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Article:For Montana Women’s Prison inmates, little to do but sit and wait
For female inmates, little to do but sit and wait
Odds of turning life around hurt by lack of meaningful activities
By JENNIFER McKEE Missoulian State Bureau
HELENA – Lori Doane, 64, is a grandmother of seven, a voracious crocheter and general advocate of what she calls “the hobby crafts.”
She considers herself lucky. Doane has someone to give her craft to, someone on the outside.
“If you don’t send (your crochet) out,” she said, “it will be destroyed.”
Doane is doing 10 years at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings for bad checks. She and two other inmates who agreed to be interviewed recently have a perspective on the Department of Corrections that few judges, lawmakers and department officials will ever have. They have been the recipients of budget growth and budget evaporation and they know exactly what the phrase “programming cuts” really means.
First things first: Doane and the two other inmates, Pamela Elliott and Brandy Marquardt, say they agree that the point of prison is to punish people and that, for any number of reasons, they deserved to go to prison.
Elliott, 37, is a mother of three from Miles City doing 30 years for murder, and Marquardt, 28, is a mother of one son serving four years for two counts of negligent homicide. Marquardt was driving drunk when she rolled her Mitsubishi Eclipse in Hamilton two years ago, killing her brother and cousin, who were also in the car.
Their crimes aside, the women say prison in Montana is, above all, bereft of almost anything productive to do. The Montana Women’s Prison has no library, no prison-industries program, not even a law library. There are board games, playing cards and a television set in the day room that isn’t turned on until 4 p.m. If you want a TV in your room, you have to pay for it. If you want to read a book, you have to wait until the Parmly Billings Library bookmobile comes, which is twice a month. There are about 50 jobs available for about 140 women, leaving most with nothing productive to do. The gym is nice, but not reliable, Marquardt said.
“I usually go once a day,” she said. “But sometimes, if the gym officer isn’t here, we don’t get gym. It’s kind of up in the air. It gets canceled a lot.”
Despite three colleges in Billings – Rocky Mountain College, Montana State University-Billings and the MSU-B College of Technology – inmates cannot enroll, even if they offer to pay for classes themselves.
“I would really like to finish my engineering degree,” Elliott said. “I think people should have educational opportunities.”
Many inmates simply have nothing to do. To fill the time, they crochet, embroider or do other handicrafts. Even that has a futile side. Inmates are not allowed to amass an ever-growing collection of crocheted items. If inmates don’t have anyone to give their creations to, officers throw it away, Doane said.
Marquardt and Elliott were among the last group of women prisoners moved to Billings from the prison in Shelby. There, at least before a state budget crisis prompted the private prison to cut programs, prison was a different story.
Elliott, a lifelong artist, took a painting class. She had a job on the prison yard crew. She was active in the inmate welfare council. Marquardt went to the gym twice a day. On holidays, the staff let inmates play softball. They had an outdoor running track, horseshoe pits. There was a life-skills class.
“It was great,” Marquardt said.
In Billings, Elliott has no job. The last prison inmate contract expired last month. She goes to computer classes two hours a day and a parenting class once a week. Other than that, she has little to do.
Doane crochets all day and reads in the evenings. A group of women at the prison are busily making blankets for children with cancer and lots of people are working on it.
Despite their boredom, the women – like many Montanans – are divided on exactly what the role of prison should be. Should the state try to make prisoners better people with classes and opportunities? Or is prison a place to pay a debt to society and little more?
Marquardt thinks the prisons should do both.
“I think you should just have to sit here and do your time,” she said. “But for those who want to be helped, they should be helped.”
“Brandy’s right,” Doane said. “People who are in prison basically deserve to be in prison. But on the flip side, if you want people to better themselves and to be invested in their communities when they get out, you need to invest in them in prison. Otherwise, it’s a never-ending cycle.”
The women all agree that rehabilitation is not a state function and may, in fact, be impossible to pull off if an inmate doesn’t want to change.
“That has to come from inside,” Doane said. “We can’t blame the state for that.”
Marquardt said that even under the difficult circumstances at the women’s prison, she’s able to stay quite busy.
All are concerned about what they see as injustices in the system. Some are little things.
“The men’s prison has a full-service library and we’ve never had any,” Doane said.
Other concerns run deeper. Marquardt, for example, has served almost two years behind bars for her deadly drunken-driving accident. Gov. Judy Martz’s former policy director, Shane Hedges, committed the same crime, killing his friend, House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers, in 2001. He served no time behind bars, but a six-month stint at the Helena Pre-Release Center. Hedges, who committed his crime six months after Marquardt’s wreck, is now free with a deferred sentence. Marquardt is just now getting ready to go to a prerelease center.
“That’s a big issue with me,” she said. “I’m doing my time and I’ve owned up to my crime. But when somebody goes out and does the same thing and gets a quarter of what I got, that’s unfair.”
If they were running things, the women would make one key change: Let their children visit more than once a month.
Wow! I can't believe they don't even have a law library. That's insane.
I also can't believe their children can only visit once a month? I understand tight budgets, but if they don't want these women to return to prison, they've got to loosen the purse strings a little bit. I believe family relationships and job skills are important in cutting down on recidivism.
On September 22, 2003, my better half came home after 657 days in an Alabama prison!!!
And he's now forever free - passing away from this life and into the next - on January 9, 2010.