Women in jail face an uncertain future, especially if they are pregnant or already have children. But women in the Wayne County (OH) Jail have a resource that gives them tools to make a brighter future.
Two years ago, Jeanne Altland started helping with a ministry serving women in the jail. The chaplain at the jail at that time had arranged for the ministry to start, and Altland, a retired child welfare social worker, stayed on and took over its leadership after he left about two months later.
“I really like meeting with these ladies," said Altland, also the assistant office manager at Pregnancy Care Center (PCC) of Wayne County in Wooster, OH. "I think we’re providing something they like.”
Every Wednesday two volunteers teach classes on parenting, life skills, conflict, family stability and personality strengths. The women can use the classes to meet county requirements to regain custody of their children when they leave jail.
They also benefit from the center's Earn While You Learn curriculum – the content, and the “baby bucks” they earn and bank while in jail, which can be used in the pregnancy care center for baby supplies. And their “baby bucks” can be used for supplies for themselves, such as “toiletries, laundry soap, body wash, hair conditioner, even socks,” according to Altland.
One student of the jail ministry commented, “These classes have really good topics each week. They are relatable and easy to understand, even the tougher emotional topics like family violence. The time and effort put in these classes are appreciated.”
More than life skill education, these classes offer hope.
Getting a job, finding housing and seeing their children again are the things that give these women hope for life after incarceration. Local children’s social services accept the six-week certification that some of the jailed mothers need to be able to have their children back.
“Case workers can choose which of our topics they want the ladies to cover,” Altland explained.
Another advantage of the center offering the classes is that it gives the women somewhere to turn for help once they’re out of jail.
One of the women said, “I really enjoy all of the classes and I find the topics really helpful. I look forward to continuing to come to PCC [the pregnancy care center] when I am out of jail. And the Baby Bucks will be useful, too!”
When students from the jail ministry visit the Pregnancy Care Center upon release it keeps relationships with their mentors going, where they can attend more classes and Bible studies, or simply share what is happening in their lives.
Relationships are exactly what Altland and the other volunteers want to develop with the women.
“You have to show love," she said. "It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. You don’t have to approve. But you have to love them.”
Tweet This: “You have to show love. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. You don’t have to approve. But you have to love them.”
Altland exhibits love and concern in her sensitivity to what the women want and need.
“None of the teachers try to pretend they’re perfect,” she said. “We didn’t have perfect parents, and we didn’t always parent perfectly.”
When the teachers admit they aren’t perfect it shows “the ladies there is hope,” she added.
Altland has also noticed that because they’re separated from their families, Christmas can be a depressing time of year.
This year they made the classes more fun with lighter subject matter than heavy topics like family violence. Instead, she said they covered “life skills such as buying a car or having a checking account. I got permission to bring in cookies. They liked that.”
Altland is aware of what they miss.
“Some don’t have visitors,” she said. “This gives them a chance to socialize.”
“Your behavior reflects Jesus Christ,” said Atlland. “We do share the Gospel, but not every week. They appreciate when we share.”
One of the best results is when the women get their children back and can use the insights they’ve gained from the parenting classes to become better parents.
Tweet This: One of the best results is when women get their children back & can use insights they’ve gained from the classes to become better parents.
For anyone who would like to develop a women’s jail ministry Altland recommends talking to others already ministering in jails.
She says it’s important to train volunteers carefully and “give insight into the ladies they’ll see.”
“Teach basic guidelines about leading a group, how to share carefully about your life,” she said. “We want to be good visitors. We’re there at the mercy of the jail officials.”
Altland has a 17-point guideline sheet for volunteers to read and remember that includes information on how to enter the jail, the time with the ladies, keeping boundaries and maintaining control in a classroom. She goes in with a new volunteer teacher three times, then turns the class over to her, along with an assistant – they always go in pairs, not alone.
They ask that the women in the class “show each other respect, be friendly and caring, keep what they learn about someone else confidential.”
“Don’t take what you’ve learned about your neighbor back to the cell block,” Altland said. “We have a list of group rules the ladies sign and agree to.”
The ministry is closely tied with the pregnancy center.
“I couldn’t do it without PCC,” said Altland. “It has the support and resources I need. You say Pregnancy Care Center around here, and the jail said, ‘Yes, of course.’ They’re very well-regarded.”
Altland’s care for the women extends to her attitude about the ministry.
“It’s given me so much joy,” she said. “It’s rewarding. Going there on Wednesday is very satisfying.”
The women in jail feel the same way, saying they “really enjoy the class and the ladies that come.”
Editor's note: Laura Roesler has a degree in English from Hamline University with a second major in nursing from St. Catherine's, both in Saint Paul, MN. She completed volunteer training at New Life Homes and Family Services in Minnesota, coming away with knowledge about abortion and its effects surpassing what she’d gained in nursing school. Laura taught nursing assistants with the Job Corps and worked as a nursing home nurse and a school nurse. She left the workforce for several years to raise her family – she and her husband have four children, adopting their youngest daughter from Guatemala at age three. Laura was the editor of Home Health Aide Digest and later remained a contributor, and she has also had articles in Senior Perspective and The Christian Examiner.