Yes, the Ohio Reformatory for Women is a place of punishment. But under warden Roni Burkes-Trowsdell, it's also a place of hope, pride, support and connection to the outside world.
For a prison, the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville opens its doors surprisingly wide. Outside groups tour the facility several times a week. The prison hosted a November symposium on issues particular to incarcerated women, attended by outside professionals and inmates together. In August, during the Columbus Foundation's Big Table event, 100 community members shared a meal with inmates in the prison's chow hall, gathering around tables to converse about the meaning of freedom. And last May, the Harmony Project's 500-member Spirit of Columbus choir performed in the prison yard, joined by a chorus of inmates.
The state's largest prison for women, ORW houses 2,441 convicted felons—205 of whom are serving life sentences—and is run by a staff of about 500, including corrections officers, counselors and all the others who keep the institution running and secure. But ORW also has more than 900 community volunteers who regularly leave behind their wallets, cellphones and driver's licenses to walk through a metal detector and two sets of secure doors to spend time with the inmates—teaching, tutoring, mentoring, singing and making conversation. Performance artist Pat Wynn Brown teaches an etiquette class she calls “Ladies of Success.” There's ceramic artist Cynthia Tinapple, who instructs inmates on how to create intricate beads and ornaments from polymer clay. Harmony Project volunteers sing each week with the prison choir, and volunteers from the Horizon Prison Initiative help facilitate an interfaith community of women who practice life skills and explore spirituality together.
At the center of all this outside-in activity is the prison's warden, Roni Burkes-Trowsdell, whose warm personality and firm belief in the dignity of those in her charge attracts people to her mission of keeping inmates connected to the community that has expelled them. “She draws people in,” says Dave Bobby, northwest regional director for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “That doesn't come easily. It's building relationships and building partnerships. You just don't do that by sending an email or two. You've got to invest yourself in it.”***
Puttering in a golf cart along the paths that crisscross ORW's college campus-like grounds, Burkes-Trowsdell waves to the blue-jacketed inmates walking in groups and stops often to check in with them. “Where's your coat?” she asks one. To another: “How's it going with that tutor?”
The 48-year-old Blacklick resident offers high-fives to a group of inmates who are about to be released. “Where's home?” Burkes-Trowsdell asks. “Who's picking you up?” Later, she tells me she has intervened in cases where women were about to accept rides from human traffickers hoping to become their pimps, simply because the women could not find anybody else to drive them home upon release.
Staff members often get hugs. “I appreciate you,” Burkes-Trowsdell tells them. Correctional officer Uhura King pulls me aside to tell me how she loved having Burkes-Trowsdell as a professor at Tiffin University (where the warden earned a master's degree in criminal justice administration and taught part time for 10 years). “We all thought she was such a beautiful person,” she says.***
When former Gov. John Kasich coaxed Gary Mohr out of retirement to lead the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in 2011, Mohr's goal was to change Ohio's approach to incarceration. The double whammy of mandatory sentences and a growing opioid epidemic has led to a skyrocketing number of Ohio residents incarcerated for drug crimes, and women have been affected most. Their numbers have doubled in Ohio prisons since 1991, and they are twice as likely to be incarcerated for drug possession as men. While Mohr believed many of those offenders would be more successful rehabilitating in community-based treatment programs than prisons, he knew he couldn't affect sentencing. What he could do, however, was make prisons more like communities.
“Why aren't we treating those human beings that are in our confinement in a way that truly prepares them to be successful out in the world?” he recalls thinking. “Prison systems should put those under our confinement in settings that, as much as we can, resemble the community.” He calls the approach “reintegration.”
In 2013, Mohr (who stepped down from his position in August and will become president of the American Correctional Association in February) made Burkes-Trowsdell warden of ORW. Not long after that, she invited him to visit. What he saw thrilled him: women deeply engrossed for eight to 10 hours a day in “productive, pro-social, self-development activities.”
