A decade ago, Kendra Stidhem stood before the judge, her hands and ankles shackled, her hair a mess, wearing an ill-fitting men’s prison jumpsuit as she tried to make the case that she shouldn’t lose her parental rights permanently.

The judge ruled against her. She was taken back to a tiny jail cell where she sat, alone and sobbing, for hours.

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Stidhem wants one thing known right away: She doesn’t consider herself a victim. A decade ago, she made poor choices. She was offered a chance to take a deal to avoid prison, but ended up serving time with the hope she could receive the support and resources to help her get off drugs.

Like many women in prison, Stidhem came from a background of trauma. She was placed in Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in 2012 for 39 months for a nonviolent drug offense. Now, at age 34 and nine years sober, she is working to give women serving time in prison something she didn’t have: a sense of dignity.

“Eventually we’re released,” Stidhem said. “So, how do you want us to come out? I would like to see a reduction in recidivism. I would like to see people come out healed and a whole person again and maybe break some cycles of incarceration.”

National data has shown it’s common for women in prison to land there after being sexually or physically abused. Many women are also the primary caregivers before entering prison and once again when they are released. A bill working its way through the Oregon Legislature, acknowledges that women often face unique challenges while serving time — challenges that researchers haven’t fully explored.

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Allison Frost / OPB

House Bill 4146 would require the state to work with a third-party organization to assess the needs of women housed at Coffee Creek, the state’s only prison for women. The assessment would also include policy recommendations.

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The legislation would also create a Gender Responsive Advisory Council. The cost for this work is estimated to be about $1.5 million to work with the third-party organization and for additional staffing needs. A report would be due to the Legislature by Sept 1, 2024.

Maybe it sounds inconsequential that incarcerated women wear men’s uniforms. Or they aren’t given a hairbrush before appearing before a judge, Stidhem said.

“But it’s about identity and dignity, and those are a couple of things where you are already in a space where you don’t feel very good about yourself … and you have those things added to it and that’s just the surface,” Stidhem said.

There were other inequities, like a wage gap between incarcerated men and women, she said. She received a monthly wage of $76 working as a carpenter. That was the cap; she couldn’t make more no matter the hours she put in. She used that money for shampoo, conditioner, feminine products, phone calls — and everything came at market price.

“I know I made a lot less than the male carpenters (at other prisons),” she said.

Another challenge was how difficult it was to reach her daughter and speak to her on the phone while serving time. The prison’s phone system would hang up if an automated machine picked up the line. So when Stidhem tried to call her social worker at the state’s Department of Human Services, the phone would abruptly hang up because a machine always answered before a human. There are other considerations too, like how should pregnant women be handcuffed? Or how should those women who recently delivered a baby be treated while incarcerated?

State Rep. Lisa Reynolds, a Portland Democrat who is sponsoring House Bill 4146, noted that most prisons were designed with men in mind, and there has been little research done on what women need while incarcerated.

“I think we really need to hear from the people involved and their families about how to minimize the very difficult effects of these incarcerations,” Reynolds said.

Stidhem now lives with her 16-year-old daughter and is a peer support specialist with a behavioral health clinic in Eugene. She doesn’t have parental rights, so she can’t make medical decisions for her daughter; the school doesn’t contact her first in the case of an emergency. But Stidhem’s grandparents, who do have parental rights, ensure she is as involved as she can be. Stidhem and her daughter also volunteer together now with the family preservation project, a nonprofit that helped Stidhem when she was released from prison.

“We’re working together now to expand the voices of the children whose parents were incarcerated,” Stidhem said.

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