FULTON — Dixie Parks said she was 12 years old when she shot her father in self-defense.

It landed her in youth centers that medicated her to calm her down. Age 17 marked the start of a decade of abuse by another man, Parks recalled.

“I’ve been whipped by belts; I’ve been doused in gas; I’ve been stabbed numerous times,” Parks said.

“I just got stabbed this past August. That’s when I had enough,” she said. “He stabbed me with a fork, and I’m like, ‘He literally stuck a fork in me, and I’m done.’”

The past few years for Parks, who is now 30, have been riddled with drug use and criminal charges.

“I didn’t have a support team to help. I was by myself, and I kept using (drugs) to cover up pain,” Parks said through tears. “I knew it was time for a change.”

Parks was one of the residents who shared her story at the Fulton Community Supervision Center’s first open house on Nov. 6. It opened its doors in February as the first all-female supervision center in Missouri to address the needs of the rapidly growing population of women on probation or parole. The center’s capacity is 42 women.

The center takes a progressive approach to prison reform, aiming to reduce recidivism, or the tendency for a convicted criminal to commit another offense. Its 120-day program is tailored to female offenders by using gender-responsive and trauma-informed methods that identify root issues of crime.

Shannon Kimsey, the center’s district administrator, greeted about 50 people who came to the open house. It was the first time the public could tour the facility and get a glimpse of the center’s transformation from a transitional housing facility that used to house mostly men and had no programming, Kimsey said.

The women aren’t incarcerated, “so they’re actually free to leave whenever they want, but there are consequences,” Kimsey explained.

At first glance, the center’s interior looks different from most supervision centers, Will Dixon, the center’s unit supervisor, pointed out. Walls that were once a yellowed beige have been repainted a warm teal. Hand-drawn inspirational quotes and signatures scrawled across a chalkboard wall allow the women to express themselves, he said.

The living quarters’ dividers,which section the room into cubicle-like spaces, were once bare. Now, each space is adorned with paintings, posters and family pictures — personalized touches that were once prohibited.

“We knew we were going to take women that were going to be high stress, angry, hostile and depressed — through a lot of trauma. We did a lot of research,” Dixon said. “Our previous unit supervisor looked at calming colors, tranquil colors, and they were hues of greens and blues.”

“We looked at ways they could express themselves — because what’s opposite of an institution?” he said. “Being able to express yourself.”

One resident pointed out to visitors the day’s quote above her head on a whiteboard in a group room. It read: “I am more than just a criminal. I survived.”

Missouri’s locked-up population

Missouri has the fastest growing female incarceration rate in the United States.

{span style=”background-color: #ffffff;”}From 2010 to 2015, Missouri’s female prison population increased by 33%, according to The Council of State Governments Justice Center. Nationally, Missouri ranks eighth highest in prison population, according to 2018 Prison Policy Initiative data. Among Missouri state prisons, local jails, juvenile centers, involuntary commitment and federal prisons, over 51,000 people filled the facilities in 2018. Another 60,000 people were on probation or parole.

Missouri prisons were bursting at the seams when the state prison population peaked at 33,243 in September 2017, said Karen Pojmann, Missouri Department of Corrections communications director. To accommodate the growing numbers, The Council of State Governments projected that two additional prisons would be necessary within the next five years if the trend continued. The estimated price: $485 million.

The rising number of inmates was also straining staffing.

“Those two things can create a lot of challenges for the population,” Pojmann said. “We were really in danger.”

But neither prison was constructed. Over the past two years, the state’s prison population declined by about 20%, reducing the need for another prison. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s strategies have had a hand in reducing incarceration rates, Pojmann said. But recent changes in the criminal code were the main factor. Missouri criminal codes hadn’t been revised since 1979.

When The Council of State Governments did a deep dive into Missouri’s data, an important fact emerged.

“One of the biggest things that stood out from that research was that half of people going into prison are going in because of technical probation and parole violations, not because they committed new crimes,” Pojmann said.

Julie Kempker, division director of probation and parole, said a high recidivism rate because of probation and parole violations isn’t only a Missouri problem.

Missouri’s recidivism rate is about 44%, according to a 2016 report from the Missouri Department of Corrections.

“It’s probably one of the greatest challenges that all community corrections agencies face today — how do we lower our recidivism rate?” Kempker said.

When Kimsey and the staff at the Fulton Community Supervision Center proposed the idea to make it an all-women program, Kempker responded with support.

“I said, ‘Shannon, go forth and make it happen,’” Kempker said.

“This is just one of my six community supervision centers. Then we have about 75 district and satellite offices, and then there’s a transition center in St. Louis,” Kempker said. “So I’ve got about 2,000 staff, and this is just one sliver, but my favorite sliver is being here.”

