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National Institute of Corrections Training Brings New Skills to Members of Women’s Division

July 6, 2022

By Robert Johnson

Department of Corrections

Photograph of Belinda Stewart

Belinda Stewart, a former superintendent of Washington Corrections Center for Women, was among a group from the National Institute of Corrections that offered gender responsiveness training at DOC headquarters in April. (Photo courtesy of DOC Staff)

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It is no secret that women and men have different needs, but policies tend to classify female prisoners in the same ways as men. The creation of the Women’s Prisons Division in 2021 is meant to better address the needs of staff and the people under the Department of Corrections (DOC) jurisdiction. This work will help create better outcomes as people reenter the community, but it starts from the first day a person is brought into one of our facilities.

Addressing gender-specific needs is complex and must be done upfront to assure better outcomes for reentry. Most women come into our system with significant trauma history and are often victims of violence. Success for women must include dealing with those issues. Gender-specific approaches will assure a greater number of successes.

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) provided weeklong training at headquarters in April that also brought the return of a couple of former agency leaders. Belinda Stewart and Jane Parnell, both former superintendents of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), were among those from the Department of Justice who provided instruction during the four-series training.

"For us it’s the passion that we’ve had in saying for years that women are different,” said Stewart, who spent 30 years with DOC and has worked in corrections for four decades. “As such, you have to program them differently, you have to classify them differently, you have to know about the things that drive women, and you also have to know the pathways that led them to being incarcerated.”

The Gender Responsiveness in the Operations and Management of Women’s Prisons training brought in leadership from both women’s prisons and other sites. Stacy Fitzgerald, the supervisor of the Helen B. Ratcliffe House in Seattle, called it the best training that she has taken. “It was very refreshing,” she said. “I didn’t know that other people thought like me and have wanted to see some of these changes.”

Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy said the training was an important step as work is done to better serve incarcerated females. “It was great to welcome home Belinda and Jane,” Murphy said. “Their passion and wealth of knowledge are great assets. We were fortunate to have them here as we move forward with the development of the Women’s Division.”

The outside perspective will help DOC institute best practices as policies are adapted to specifically address the needs of incarcerated women. “I think I have an advantage, as does Belinda, by seeing the national level,” Parnell said. “Both of us grew up in Washington, that’s what we knew. But when I left and got to see other things going on — both positive and negative — I have the advantage of coming back and saying I worked with Alabama to institute a disciplinary process just for women. I worked with Georgia to develop their strategic plan and their mission/vision for their women’ services. I’m working with New Jersey now to say here’s some things we’ve learned to deal with transgender inmates.”

The Women’s Division is still young and developing a strategic plan and vision, but Stewart and Parnell said they see plenty of reasons for optimism as changes happen that will empower staff and make DOC more inclusive to women. “I am excited about the enthusiasm and the Department’s commitment,” Stewart said. “Staff need to be empowered to do what they can to address the trauma that this population has experienced.” Jo Wofford, Gender Responsive Administrator stated the National Institute of Corrections will assist Washington with operationalizing the ideals around gender responsive programing and trauma informed care alongside a variety of recent initiatives focused on this work. “These are exciting times for the newly formed Women’s Division,” she said.