I first met Georgia Lerner, the Women's Prison Association's executive director, three years ago in the beautiful but weathered townhouse in the East Village where the WPA has been doing its work since 1874. Not much has changed since they first moved in: staff desks sit beside marble fireplaces, and filing cabinets share walls with portraits of the founders, abolitionists Isaac T. Hopper and Abigail Hopper Gibbons. Georgia offered me her famous homemade cookies (a tradition for new visitors) and allowed me to pore over the many historic logbooks and journals in her office.
At the time, I wondered how this old, worn, somewhat scrappy organization was still in working order, never mind at the forefront of today's most pressing social crises, mass incarceration and criminal-justice reform. It's clear to me now that the WPA is still around because it is saying — and doing — something different.
Georgia will tell you that she's not all that interested in talking about making prison better. She notoriously ignores media inquiries about how women do their makeup behind bars or fashion shower shoes from maxi pads. She wants to talk about what might happen if we stop relying on our need to punish people and instead consider what drives a woman to commit a crime in the first place.
The vast majority of the WPA's clients come to the agency experiencing homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence, addiction, a lack of education, a long history of unemployment, untreated trauma, or any combination thereof. What if, Georgia will ask you, we considered those circumstances at the moment of a woman's arrest? What if she were diverted from jail and presented with mental-health services or parenting classes or job training? What if one person — or one agency — saw her as a person, not a case, and provided the resources she needed to save and strengthen the trace of stability she was clinging to? We discussed these issues, and others, over the phone recently.
Taylor Schilling: The WPA is 171 years old, which blows my mind. What were the goals of the organization when it was founded in 1845? Have they changed since then?
Georgia Lerner: In a lot of ways, our work is driven by the same goals it was back then. When the WPA started, it branched off from what's still known as the Correctional Association today. They monitor conditions for men and women in jails and prisons. The WPA group decided to focus on what was happening to women when they were inside, but to focus even more on helping women when they got out, so they wouldn't be limited forever by the fact they had been incarcerated. So they'd be able to support themselves legally. We still do that.
We also work with women to divert them from going into the criminal-justice system in the first place. We do a lot of work with families to help them function better, be stronger, so ultimately they can avoid the criminal-justice system and other public systems that can be damaging.
TS: Part of what you guys do, that it looks like no one else does, is focus on evidence-based and gender-responsive interventions. Can you describe what those things mean and what they look like in practice?
GL: Today, we're lucky there's been quite a lot of research that helps us understand why men and women commit crimes. There are some shared reasons, like having what we call antisocial associates, friends who help you get into trouble. There's poverty, underemployment, poor education. Family dysfunction is actually a very big contributing factor for criminal behavior for men and for women.