Burkes-Trowsdell had “put into reality what I had dreamed of doing for so many years,” Mohr says. Today, there are 12 reintegration units across Ohio, two of which are at Marysville. “That, to me, depicts her leadership; it depicts her values,” Mohr says. In 2017, he named Burkes-Trowsdell Ohio's warden of the year.
Corrections officials say ORW, which had a 2017 budget of $47.5 million, is the most complex prison in the state. Within the 260-acre compound surrounded by razor wire, you can find, in addition to the two reintegration units, a unit for the seriously mentally ill; the state's oldest prison-based therapeutic community for treating addiction; a nursery where women who enter prison pregnant can keep their babies with them; one solitary prisoner awaiting execution; and units housing women whose security classifications range from minimum to maximum. ORW is the first stop after sentencing for all Ohio women convicted of felonies, and new inmates arrive daily. They spend 30 to 90 days in the reception unit, where they are evaluated before being placed in a unit at ORW or at another facility elsewhere in Ohio. Those deemed dangerous are often sent to Dayton Correctional Institution, a former men's prison where inmates reside in cells.
Within ORW, locked cells are reserved for the severely mentally ill and prisoners who have demonstrated aggressive behavior. Most inmates live in large, communal spaces with bunk beds or in smaller, dormitory-style rooms with four or eight occupants. They move freely about the complex, as long as they keep to their individual schedules and show up for count five times a day (including twice during the night).
For those who want to learn and keep busy, ORW boasts an array of work and job-training programs, from Ohio Penal Industries facilities, where inmates make flags, floor mop heads and eyeglasses, to courses in culinary arts, beekeeping and cosmetology. There's a skid-loader training program; a horticultural program in which inmates work each day at a nursery outside the prison; a barista training program that operates two coffee shops within the facility; and a jewelry-making initiative that raises funds for re-entry services. Prisoners train service dogs, which live with them in their rooms. There's an intensive, quasi-military unit run by inmates who are veterans. There are opportunities to experience and participate in the arts. Two colleges offer classes at the prison, and the number of inmates earning GEDs while serving at ORW has tripled over the past three years, Burkes-Trowsdell says.
In fact, while prison officials bemoan the number of people incarcerated for minor offenses, they also occasionally complain about the short duration of sentences, which may not allow enough time for inmates to complete programs while in prison, programs that might help ready them for employment after release by imparting skills or encouraging personal development.
A Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman says the department is unable to provide recidivism data specific to ORW or to particular programs. But a 2015 evaluation of Ohio's prison programs by the University of Cincinnati's Corrections Institute School of Criminal Justice found substantial reductions in recidivism and prison misconduct among female inmates who completed educational programs or participated in decentralized unit management programs like the reintegration units at ORW. In 2018, nine inmates at ORW earned associate's degrees from Ashland University, up from six the prior year, and 788 earned certificates from Sinclair College, an 89 percent increase over the prior year.
Statewide, the three-year recidivism rate for women in 2017 was 18 percent, a slight decline from the prior year, while for men it was 33 percent, up from 31 percent in 2016.
There are occasional fights and other critical incidents at ORW—as when, last June, a prisoner was indicted for receiving a letter containing Suboxone, a pain reliever that can serve as a heroin substitute—but both inmates and staff say the kind of violence often associated with prison is uncommon in Marysville. A 2017 report by the state legislature's Correctional Institution Inspection Committee found ORW's rate of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults to be lower than that of a comparable prison and significantly lower than the statewide rate. The committee also found the inmate perception of safety at ORW to be “exceptional,” with 93 percent of inmates reporting that they felt safe or neutral about safety.
“One of my neighbors said to me, ‘You give them too much,'” Burkes-Trowsdell says. “‘You're supposed to punish them.' But my philosophy is that their punishment is that they're sentenced to prison—not how we treat them on a daily basis.
“Because here's the reality: Most of these women are going home one day. I could lock them up and throw away the key, so to speak. I could treat them poorly for six months, five years, 10 years, however long they're here. And then, when they get out of prison, what type of person do you expect for them to be to you? What type of neighbor, what type of employee, what type of co-worker, what type of friend?”
