Many of the women in Nevada’s Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas are using their time in prison to improve their health, and now they have an outdoor track to help them do that. The track is the result of a unique partnership, formed by University of Nevada, Reno Extension, as part of the Healthy Steps to Freedom Program. The program is helping women at the Center, as well as women in rehabilitation centers, address the root causes of their drug addiction that often landed them under correctional supervision in the first place.
“Unlike most men, many women use opioids and other drugs to lose weight or deal with body image issues, or to try to increase their energy,” explains the program’s director, Anne Lindsay, Extension associate professor and a specialist in public health and exercise science.
Lindsay explains that because women’s reasons for using drugs are usually different from the reasons men use, they need “gender-responsive” treatment programs, ones based on women’s lives and reasons for using, as well as on women’s strengths and challenges.
In response, Lindsay created the Healthy Steps to Freedom Program, partially based on research conducted with women at the facility. It consists of 10 90-minute sessions with the women aimed at increasing health and nutrition knowledge while building a skillset to help them change behaviors related to body image and self-esteem, dieting and metabolism, distorted thinking, eating pathology, and nutrition and physical activity.
“They can get clean while incarcerated, but if these women don’t learn how to cope with these issues, chances are they’ll just start using again when they get out and end up back in trouble,” she said.
In addition, while working with the women at the Correctional Center, Lindsay recognized that the women need to have tools to begin implementing what they are learning while they are still at the Center. They need healthy food choices, exercise equipment and a variety of ways to stay active. So, she helps recommend ways to build a healthy environment at the Center and approached Associate Warden Najera about installing an outdoor track.
“They had a walking path before, but when they expanded the facility to accommodate population growth, it was demolished,” she said.
After discussion and support from Associate Warden Najera, Extension was able to get a new track installed at the Center. The partnership included funding from Extension, and bringing The Fearless Kind Organization into the fold, a residential treatment program for women seeking recovery from substance abuse and eating disorders. The Organization helped coordinate the project to get the track installed, working with Garden Farms and Greenscapes, who provided their services at reduced costs. The partnership also included putting in some gardening beds at The Fearless Kind rehabilitation center to encourage physical activity and healthy eating for the women there, where Extension is also teaching the Healthy Steps to Freedom Program.
Associate Warden Najera said the partnership and track has made a huge difference.
“The feedback from the inmates is amazing,” she said. “They are very thankful and appreciative. Inmates that never went to the yard because they did not want to be involved in drama, can now go outside and walk on the track by themselves. Many of them claim that it has helped their depression.”
Lindsay said that especially amid the added stress and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the women have really appreciated having the track, and it has helped keep them active and positive.
“I have used the track ever since it opened and I feel great,” one of the women at the Center said. “It has helped my self-esteem and self-confidence.”
Lindsay and her team have continued to teach the Healthy Steps to Freedom Program to women at rehabilitation centers in Las Vegas during the pandemic, adapting to teach the women virtually each week. Virtual teaching isn’t an option for the Correctional Center, but the program will resume there after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Results indicate that after participating in the program, women overall show improvement in a number of areas, including having improved:
- healthy weight perceptions
- nutrition and health behaviors
- attitudes about eating, binge eating and other disordered eating behaviors
- “perceived” body image and perception of themselves
They also show positive changes in intuitive eating, eating based on natural hunger and fullness cues, and increases in physical activity.
In fact, the success of the program has others interested in adopting it. Utah, which has a significant problem with women’s drug use, has begun to incorporate the program in their major correctional and treatment centers statewide. Lindsay is partnering with CASAT, The Center for the Application of Substance Abuse Technologies, at the University of Nevada, Reno, to help provide training and support for professionals in the field to facilitate implementation of the program in Utah. CASAT has also been a partner in the program, working closely with Extension, to train professionals in Nevada and across the nation.
Lindsay says issues such as body image and self-esteem have often been discredited or ignored for “sexier” drug abuse-related topics, such as Narcan or other drugs used to reverse opioid overdoses. She says that while medical treatments and drugs such as Narcan are certainly part of the solution and can save lives, if root causes, such as eating pathologies, body dissatisfaction or lack of self-esteem, aren’t addressed with programs such as Healthy Steps to Freedom, the drug abuse will continue to reoccur, landing these women back in rehabilitation or prison.
“We need to stop stigmatizing these women,” she said. “They come from all walks of life, and each have their own story. If we help them address their root causes, they can recover. When I see past participants of our program out at events around the community, healthy and with their children, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
To learn more about the Healthy Steps to Freedom Program, and watch interviews with some past participants, view “Three or Four Thousand Women With Three or Four Thousand Stories, Healthy Steps to Freedom: Helping Women Battle Addiction.”