Illinois Women’s Prisons Get ‘Monumental’ Overhaul To Include Gender, Trauma-Responsive Training Under New Law


CHICAGO — At the age of fourteen, when most girls are entering high school, Colette Payne found herself headed to jail.

A Chicago native, Payne was one of six children growing up in the Ida B. Wells housing complex on the city’s South Side. Though both her parents worked hard to send her and her siblings to Catholic school, the early 1980s were rough and unforgiving for the neighborhood. As a teen, Payne said she began to associate with peers who led her to criminal behavior, addiction, and five trips into the prison system.

Though she was last released in 2012, Payne, now 50, enters the state’s correctional facilities for a different reason: she’s among a group of women and correctional stakeholders leading successful legislative changes to create better policies and treatment for incarcerated women.

The latest achievement is the passage of the Women’s Correctional Services Act, signed with bipartisan support by Governor Bruce Rauner last fall. The Act creates a new Women’s Division with its own chief administrator, and implements “evidence-based, gender-responsive and trauma-informed practices” for policies and operations, ongoing trauma-informed training for prison staff, and new gender-responsive assessment tools.

Often, Payne said, women who have already experienced trauma are re-traumatized once incarcerated because of outdated rules and a lack of staff properly trained on the unique issues women face.

About 98 percent of incarcerated women have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse prior to coming to prison, and about 75 percent have been diagnosed with some sort of trauma.Yet, 70 to 80 percent of women’s prison staff are men, according to Deanne Benos, the founder and project director of the Women’s Justice Initiative, the non-profit coalition largely responsible for the new correctional bill.

The law is a critical and long-overdue change, Payne and Benos said, particularly because today’s prisons and their policies were originally intended for men, not women. This created a deeply-entrenched prison culture that has turned a blind eye to, or failed to recognize, the differences in the pathways that bring women and men to prison, especially past trauma related to their gender.

The disconnect between what incarcerated women have experienced and how they are treated in jail is stark, Payne said.

“You have a population of women who have experienced trauma and you put them in a place that’s supposed to be for corrections, right?” she said.

But being a woman who’s been there several times, from my experience, a lot of the correctional officers there didn’t know how to deal with women who experienced certain traumas.
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Payne said she didn’t believe all prison staff lack “compassion and understanding,” but that they haven’t been properly trained on the unique needs of the women’s prison population.

“I’m a woman and I come into the institution and I have already been abused,” she said. “My abuser would yell at me, call me names, treat me real bad, and then I come [into prison] and you’re a correctional officer and you’re hollering at me in a way that’s abusive; you’re re-traumatizing me. I’m looking at you like you’re my abuser, and I’m not going to respond in a way that you think I should respond. My response is going to be defensive and protective.”

She added that correctional officers need additional training, which is now required, to be more understanding toward incarcerated women.

Now, Benos and Payne hope the new Illinois law can serve as a model to other states in criminal justice reform.

“We’ve been really amazed by how people have rallied around passing the law,” Benos said. “Other states have called and inquired about it, which is really exciting to promote this change across the country.”

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A System For Men, By Men

For over two decades, Benos has advocated for changes to the way incarcerated women are treated.

While working for the state’s Department of Corrections early in her career, she said she began noticing troubling patterns in the way rules, policies, and staff affected women, most of whom were mothers and primary caregivers and who had suffered abuse prior to coming to prison.

I was taken aback as I started to speak to the women in prison.
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“I felt very strongly, as I walked through those facilities and I talked to the women…that there was something that obviously needed to change with the makeup of the system and how the system accepts them and works with them in a way that’s healthier for everyone, especially [those incarcerated] and the staff there.”

By the time women had come into the system, the overwhelming majority had already been struggling from poverty, abuse, addition, single motherhood, or all of the above—with little to no help from the systems in place.

“I saw women more dramatically affected by abuse in our communities where we serve them, more dramatically affected by our social service safety net where we failed them in the community, that now ended up in a prison system as trauma survivors,” Benos said. “Our society is just accepting the fact that we’re taking women with deep histories of victimization and throwing them into the worst possible setting.”

Part of that includes the high percentage of men who staff the prisons, approximately 70-80 percent, Benos said.

