Maxwell: A program that works for women in jail

Red Tent founder Barbara Rhode, center, leads a group at Pinellas County Jail in a meditation exercise. The program has served more than 1,000 women since its founding in 2012.
Red Tent founder Barbara Rhode, center, leads a group at Pinellas County Jail in a meditation exercise. The program has served more than 1,000 women since its founding in 2012.
Published Aug. 4, 2017

In 2011, Barbara Rhode went to a neighborhood estate sale of a woman who had committed suicide following a divorce. Before leaving, she decided to walk through the dead woman's bedroom to send her "good thoughts and perhaps get a better understanding of what had gone wrong."

On the nightstand was a copy of Anita Diamant's novel Red Tent. Rhode bought a copy of the novel. Set during biblical times, the narrative describes a red tent where women stay when ill, depressed, alone, grieving or afraid, a place where young and old women or children could share stories, wisdom and compassion.

She said the story's premise became the bedrock of the program she founded in 2012 for women held at the Pinellas County Jail, the Red Tent Women's Initiative. Because she had many years in private practice as a marriage and family therapist, she approached Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and offered to work with female inmates. Seeing the wisdom of the offer, the sheriff gave Red Tent a classroom with windows, supplies and modest funds.

Rhode hired a part-time teacher and group facilitator with her own money. Cynics cautioned that inmates probably would not attend the class because many try to sleep their sentences away out of grief or depression. But the voluntary program soon had a waiting list. Since its founding, it has served more than 1,000 women and has changed many lives for the better. Today, the Sheriff's Office gives Red Tent $18,000 annually.

Three days a week from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., as many as 15 women gather in the Red Tent classroom to get the therapeutic benefits of using their hands sewing, embroidery and crocheting. They also listen to guest speakers.

"My dream was to create a safe, nurturing space where these women could meet and create crafts, while being saturated with information, community resources, mentoring and coaching," Rhode said. "The research shows that women release more nurturing brain chemicals when they keep their hands busy with crafts. These amazing chemicals make them feel safe and secure."

I went to the jail recently and spent a day with Red Tent. I watched the women crochet and sew as they discussed their plights. I was struck by their desperation, their desire to change their lives and their pleas for compassion in a society filled with deep biases.

I was particularly struck by the sameness of their experiences. Most were mothers, and most had issues with drugs. Many are victims of physical abuse, rape, domestic violence, sexual trafficking and childhood incest. Many grew up with relatives who were repeat offenders.

No matter how much progress the women make while incarcerated, Rhode and her two staff members, Crystal Adams Nixon and Nobuko Coussoule, know the toughest battle begins the day the women are released back into society. This is when they need the most help and receive the least.

To help give the women a good start, Red Tent has established community support groups and has partnered with several organizations and agencies in addition to the Sheriff's Department. They include Pinellas Technical College, Pinellas Exoffender Re-Entry Coalition, Pinellas Hope, St. Petersburg Women's Free Clinic, Catholic Charities and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

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The simplest things that are taken for granted often are the most important for the women to get a new start, Rhode said. They need to feel good about themselves, and they need to be in the right places at the right times.

Last year, Red Tent and the Women's Free Clinic created a clothing and accessory closet for the newly released women to get shoes, undergarments and accessories so they can go for a job interviews. PTEC's cosmetology school gives the women free haircuts, manicures or pedicures. Red Tent also purchased PSTA bus passes for the women so they can get to job interviews. Subway agreed to interview qualified Red Tent participants for employment. Rhode said a few have become assistant managers or managers.

Although Red Tent has a low recidivism rate and is the envy of many similar programs around the nation, it operates on a budget of less than $30,000 a year. Rhode said her biggest disappointment is the lack of financial support in the region.

She said people are wrong to persist in believing that incarceration is the best way to deal with women who have been traumatized as a result of abuse and neglect.

"There are so many women who reach out to us for support and assistance once released from jail or prison," Rhode said. "We really need financial support from the community to help and continue our work."