State Representative Patricia Smith of Baton Rouge was a featured speaker at the U.S. Justice Action Network’s seminar on incarcerated women’s issues Tuesday, in Washington D.C. Her work on Louisiana’s recent criminal justice reform package was applauded.
“It was a bi-partisan collective work from a lot of people,” Smith told the overflow crowd at the seminar’s breakout session focusing on rehabilitation issues.
“The bills that we passed includes a reinvestment portion for the savings on individuals being able to get out of prison,” Smith explained. “That reinvestment will allow for more programming, for more mental health, for more substance abuse programs. But all of this is just a drop in the bucket of what we need to do.”
Smith, in her third term in the Louisiana House, has been a zealous advocate for equality for women, and says that equality must include assistance for female prisoners.
“We find that women – because they’re a smaller population than the men (in prison) – they do get lesser amounts of resources.”
And as Louisiana prepares to move many non-violent offenders back into society, she says the state has to do a better job of preparing those women to support themselves.
“We do a lot of training in our prisons, especially for our men,” Smith said, with a rueful laugh. “And we’re so high on high-demand, high-wage jobs, but women were not getting these jobs. For women, the only thing you were doing actually was the horticulture, the clerical and culinary.”
She says after one visit the Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus made to the state’s women’s prison, she met with Corrections Secretary Jimmy Leblanc about the training being offered.
“I said, ‘Jimmy, we’re giving this upholstery class to women in prison. Why?’ So he brought a list to me of all the upholstery companies in Louisiana, and I laughed. I said, ‘People throw couches away. They’re not going to use that. Why not teach them welding?’ And their jaws dropped, like, we can’t do that. Well, they found a way, and 20 or more women were actually learning to weld.”
That was before the Louisiana Correctional Institution for Women, located in St. Gabriel, flooded last August. Women prisoners were evacuated to several other facilities, where many rehabilitation programs are unavailable. Hopefully, the prison – and the programs – will reopen next year.