduated the program earlier this year and was one of several offenders to speak at the Mission Creek graduation last week. Thirty offenders received completion certificates at the ceremony. Nearly 100 offenders attended the ceremony to cheer on their peers.

The Program

The program is designed to help offenders like Opulencia reconnect with their families, build self-esteem, deal with emotions related to trauma and identify what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Moving On facilitators say the program is intended to reduce recidivism rates by giving offenders skills to live healthy, productive lives after release. They also say the program is known to reduce violence in prisons.

“The program doesn’t dwell on the past, it really is about moving on,” said Angela Hosking, a corrections unit supervisor and program facilitator at Mission Creek. “The women who enter the program already have strengths and skills to start with and this program builds on those foundations to turn them into a stronger structure.”

The program was launched at both Mission Creek and WCCW in 2013 as part of the Department of Corrections’ gender response initiative, which encouraged prison staff to focus on specific needs of female offenders.

Historically, corrections practices have primarily been designed for working with male offenders. However, in recent years, studies have shown that those practices often can’t be used the same way when dealing with female offenders. The initiative focused on gender responsive practices such as developing more gender responsive programming to serve female offenders, educating staff on the effects of trauma, and developing risk and needs assessments designed for women offenders.

During the class, women attend two hour group sessions twice a week for 13 weeks. The program targets offenders whose classification risk levels are considered the most likely to reoffend (High violent or non-high violent) and whom are nearing the end of their sentences. Specialists in the offender change division screen offenders and make participant recommendations to program facilitators.

One of the most common experiences shared by women in correctional facilities is a history of trauma, according to the National Justice Center for Justice Involved Women. The organization says some studies indicate as many as 90 percent of incarcerated women have histories of trauma. It also reports trauma often plays a role in the onset of women’s criminal behavior, as well as some behaviors displayed in prison, and is linked to substance abuse and mental health challenges.

Hosking says many of the women in the program have experienced trauma from being in abusive and unhealthy relationships. The program, she said, goes a long way in the healing process and improves overall behavior.

“They start honestly believing that they deserve to be in a relationship that is mutually beneficial, unconditionally loving, and not abusive,” Hosking said.

Impact Stories

Amber Davis, 37, says she felt powerless during and after a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. The trauma stuck with her, something she says she had a hard time dealing with. Alone and distraught, she found herself living on the streets and turning to drugs to escape the emotions left from the trauma. She’s currently serving the second of two prison sentences for burglary and theft.

“I was kind of in that give up state and my mental health wasn’t right,” Davis said. She says she met other women in the program who were domestic violence victims, just like her, and that being able to share similar experience with them made her realize the abusive situations weren’t her fault.

“I know who I am now,” Davis said. “I am a woman being put back together. This prison setting has been a gift for me to find myself and be the person I want to be.”

Opulencia adds one of the most important parts of the program that helped her recognize how her actions would impact her future was having facilitators take the time to help her sort out her feelings.

“They were really dedicated and really cared and that meant a lot to me,” Opulencia said. “That was the first time anyone asked me why I felt the way I did.”

Opulencia, who has an earned release date of May 2016 is looking forward to putting the past behind her and beginning the next chapter of her life.

She’s eager to be reunited with her 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in more than a year. She also wants to find a job working with at-risk youth so she can set a good example for her children and break the generational cycle of incarceration.

“I am a better person than I was. I’m a better friend, sister and mother,” Opulencia said. “I’m confident I’m going to use the tools this class has helped me gain to become successful. I want my kids to grow up and not go to jail or prison and be a role model in their lives.”