Though not all women were abused by men, many of them had been. And, because the system was not designed with women in mind, its policies on dealing with incarcerated women lacked the context of those traumatic past experiences.

“It’s a system that was designed by men, built by men, to house a majority male population,” Benos said. “Illinois has fallen far behind on training—many states have—because who wants to invest in the back end of the system?”

The legislative changes enacted through the Women’s Correctional Services Act signal the start of a new chapter in Illinois’ criminal justice reform efforts, but it wasn’t easy to achieve.

Prior to the bill, Benos and her colleagues, primarily women, had pushed for these reforms and assessments for years, but her concerns were often disregarded. She was told the women’s prison population was significantly smaller than the men’s (though today is the fastest growing), so it would be a waste to divert time and resources to them.

There had once been a Women’s Division, but it was eliminated—and at least one male boss assured her it would not return. The new bill re-establishes that division and ensures it will be permanent.

“To look the other way and to not deliberately try to address [women’s] unique risks, needs, and pathways is just a tragic mistake for countless reasons,” she said. “In my opinion, [eliminating the women’s division] and the statement that it sent as far as the priorities of the department led to some of the problems that evolved over the next several years that deteriorated the conditions for women and the safety of the staff.”

 Colette Payne at work. [Provided]

Colette Payne at work. [Provided]


When Benos formed the Women’s Justice Initiative, fighting for much-needed improvements at women’s prisons was its chief priority.

Created to provide advocacy, education, and technical support to the Department of Corrections and other state correctional agencies dealing with women and girls, the Women’s Justice Initiative comprises Benos’ colleagues who deal in local and national organizations, experts in justice reform and trauma, and a mix of social agencies.

Once the coalition noticed movement on other prison reform bills in Illinois, it reached out IDOC, explained its goals, and offered to perform an assessment of the state’s women’s facilities. The department agreed, and the WJI had its first project at the Logan Correctional Facility in Lincoln.

Based on the group’s findings, recommendations, research, and national best practices, they formulated a plan and, with the support of state lawmakers, the Women’s Correctional Facility Act was written, passed, and signed by the governor.

Benos said she was shocked when the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support during its first attempt; based on prior experience, she feared it would take several more years to pass.

Support from both sides of the political aisle was crucial, Benos said.

Almost every woman in the house from both sides of the aisle came together around this legislation to support it, and many men as well.
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“I was taken aback by the amount of support that people gathered and how willing they were to accept some of the research and the data that we shared, and how quickly this bill moved,” Benos said.

Now, the group is working to implement those sweeping changes throughout the state and, hopefully, the country.

“We are now engaged in a long-term project with the state that will make these monumental changes that are nationally significant,” Benos said.

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Women Helping Each Other Succeed

Payne was last incarcerated in 2009, and she’s using her past experiences to help improve the lives of women in the future.

She credited a now-defunct drug treatment program at Decatur Correctional Center with helping her get sober and into recovery After she was released in 2012, she lived in a group home on Chicago’s West Side for recently-released women. A mother herself, she started volunteering with CLAIM, Chicago Legal Advocates for Incarcerated Mothers, and when the organization merged with Cabrini-Green Legal Aid in 2014, she began holding bi-weekly advocacy and informational groups at the transition home where she’d lived.

Payne now serves as a community organizer and task force member fighting alongside Benos and others to affect reformative policy changes—changes she knows firsthand will make a positive impact on incarcerated women.

Women, myself, resorted to unhealthy behaviors because [traumatic] issues weren’t addressed...If a lot of my trauma issues weren’t addressed [in recent years] I wouldn’t be able to do this work today.
— Colette Payne
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Helping other women get the dignified, trauma-informed, and evidence-based treatment they deserve is something Payne does because, today, she can. Had it not been for women who paved a path before her, she may not be where she is today.

Payne is currently working on her undergraduate degree at Northeastern Illinois University.

“We, as women, need to support each other,” she said. “I’m here to do whatever I can to help the next woman: those who are in front of me, [those] still trying to find their way, and those who come behind me… If women don’t have the spiritual help—the educational help—that we need in order to grow, we’re going to be stuck in the same spot.”

Jennifer Maine