WHAT LEADS A TEACHER FROM New England to the American West, to South Africa, and back to New England, from boarding schools to women’s prison? Ask Jennifer Wolter ’96, and her answer doesn’t come easily.
“I’m really just motivated and passionate about making life better for people,” she says. “When I was overseas developing student life programming at schools, I was working with all cultures and economic status and backgrounds. They all had a wide variety of experiences, and that’s when I started to shift to working with broader wellness.
“It wasn’t a conscious shift from schools to prison, but I see a lot of what people who are incarcerated need,” she adds. “Their experiences and stories are very different, but a lot of what I do is the same—building a relationship with them and seeing how I can help.”
Wolter is a founder of S.A.F.E.R., the Survivors of Abuse Feeling Empowered for Re-Entry program at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, a program run by RESPOND Inc., a Massachusettsbased nonprofit that works to end domestic violence. As a teacher and school administrator both in the United States and abroad, she worked closely with young adults who had experienced trauma, working with them to build leadership, health, and wellness programming.
At RESPOND, she builds trauma-informed, gender-specific support for both men and women in custody. Many studies have shown a strong link between victimization and criminalization.
“A lot of women’s charges involve property and drugs, and many are linked to simple survival on the streets or from dangerous situations they are in,” Wolter says. “They are human beings who were placed into really difficult situations that led to mistakes. Many are just looking to learn and find better opportunities for themselves, and in many cases their children as well.”
About 75 percent of the women at the Suffolk County House of Correction have experienced trauma or abuse, whether within a family or in relationships.
“I’ve got one woman now serving a murder sentence. She helped her boyfriend set someone up to be robbed, and the guy was killed. Because she was there, they called her an accomplice,” Wolter says. “Also, we have a ton of women who go to drugs or alcohol” to numb the pain of trauma.
“A number of [the inmates] have never really talked about” their trauma, which can stem from sexual assault, homelessness, and/or addiction, and “some of what we do is just talking through things, helping them realize the extent of the abuse.
“A lot of them downplay what happened,” Wolter says, “and they have that inner guilt and shame. They’ve never admitted or recognized it as abuse.”
Wolter runs two different support groups for women, in addition to individual counseling, case management, and legal accompaniment for all genders.
“We also do a lot of safety planning, especially as they are getting close to release, whether they are going back to that abusive family member or partner,” she says. “We do harm reduction—what’s the safest way to be with this person or get them out of [the soon-to-be-released] inmate’s life. How do we keep them safe?”
Day in and day out exposure to the horrific trauma the inmates recount can take its toll, Wolter admits. To relax, she recently joined a dragon boat team that practices on Boston’s Charles River. A breast cancer survivor, Wolter says her team is made up of cancer survivors.
“I’m kind of surrounded by frustration and struggles,” she says. “I’ve learned to just keep pushing through the crap to try to make it better.”
And it does get better, she says.
“I feel really good when someone else is in a better spot, and if I had even the slightest thing to do with that, I feel like my time’s worthwhile. I think the impact I’m having and the appreciation not only from the people I work with but also the institutions is huge. I feel like this is incredibly meaningful work.”
—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84
To find out more about RESPOND Inc. visit www.respondinc.org.