Normally nonprofit organizations hope for longevity; the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), set to celebrate its 175th anniversary next year, hopes its services will no longer be needed by its bicentennial. “We would really hope not to make it to 200, I’ll be honest. It would be great if we didn’t have to celebrate our 200th anniversary,” Diana McHugh, Communications Director at WPA, told the Bushwick Daily.
Since 1845, WPA has been serving the criminal justice-involved women of New York and their families. In WPA’s early days, its services focused on improving conditions for incarcerated women, like lobbying for the first women-only prison.
“You look back now and you think, the growth of womens’ prisons has increased by almost 900 percent over the last two decades,” said McHugh. “In what way have we contributed to the mass incarceration of women? But 200 years ago, the context was pretty different. [We were] trying to look out for the safety of women, post-arrest.”
Today, WPA focuses more on early intervention to prevent incarceration. Several of these progressive services operate out of its office in Brooklyn—East New York, specifically.
JusticeHome is one such program, providing an alternative to incarceration for women who have been arrested. Through JusticeHome, WPA provides personalized treatment and plans for women to make positive changes in their lives instead of spending time in prison.
McHugh emphasized WPA’s focus on treating trauma and mental health as well as the conditions that led to a woman’s arrest. In the six years that JusticeHome has been running, 90 percent of women who have been through the program have avoided re-arrest.
“Today, I’m about to graduate from college, my son is in a great school, and I have my own baking business,” said Kamilah, one of their program’s alumni. “When I think of where I might be – where my son might be – if WPA hadn’t been there for me, I’m in awe.”
WPA’s history is very much alive in its work today. McHugh said that the reasons women get arrested have not changed much since the 19th century, and the organization has always worked most closely with the city’s poorest women.
“That’s because we tend to criminalize poverty and we criminalize survival,” said McHugh. “The crux of our work, the heart and soul of what we do, has not changed. Because the reasons that women are impacted by the justice system have not changed either.”
WPA serves women throughout all five boroughs of New York City, meeting women where they are to work directly with them. Visit WPA’s website, www.wpaonline.org, to learn more about their services or make a donation, and follow them on Instagram.
All images courtesy of WPA.
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