Ladies stroll freely, some walking dogs, around the pretty, green, 100-acre grounds. Ivy climbs the stone buildings that could easily pass for dormitories or classroom studios. If you don’t think about the pat down, the four sets of mechanically locked doors you have to endure to get here and the razor wire around the parameter, you might just think you were on an ivy league women’s college campus when you step out into the courtyard. But this is not a college campus; this is prison.
Last March, members from both the Standing Committee on Women and the Law and the Committee on Ethnic and Racial Minorities took a side trip before their respective out-of-Chicago business meetings in Peru, Illinois to tour the Dwight Women’s Correctional Center. Dwight, which first opened on November 24, 1930 as the Oakdale Reformatory for Women, emerges out of the surrounding sea farmland like a fortress. It almost resembles a grand manor house, with an auburn brick façade with a clay roof. It is the iron bars over the leaded glass windows that give you the first hint of where you really are.
Dwight, while beautiful in its own way on the surface, is a prison, through and through. Prior to the moratorium and eventual abolition, Dwight housed the only death row for women prisoners. While there are all levels of security at Dwight, the population share one thing above all else in common; everyone there is a convicted felon. At the time, the population was more than at capacity. Blocks that were meant to be introductory quarters for new prisoners often hold prisoners for their first six to twelve months there. There is no keeping up with the latest trends in fashion and beauty at Dwight, except for maybe in the approved, but outdated magazines in the library. A uniform packet of industrial grade soap, shampoo, and other basic needs for cleanliness are passed out to new inmates with their slip-on shoes and uniforms after they are given their introductory strip search and cold shower. It is those things we take for granted, things that probably are not on the mind of any woman while she committed her crime that make punishment really hit home. Some of us on the tour were most flabbergasted when we learned about the little things that you lose if you end up in prison. Freedom includes the right to lotion, warm showers, skin care, make up, the right to read what you want to read, the right to eat when and what you want to eat, and sleep when you want to sleep. When the doors lock behind you, you are no longer free.
While, the first year of a sentence at Dwight likely consists of mostly time in one concrete block and steel hallway, it is not just a place to sit and rot while time passes. If inmates are there long enough, opportunities open up for them to do something productive. You can get your GED or take college courses or dog grooming classes. Inmates can earn income, albeit meager income, at the on sight textile plant sewing uniforms for other state facilities. Of all the programs and opportunities to strive for, the Helping Paws Training Program is the most sought after. Helping Paws trains service dogs for Support Dogs, Inc, so that they can assist people with disabilities or serve a therapy dogs. Inmates who earn participation in this program live and raise service dogs from the time they are pups, and in that time, they never leave their side.
Companionship with dogs is not the only way inmates cope with life at Dwight. We were told by our guide that the women inmates there have created a unique social dynamic, different from the social dynamic seen in men’s prisons. The women at Dwight do not segregate themselves by age, race, religion, crime or gang affiliation. Instead, they form families and nurture those familial roles during their time behind bars. With all that is taken from these women, they maintain both their sense of individual identity and sense of community in these familial roles. Maybe it is not just the pretty buildings and grounds that make this place seems somewhat bearable. Maybe it is because beneath the razor wire and behind the heavy locks on all the doors a humanity and dignity still resonates within these walls. ■