A chance for a change for Cook County Jail women

By Enrica Nicoli-Aldini

Several colored posters decorate the walls of Division 17 at Cook County Jail, motivating its women residents with words of encouragement such as “Together we can make it.” Light blue walls lead the way up to the Pink Salon, a beauty shop where women can work or get their hair and nails done. A clinic and dispensary occupies the end of one tier’s corridor, near multipurpose rooms filled with brown chairs arranged in circles, for group meetings, therapy sessions and church services.

“The building looks more like a school, not a prison,” said Division 17 resident Margot Zyskind. “This is colorful, and it’s been a lot more pleasant than I expected.”

Zyskind is one of the 163 female inmates who currently populate Division 17 as part of the Women’s Justice Program, an intensive 120-day treatment program for women detained at Cook County Jail awaiting trial for offenses that usually fall under the categories of drug possession and retail theft.

The program provides mental health services and classes to equip detainees with skills for both family and work life after jail.

“These women come here with a lot of baggage,” said Kelly Baker, who has been superintendent of Division 17 for 10 years. “They want to be listened to, and with our team effort, they get a lot of attention here.”

She said the division has existed in its current form since 1999. Before that, she said, “men and women were treated the same.”

“But women are more needy,” she continued, hence the creation of a program specifically tailored toward their needs.

“They have mental health issues. They’ve been traumatized. They come from generations of drug abuse, they lack parenting skills, they’ve been molested, and all sorts of horrors I can’t even imagine,” said Baker.

Zyskind said the reason why she is in jail pales in comparison to what she calls “shocking cases” of other women in the division. At 27, an aspiring high school teacher—“ironically enough,” she joked—she is awaiting trial for possession of heroin and retail theft. “At first, I was terrified. This is my first time in jail, and you feel like all rights have been taken from you,” she said. “But then I realized my case is not the end of the world.”

Red scabs cover Zyskind’s arms and face, signs of heroin consumption and subsequent withdrawal. She talks fast and bluntly, because “all I have is time,” she says. She started going down “the slippery slope of heroin” in 2012, after spending her college years binging on alcohol and other types of drugs.

Zyskind credits the Women’s Justice Program for making her jail experience more bearable. “I’ve been learning a lot, more than I did in college, from the classes here,” she said. “You learn common sense skills that are usable in real life experiences.”

Preparing women for life after jail goes hand in hand with keeping the risk of recidivism at bay, said Baker. According to a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on recidivism trends at the national level, two-thirds of female inmates were re-arrested within five years of release. The same report found that the recidivism rate among women was about 10 percentage points lower than among men.

U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall used to co-run a re-entry program for men and women coming out of federal prisons. She said that she found women to be more disposed than men to change their lives after prison. “The women I met all seem really committed to do whatever they had to do to get their lives off on a better footing,” she said.

Still, criminal records make it harder to find work and a smooth re-entry in the community, especially when prior criminal charges are related to a drug addiction. Sheila Hill knows this first-hand. She was incarcerated five times on drug charges before starting her path to recovery and a managerial job at a recovery home in Chicago.

“I had a drug addiction and I was selling drugs,” said Hill. “That is what I was used to doing. If you can’t find a job, you know what you gotta do. Change is hard and fearful.”

Hill, a 42-year-old West Side resident, sees her job as a way to give back the support she received. “Change is so hard without support,” she said. She did not want to give the name of her employer without permission.

Religious conversion was central to Hill’s recovery. “My last effort at trying to recover from addiction came with so much pain that I surrendered,” she said. “I went to church and started reading the Bible. That’s what I’m still doing, and I’ve been good since.”

Baker said that in the 10 years she’s worked as superintendent for Division 17, she’s witnessed a reduction in the recidivism rate among women. “But I’ve also seen women coming back in my career. Some girls only get it the second or third time around, others even need more time,” she said. “Besides, it takes years to be completely clean after recovering from addiction.”

The Empowerment Center within the Women’s Justice Program at Cook County Jail seeks to provide a continuum of care to women exiting the criminal justice system, Baker noted. The center connects women with services in the community that help them find housing and job and provide legal assistance in the process.

“We have connections with companies that hire and train these women,” said Baker. “We teach women practical skills such as sewing, banquet serving, gardening and landscaping. We also teach them how to write a resume, compile a checkbook and manage money. We’ve had quite a bit of success.”

Marian Hatcher, project manager and human trafficking coordinator at the Women’s Justice Program, said the recidivism rate for women exiting the program in 2014 was 25 percent.

Getting Division 17 residents ready for post-jail employment often starts with jobs the jail itself, including in the laundry service and the beauty shop. During one of her stays at Cook County Jail, Hill served food to other inmates, making about $14 a week, or $2 a day.

Women are eligible for jobs in the jail depending on what crime they committed and the bond that was set for them. Detainees can also be part of a residential advisory committee that briefs Baker on problems or issues in Division 17.

Zyskind is one of the committee members. She feels like life at Division 17 resembles high school. “I met women who were similar to me, and we bonded over our similarities,” she said. “But then you also have 50 women crammed in the tiny space of a tier, and just like high school, there’s bullying going on.”

Baker said it’s especially hard to work with young residents in the division. “They know everything,” she said. Her team tries to defuse fights between detainees and with staff. Unlike other parts of the jail, isolation is not used as a punishment.

“We try to manage them with our minds instead of our actions and words,” said Baker. Drawing a distinction between reacting and interacting, she suggested the staff at the Women’s Justice Program favors interaction with residents as opposed to mere reaction.

“You understand that these women do not care so much what you tell them,” said Baker. “They just want to be listened to.”

Photo at top: The Women’s Justice Program at Cook County Jail provides mental health services to about 160 women. (Enrica Nicoli-Aldini/Medill)