THE number of women prisoners is growing rapidly in the United States. Though still less than 6 percent of the total state and federal prison population, the number of women inmates has tripled over the last decade, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Many of the women are incarcerated for nonviolent economic or drug-related crimes. Most are mothers. Usually relatives or friends, rather than the father, have kept the children. Such women face an especially tough challenge when they leave prison. In addition to the usual chores of trying to find housing and a job, most need to renew ties with their own children.
"When these women come out, they have nothing - it's very easy for them to become overwhelmed," says Eileen Hogan, a former prison chaplain at New York City's Rikers Island prison complex, where she has worked closely with women inmates for most of the last two decades.
Awareness of the special challenges they face led Ms. Hogan in 1989 to join with several other women who had built up an informal support network to help newly released prison mothers. The result is WomenCare, a one-on-one advocacy program offering emotional and logistics support to mothers released from New York State's Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities near New York City.
"A lot of times you think that people perceive you differently when you've been in prison; having a mentor helped me feel I could fit back in," says Nancy, a former inmate who has two daughters. "It makes you feel good to know that somebody's there for you - in your corner."
"These women need a fan - somebody who's rooting for them," agrees Linda Loffredo, a former official with the New York State Division of Women. She was part of the early informal prison network and helped write the proposal for a federal grant that launched WomenCare.
Since few funds were available to help women, the grant writers focused on the children involved and the program's potential for reducing juvenile delinquency. Ms. Loffredo and the others found in their research that children with mothers in prison are five times as likely as other children to go on to prison themselves.
One of WomenCare's early successes is in keeping once incarcerated mothers from returning to prison. More than two-thirds of such women nationally return to prison for parole and other violations. The recidivism rate thus far for 75 women in the WomenCare program is under 2 percent, says Ms. Hogan.
IDA MALDONADO, a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx, N.Y., who has six grown children of her own, is working with her third mother as a WomenCare volunteer. She goes to visit the former inmate, a mother of three, at least two times a month and is particularly pleased when the woman, who doesn't have a telephone, calls her from a pay phone or a friend's house.
"She's giving me that good feeling that I make a difference to her, and I'm giving her a feeling of support," she says. "It's a give-and-take situation. You get so much in return."
Indeed, Hogan, the first Roman Catholic woman chaplain to serve in a major prison, bristles at a reporter's suggestion that mentors "help" ex-inmates. She says the relationship is a learning process for both women and cuts across racial, economic, and religious lines.
"The core of the program is trust," she says. The message to former inmates, she says, is, "We're willing to stay with you through good times and bad times - we won't drop you." She adds, "It's wonderful to watch these women grow and take control of their lives."
Mentors must agree to a commitment of about a year, Hogan says. Her office provides the necessary logistics and resource help. About 34 pairs of volunteers and former inmates, who meet before release, are working together at any one time, she says.
Each volunteer goes through extensive training, including role-playing, that focuses on the feelings and needs of both mentor and former inmate. At one recent training session consultant Ted Welch asked the two dozen women present to pair up and imagine what they would say to each other at their first meeting in prison. This helps the volunteers learn how well they are likely to work with other women.
Brenda Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project of the National Women's Law Center, says she knows of close to a dozen such US mentoring projects. She says the need is enormous. Women inmates often are released from jail with no money and no clothing, other than their prison jumpsuits, she says. Those who have cared for their children are often very angry with the mothers, so the families are not a resource. Yet getting funds to help such women is very tough, she says, because they elicit little s ympathy and "many organizations don't understand why this is such an important group to work with."