Part 1: Susan Burton's Prison Book Tour: McPherson & Wrightsville-Hawkins Units, Arkansas

My interest in visiting Arkansas came after a woman named Colleen wrote to me about her experience in prison and during reentry. I was saddened by the difficulties she faced during her reentry. Colleen had been released but was incarcerated again when she couldn’t find a job. That was six years ago, and she hasn’t been able to be released again. After hearing her story, I felt I needed to visit Arkansas to look at what they were doing. 

I visited Think Legacy programs at the McPherson Unit in Newport and the Wrightsville-Hawkins Women’s Unit in Wrightsville. Think Legacy is a six month program that focuses on employability, family reunification, cognitive behavior therapies, anger management, substance abuse, parenting, thinking errors, victim impact, budgeting, credit building, and other areas.

When I got there I met Nicole Smart, the Think Legacy treatment coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Nicole is different from most correctional officers I’ve met. She showed a real respect for the rules of the Department of Corrections while at the same time honoring the humanity of the women who are being held in the prison.

My conversation with the women in the McPherson Unit was really engaging; I could tell that they had all read the book. We talked about recidivism and the importance of safe places during reentry. Many of the women had experienced trauma throughout their lives, which is typical for incarcerated women, and we talked about how things could have been different if they had had resources available to them such as therapy, job opportunities, and housing.

From our conversation, it was clear that the Think Legacy program had given the women tools to do some introspection, work on healing their trauma and plan for their lives after incarceration.

While at the prison, I acknowledged Colleen as being the person who brought Arkansas to my attention and the reason why I visited.  I encouraged all of the other women to write letters to people on the outside too, such as the governor, members of Congress, or Department of Corrections officials. Colleen is an example of what a letter can do.

My experience with the women of the Wrightsville-Hawkins Unit was equally moving and it was touching to see the warden, assistant warden, and two Board of Corrections commissioners in the audience. They seemed pleased to be supporting the women in their journey to becoming better people.

The Think Legacy program has really gotten the attention of the Department of Corrections. I wish the program much success and it is my hope that they will invest in more internal programs and in reentry programs for women after they are released.

I also hope that there will be an investment in reentry so that women have somewhere safe to live after they’re released. This goes for every state but especially Arkansas, where there are not enough reentry homes to support the vast number of women who can be released into the community.