Trauma-informed care

Nickie Moss, 29, said when she came to the center at the beginning of September, she was close-minded. Years of sexual abuse had fueled her methamphetamine addiction, and for the first time since she was 17, Moss was faced with having to cope with her emotions without drugs.

There was only one other option outside of this program, Moss said: death.

At the time of the center’s open house in early November, Moss was 60 days into the program. She notices she can smile again. She can tell her story. And she’s learned to reframe her self-worth with an exercise called “a value statement.”

“I’m a creative, beautiful, loving mom who is not the person I was in the past, and I am valuable,” Moss recites in her statement.

“People look at me like any criminal — like I’m just a drug addict — that’s all,” Moss said. “I’m more than just a drug addict. My story means something.”

Sundi Jo Graham, transition coordinator for the Central Workforce Development Board Inc., partnered with the center to teach personal and professional development. She’s also the source of the value statements.

But when she initially introduced the value statements, she was met with resistance.

“They think they’re stupid, but I think it was last week that I forgot to have them say them, and they were like, ‘Are we not going to do our value statements?’” Graham said. “You start to believe it the more you say it.”

She works to validate the women’s worth, but it isn’t always easy. Because of the women’s trauma, Graham said she starts off as “just another person” until trust is built.

She also equips the women with coping mechanisms and support they can use once they leave the center. She often gives the women her phone number.

“You have to have a strong support system, or you’re going to fall,” Graham said. “You’ve got to learn to respond to life versus react. The world hasn’t changed in the last four months, but you have.”

Graham’s Thursday class is one of many offered to the women as part of the center’s programming, which is divided into four phases and aims to prepare the women with the tools they need to stay out of prison.

“A lot of the programming deals with trauma, deals with the root causes of substance abuse,” Kimsey said. “Because we all know that it’s not only the substance abuse, it’s more about (what) causes them to use.”

Pojmann said the center uses interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy to help the women change their thought processes and behaviors. It can look as ordinary as daily journal writing.

“We want people to be able to approach their lives in a more thoughtful way, so we’re using cognitive tools to help with that,” she said.

The center brings in community partners to help teach the women skills they can bring back into their life when they leave. Programming one day can focus on job searching and family reunification the next day.

MU Extension partners with the center to teach the importance of good nutrition and wellness, while St. Louis University sends instructors to lead the women in trauma yoga.

“One of the ways that our staff also do that, which is different than men, is have what we call trauma-informed care,” Kimsey said.

Trauma-informed care is one of the most crucial parts of the program, in Kimsey’s view. It permeates even the little things. During pat-downs for contraband, a staff member will talk the woman through the process because many of the women are sexual and physical abuse survivors.

“We can do it in a way that we’re not revictimizing the ladies whenever we are doing that,” Kimsey said. “So it’s really about being kind.”

Through a gender-responsive lens

When Jami Gillespie, 43, cut her stay short and left six weeks into her first stay at the Fulton Community Supervision Center, she found herself spiraling once she returned home.

“I got high. I OD’d three times,” she said. “The last time I OD’d, I woke up in the hospital and had been hit with shots of Narcan; my clothes had been cut off me; I had a mainline through my shoulder.”

After she left the hospital, Gillespie spoke with her probation officer about her overdose and the chance to readmit to the supervision center for help. But she was arrested the day before she would have returned to the center. Back in prison, she was placed in segregated housing and put on suicide watch.

“That is rock bottom,” Gillespie said.

But when she made it back to the center for the second time in late October, after two weeks in segregated housing, her probation officer welcomed Gillespie with open arms.

“We’ve created more of a nurturing environment where women are getting counseling — they’re getting treatment for their issues,” Pojmann said. “They are forming connections with one another and really opening up and looking at their roots of what has led them to end up involved in the criminal justice system.”

Researchers who study gender-responsive approaches have identified differences between men and women offenders. The research corroborates the practices of the Fulton Community Supervision Center.

A 2012 study by the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology identified one overarching difference between male and female offenders: the nature and seriousness of the offenses.

“Female prisoners have also largely been characterized as socially and economically marginalized offenders who demonstrate unique needs pertaining to their histories of victimization or abuse, substance abuse, mental health problems, and traumatic relationships,” according to the study.

The study also found that female prisoners report being trauma and abuse victims more than their male counterparts.

“Domestic violence during adulthood was the most commonly reported type of abuse, followed by sexual and nonsexual abuse during childhood,” the study read.

For Parks, who is working through her own trauma, the center has brought her a sense of community.

Parks said she’s been able to delve into parts of her past that she hadn’t been able to talk about. Still, there’s a lot more to share, she told visitors at the open house. But going forward, she said she isn’t afraid. She’s ready to dig even deeper.

“I’ve been told before that I’m worthless and nobody would want me except for horrible things, and I believed that for 14 years,” Parks said. “I think everything happens for a reason, and I’m so glad my PO sent me here. Some serious growth happens here and you can’t get this kind of stuff in prison.”

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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