‘I’m starting to believe that some of the answers to these big problems are going to come from faith-based communities," said Ailene Farkac, a former inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.
‘I’m starting to believe that some of the answers to these big problems are going to come from faith-based communities," said Ailene Farkac, a former inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

Three days after her release from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ailene Farkac was flipping hamburger patties and taking drive-thru orders at Wendy’s.

Her weekly salary was what she’d pocket in a few hours selling heroin. But she had a job and she had sobriety.

Finishing the closing shift about 2 a.m., Farkac would walk three-and-a-half miles along the freeway back to her transition house. No buses ran that late, and going around the freeway would add miles.

At home there were children waiting. In the tiny living space, she shared a bunk bed with her 7-year-old son and one of two teenage daughters.

“It was a tough, scary time,” said Farkac, now 50.

Stories like Farkac’s — of women attempting to rebuild their lives after addiction, crime and incarceration — are being told with greater frequency.

Women account for just 10 percent of the total prison population in the United States but long have been the fastest-growing demographic. In Oregon between 1994 and 2016, the incarceration rate for women increased by 195 percent, according to Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission (CJC), a state agency that serves as a clearinghouse for criminal justice data.

Once released from prison, women, like their male counterparts, regularly are turned away from housing and jobs and have comparably high recidivism rates.

But women also have their own set of burdens post-incarceration.

They are more likely than men to be the primary caretakers of children, and upon release are fighting to regain — or not lose — custody. And a higher percentage are grappling with trauma in their past, along with addiction and mental illness.

Then there’s the social stigma. “When you look at criminality, there’s this expectation that boys will be boys,” said Joan Quaempts, women’s program director for Sponsors, a re-entry program in Eugene that was founded by a Holy Names sister. “For women who’ve committed a crime, there’s this reaction of ‘What kind of a freak are you?’”


To understand the spike in Oregon’s female incarceration rate, look to Measure 57, say those who work with imprisoned women in the state. Passed by Oregonians in 2008, the ballot measure created mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent property offenders and “disproportionately affects women,” said Julia Yoshimoto, project director and attorney for the Women’s Justice Project, an initiative of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. 

“The way the law is set up, you can be sentenced as a repeat offender of property crime even if it’s your first offence,” Yoshimoto said.

The CJC shows nearly half of women sentenced to prison in 2017 are serving time for nonviolent property offenses, compared with 34 percent of men. A larger percentage of women also are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. 

Yoshimoto said underlying many convictions is unaddressed trauma.

Nearly 70 percent of women incarcerated at Coffee Creek reported they were physically abused as a child or teenager, according to a recent survey by the Oregon Justice Resource Center in partnership with Portland State University.

In prisons nationwide, women report high levels of mental health problems, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women indicates 65-80 percent of women in prisons or jails have had at least some drug involvement.

“Childhood trauma often leads women to drug use to medicate,” observed Yoshimoto. “And that can lead to crimes to feed the addiction.”

A system built for men

When Farkac was released from Coffee Creek — the state’s sole prison for women — in 2008, the term “re-entry” conjured up images of an object “re-entering the atmosphere from space,” she said. Since then, the biggest change is that “people are now talking about re-entry support. That support is still haphazard, but public perception has started to shift.”

An ongoing challenge is that the “whole criminal justice system is designed and built for men,” said Farkac, who earned a master’s in social work after her release and serves on the Women’s Justice Project advisory committee. She said women even are issued men’s clothing; “they just ship all the smaller sizes to the women’s prison.”

Farkac believes there are reasons to be hopeful, however. There are faith-based efforts to spotlight criminal justice issues in Oregon, and the state Department of Corrections “is looking at more progressive criminal justice structures,” she said.

Last fall, for example, Oregon corrections officers visited Norway and worked alongside their counterparts in a Norwegian prison. The Scandinavian country has transformed its violent prisons into one of the most rehabilitative systems in the world.

Norway’s recidivism rates are less than half of those in Oregon, where about 40 percent of both men and women released from Oregon’s state prisons are convicted of a crime within three years.

Based on some measurements, U.S. recidivism rates are as high as around 80 percent.

Missing mothers

“When those children come, you see your hope again, you see your life again.”

These words, spoken in a faltering voice, are those of an incarcerated woman in the documentary “Mothering Inside.” The 2015 film follows women and children of the Family Preservation Project at Coffee Creek. The project works to re-establish healthy bonds between inmate moms and their kids; it also drastically reduces recidivism.

But such programs, like others in women’s prisons, face funding and space limitations, and women may be ineligible for a number of reasons, including conditions of their sentence.

Simply getting to the prison can be a hurdle for some families.

“Since there’s only one prison in the state for women, if a family is not living nearby, visits can be difficult,” Yoshimoto said.

In theory, corrections officials encourage visiting and maintenance of family ties. In practice, prison rules to ensure safety and security often impede such visits.

Farkac recalled how her young son, after riding in a car several hours to visit her, was told he couldn’t see Mom. The boy was wearing shorts with a camouflage print, which was prohibited.

According to 2015 CJC figures, 56 percent of the women at Coffee Creek have children. About 15 percent of the children are in foster care.

“So many of these moms worry about their children, pray for their children,” said Peggy Donaldson, a member of St. Cyril Parish in Wilsonville who’s been part of the Catholic prison ministry at Coffee Creek since the facility opened in her city almost 20 years ago.

Donaldson added that women “also beat themselves up that they are not there for their mom or dad, who may be getting older. They tell me, ‘I should be taking care of them, but I’m here instead because of my bad decisions.’”

