I was recently in New York City on holiday with my family. Along with the normal tourist attractions like the Empire State building, Central Park and 5th Avenue, I organised a trip to a big women’s prison just outside the city.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women is a prison in the town of Bedford, Westchester County, New York, home to the Clintons. It’s a maximum security prison holding around 1,000 adult female offenders. The facility prides itself on family centric programmes.
I was driven to the prison by a very nice man called Ken. Once we got to the gate, Ken disappeared off to a small locked house by the gate. I waited patiently, slightly confused as to what he was doing. He came back and explained that he had to leave his gun safely locked up. I had not been aware that the man driving me for the last hour and a half from the city had a loaded gun on him. As a Brit, I will never get used to this American norm.
This prison was nowhere near as large and intimidating as its Californian counterparts. I was shown vocational training in cosmetology, horticulture, business, printing, and much more. Two things stood out for me.
One was Puppies Behind Bars. This is a fantastic programme running in Bedford Hills where the women train up Labradors to be service dogs for wounded ex service men and women, many of whom are suffering from PTSD. The training takes two years and the dog will learn over 80 different commands in order to be able to look after their appointed ex service man or woman. The benefits are multiple. The dog gets serious and intense training from the women, the women learn a skill, are able to nurture and form an affectionate bond with the dog, they know that they are doing something hugely worthwhile that will not just benefit someone’s life but potentially save that life. The ex service men and women are receiving a highly trained companion who is able to look after them, and at the same time knowing that the woman who trained the dog is now far better off for having had the experience. The dog aids in trauma recover for the women and the trauma recovery for the wounded soldiers. A win win for everyone.
The second thing that stood out for me was the engagement this particular facility had with the affluent community which is right outside the gates. In the school holidays, households in this community open their doors to inmates’ children. They have them to stay for one week, so that the children have the opportunity to spend as much time with their mothers as possible.
Visiting prisons in different countries is such an important part of what I do. Whenever I am told that something can’t be done I am often able to challenge that and say ‘why? They are doing it in New York, why can’t we do it here?’.
There are many brilliant things going on in prisons all over the world. The countries may differ but the people inside the walls do not. They are human beings that thrive when given purpose. They need these programmes in order to put a halt to their lives of crime.
Founder of One Small Thing
Edwina Grosvenor is a philanthropist and the founder of One Small Thing