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2010 Changemaker: The Reentry Clinic

One-to-one mentor/client relationships rebuild lives of women leaving prison

Joanna Woolman

“No matter what life brings you, there is always someone there to help you through. There are people who can help you move forward, who can be strong and support you through the wreckage of your past.”
-Sharon Kennedy, Reentry Clinic client

More than 550 women are incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, Minnesota’s only women’s prison. Their criminal backgrounds vary widely, from forgery to felony DWI to murder. Drug offenses constitute one-third of the governing sentences.

In an average month, 30 rejoin what’s usually called “society.” The lives of Reentry Clinic clients, like those of all women, are works in progress. They’re white, African-American, Native American and Asian. Their ages range from 18 to 50-something.

Despite their vast differences, each has “a record,” and sometimes it seems that record is all society-in the form of prospective employers, landlords, and neighbors-sees.

Joanna Woolman sees beyond the record to what she calls the “amazing women” that they are. And when they’re paired with women lawyers-in-training who accompany them on the transition back to society, the results are impressive.

Woolman is director of the Reentry Clinic, created in 2007. The program’s spark, she said, came when two attorneys from the Minnesota State Public Defender’s Office realized that “they spent all their time on the front end-and decided they wanted to create services on the back end as well.”

They applied for seed money from the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC). William Mitchell College of Law teamed with DOC and the state Public Defender’s Office to establish the nation’s first female-focused reentry clinic.

Woolman noted that almost every inmate will someday be released-as of mid-November, only one woman was serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole-and they’ll need to rebuild a life, sometimes virtually from scratch. So far, of about 100 women who’ve participated in the Reentry Clinic, only 6 percent have returned to prison; the state’s average recidivism rate, Woolman said, is 20 percent to 30 percent.

What’s the secret? Woolman stresses the Reentry Clinic’s “gender-responsive and holistic approach.” Along with legal help, “we provide group therapy, help with housing and employment, and we help women reunite with their children.”

Nationwide, most female inmates are mothers; their kids usually wind up in foster care or with a relative other than their father. Some women lose parental rights while in prison.The sheer instability in clients’ lives is “challenging,” Woolman said. Another challenge: confronting and reframing the “savior” dynamic.

“Students may come in with the expectation of ‘saving’ these women,” Woolman said. “But we’re here to stabilize and support them in the choices they make.” The students learn “how to be supportive but also hold people accountable,” she added.

Woolman would like to see the work spread. While for practical purposes the Clinic mainly serves women who remain in the metro area after leaving prison, “there are a ton of women in Greater Minnesota whose needs are going unmet. We’re still the only clinic like this in the country.”

Be A Changemaker:
To get involved with the Second Chance Coalition, a partnership of over 50 organizations that advocates for fair and responsible reentry policies, go to: www.mnsecondchancecoalition.org/
To learn more about, or donate money to, the Reentry Clinic, call 651-290-6413 or go to: www.thereentryclinic.org/index.php