Effie Stansbery, the prison and re-entry services program manager for Mercy Corps Northwest, has made similar observations. Women “feel deeply imbedded in their communities,” she said. And in reality, “when you take her out of it there are serious implications for the community.”

Once women are released, many scramble to find housing and jobs while at the same time attempting to secure child care.

Sponsors, a holistic re-entry program, addresses the challenges women encounter by including trauma-informed, gender-specific treatment, along with a range of other practical support.

But like other re-entry programs, it doesn’t include child care. “There are state programs that will help with care, and women can piece some things together, but as a whole it’s very hard,” said Quaempts at Sponsors.

She added that there are women in the program addressing the grief of relinquishing custody. “Some women voluntarily give up custody because they know it’s best for the children.”

Poverty and isolation

Women, particularly women of color, are more likely than men to be impoverished, and poorer individuals face many disadvantages when it comes to criminal justice. Most U.S. jurisdictions use a cash bail system, meaning the economically disadvantaged often remain in jail through their trials because they are too poor to make bail.

In Oregon, around 76 percent of women at Coffee Creek reported being unemployed at the time of their offense, based on 2015 CJC data.

Among the successful in-prison re-entry programs, albeit one with limited space, is Mercy Corps’ LIFE (Lifelong Information for Entrepreneurs), which teaches imprisoned women how to start their own businesses and gives them “a greater sense of self-efficacy,” said Stansbery. This year, around 13 percent of participants were homeless prior to incarceration.

“They might be thinking about money, but many are thinking about how the hell they can get out of poverty,” Stansbery said.

According to Mercy Corps, graduates of the program are up to 63 percent less likely to be convicted of a misdemeanor or felony following release. The Portland-based nonprofit is hoping to expand the program.

Stansbery notes that the isolation women experience post-incarceration is something frequently overlooked in re-entry work.

“One woman told me, ‘I spent five years trying to get away from the women; now I’m isolated without them,’” she recalled. “You take away cellphones and other distractions and women connect more with each other.

“It’s absolutely not all rainbows and butterflies in there,” she added, “but there can be a great deal of community.”

‘Reticent to help’

The 79-year-old Donaldson — a widow, mother of two and U.S. Army veteran trained in hospice care — said she tries to bring her education and life experience to the women she ministers to. “I attempt to use what I’ve learned and give what I can to those who’ve had bad relationships and are so concerned about their children,” she said.

Echoing Catholics who work with incarcerated and recently released men, Donaldson said the Catholic community needs to step up its support for women.

“Catholics are reticent to help,” she said. “It’s hard for me to hear from women who’ve been attending Catholic services in prison that someone who is not Catholic took them to their church or shopping for clothes.

“What I most want is my Catholic brothers and sisters around the state to reach out and help these women assimilate back into society,” said Donaldson.

Faith’s potential

To increase women’s re-entry success, Farkac would like to see more mentoring and legal support, but also some basic, practical guidance from the Department of Corrections — such as telling the newly incarcerated to turn off their utility and phone services.

Staying out of prison also requires deep healing, said Farkac. In addition to trauma and addiction, “women in prison often have such low self-esteem.”

Faith and faith communities can lift women up, she said.

Farkac, who is Jewish, said individuals affiliated with religious services at Coffee Creek “were the first to say, ‘What happened to you,’ not ‘What did you do?’”

She sees faith’s potential in the bigger picture, too.

“Addicts often become addicts because they didn’t have faith, they didn’t have hope,” she said. “I’m starting to believe that some of the answers to these big problems are going to come from faith-based communities.”

You just pray’

When a woman is about to be released from Coffee Creek, the prison ministry gives her “what we call ‘a sending,’” said Donaldson.

Volunteers and fellow inmates gather around the woman. “We extend our hands and touch her arms or her head. We say, ‘Have a good life’ and all kinds of well-wishes and prayers. It is a beautiful thing.”

Sometimes, Donaldson will be walking down a hall of the prison and see a woman who has returned.

“She’ll look at me with tears in her eyes, and say, ‘Don’t ask.’ I tell her, ‘We all stumble and fall.’ Some respond, ‘Well, I’m getting tired of falling.’

“I encourage her to come to our services, to keep at it. Then she leaves and you don’t usually see her again or know what happened to her,” said Donaldson. “And, well, you just pray.”

For a broader look at recidivism in Oregon, go here.





Abuse at Coffee Creek? 

WILSONVILLE — Sex abuse cases have plagued Coffee Creek Correctional Facility since it opened here in 2001.

Five current and former inmates are in the process of suing the state, claiming they were sexually assaulted by a nurse in the prison’s medical unit. An investigation by the Oregon State Police found 11 inmates reported some form of sexual contact with the nurse, the Statesmen Journal reported Feb. 28.

Past high profile cases include a former groundskeeper arrested in 2009 for sexually abusing inmates and a former corrections officer, who was convicted of custodial sexual misconduct in 2016 for repeatedly coercing an inmate into sex.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that nationwide, women, who often enter prison with a history of abuse, are vulnerable to further victimization by other inmates or prison staff.





Prison ministry conference set for April 13

A prison ministry conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of Portland will be held Saturday, April 13, at Mount Angel Seminary. It includes an opening prayer by Benedictine Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, a presentation on prison ministry in western Oregon and a talk by Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. The conference begins with an 8 a.m. Mass and concludes around 2:30 p.m.

For more information, email Linda Showman of the archdiocese’s prison ministry, prisonministry@archdpdx.org.