ASU interns help combat recidivism with female leadership program in local prisons

With state and federal recidivism rates consistently hovering at around 60 percent for nearly two decades, one local organization is using education and support to reduce the number of female prisoners who end up returning to Arizona’s Perryville Prison.

Gina’s Team is a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching incarcerated women the principles of leadership, while creating a support network both in and outside the prison to help reduce recidivism rates and create better lives.

Since 2010, Gina’s Team has employed more than 43 ASU interns. Sociology senior Ashley Williams has worked for Gina's team since August.

“This experience has helped me see that the world isn’t just black and white," Williams said. “Having the perspective from both sides showed me that we need to appreciate and help each other.”

Sue Ellen Allen, co-founder of Gina's team, said the program teaches three, six-week courses each year. The class size started at 30 students in 2009, but it has expanded to 50 students due to the popularity of the course.

“Since we began teaching, 607 women have graduated the program, 379 of them have been released and only 22 have returned to prison – that is a 6 percent recidivism rate,” Allen said.

Martha Mertz, the ATHENA leadership model creator and a board member for Gina’s Team, worked closely with Allen to customize the curriculum for the class based on how inmates would perceive it.

“We teach the eight ATHENA principles of leadership as well as what we call ‘soft skills’ like relationship building, discipline, leadership and life skills,” Allen said.

Gina’s Team focuses on women because it considers them the base of the family unit. Because children with incarcerated parents are 60 percent more likely to go to prison themselves, Allen said. Gina’s Team teaches skills that will give women a better chance of keeping their families together.

Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention, is a saying Allen applies to Gina's Team and the presentations she gives at ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Sandi Starr was an inmate whose life was changed forever after she took the Gina’s ATHENA Team leadership program.  She earned her GED while in prison and began taking college credits before she was released. She is 13 credits away from an associates at Rio Salado College and carries a 4.0 GPA.

“They taught me leadership skills and new ways of thinking,” Starr said. “I learned how to search my heart to find the person that I want to be, and I have been able to become that person through Gina’s Team.”

One way they support program graduates and combat recidivism is their Welcome Back program. After participating in the Clinton Global Initiative, Gina’s Team has committed to training and placing 48 women returning from prison in paid apprenticeships or jobs.

“Finding jobs for women before they get out is huge,” said Diane Bondurant, director of operations for Gina’s Team. “We’ve identified that people fail when they get out because they don’t have any kind of support or money since it’s almost impossible for an ex-felon to find a job.”

Gina’s Team goals are to help its members as well as the public. Lowering recidivism rates can have financial benefits to tax payers as well as the community.

The annual cost of incarcerating an inmate is between $26,000-$28,000, according to the Office of the Federal Register.

Using $25,000 as a round number, Bondurant calculated that the state saves more than $8.9 million a year from the 357 non-recidivist ATHENA program graduates alone.

The impact Gina’s ATHENA Team had on program graduate, Diana Morgan can’t be quantified, she said. Morgan thought the class would be wasted on her since she was 50 at the time and had been addicted to heroin for 20 years, but that wasn’t the case.

“My life is amazing now, I never thought it would be like this and it’s really because I graduated from the Athena curriculum with the support and encouragement and love and foundation we are given not just inside but after we are released as well,” Morgan said.

Related Links:

ASU's new Center for Political Thought and Leadership opened with lecture on Abraham Lincoln

Leadership: backing down to step up


Reach the reporter at pscottha@asu.edu or follow @sgt_preston on Twitter.

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