Instead, says Burkes-Trowsdell, prison should “teach them what it looks like to be respected. … Give them responsibility and let them know what it feels like to be proud of something. As public servants, we have a responsibility to help them be different, to help them really discover who their true selves are.”***
Burkes–Trowsdell grew up near Youngstown in the small town of Mineral Ridge, where she was one of 88 in her high school graduating class. Her stepfather, Charles—her biological father died before she was born, and her mother, Gloria, remarried when Burkes-Trowsdell was 2—was an engineer who worked at the General Motors plant in Lordstown. Gloria, a homemaker who regretted suppressing her own educational and career aspirations to support her first husband's career in the Army, always encouraged her daughter to aim high and put career first. Many of those who work with Burkes-Trowsdell know about Gloria, because the warden refers to her often; she tells people “everyone needs a Gloria in their life.”
Her parents emphasized education, hard work, kindness and respect. “My mom used to always tell us, ‘I don't ever want you and your brother to be the kids that other people hate to see coming,'” Burkes-Trowsdell says. She recalls a boy in her grade school class who was bullied because he smelled bad. “I remember telling my mom about the kids picking [on] him and she said, ‘You be friends with him anyways. You don't know what's happening in his house.' And I've never forgotten that.”
A story from former inmate Melissa Canterbury illustrates how Burkes-Trowsdell has lived out her mother's instructions. Canterbury was incarcerated in the Marysville prison twice, for crimes she committed in support of a methamphetamine and opioid drug habit.
In early 2017, just after her release, Canterbury was living in a Near East Side halfway house and just getting back on her feet. She'd connected with the Harmony Project in prison and, once out, had joined its community-based choir. After her first rehearsal on a weekday night, she was preparing to walk home from the Lincoln Theatre. It was only a 10-minute walk, but the night was dark and drizzly and the neighborhood was unfamiliar to Canterbury, who is from Newark.
Burkes-Trowsdell, who sings in the choir and was also at the rehearsal, worried about Canterbury walking home. She proposed driving her, but Canterbury declined because it was against halfway house rules. Burkes-Trowsdell may have been her former warden, but she was not on her approved drivers list.
“So she got in her car and followed me,” says Canterbury. “Drove behind me all the way home. I'll never forget it.”
Today, two years after leaving prison, Canterbury is drug-free, working as a manager at Donatos and overseeing a church-owned group home for women in recovery. She says Burkes-Trowsdell's support buoys her now, as it did when she was incarcerated. “Every time I see her, she tells me how amazing I am and gives me this same enveloping hug,” Canterbury says. “It's not a hug that says, ‘You're dirty,' or, ‘You're not worthy of this.' It says, ‘Let me just hug you and transfer my love to you.' It's an embrace.”
LaVell Trowsdell, who married Roni Burkes in 2017, likes to make people guess what his wife does for a living. “They ask her, and I go, ‘Hold on. If you can guess, I'll buy you a drink.' But they never do.”
“When they find out,” Burkes-Trowsdell adds, “the first thing they always say is, ‘You don't look like a warden.' And I say, ‘Well, what do you think a warden looks like?' They probably get the image from TV.”
The truth is, most people do have an idea what a warden looks like, and Burkes-Trowsdell, with her chunky jewelry and knit dresses, as well as her friendly, light-up-the-room smile, doesn't fit. But of course, she's right: How many people have ever met a prison warden?
In addition to her demanding job, Burkes-Trowsdell volunteers through her church and the Harmony Project and is active in a sorority as well as several professional groups. Stuart Hudson, who served as interim Ohio prisons director from August until January, says Burkes-Trowsdell “is just a great, well-rounded person—and that's what we look for in a warden. They care about people, they care about the mission, and they care about their staff.”***
Burkes-Trowsdell's first job after graduating from the University of Akron was working as a victim advocate at the Rape Crisis Center in Cleveland. Later, she went to work for the state corrections agency's Office of Victim Services, coordinating a program that facilitates dialogue between offenders and their victims.
“I'm a victim advocate till the day I die,” says Burkes-Trowsdell. She draws a direct line between her work on behalf of victims and her role in rehabilitating offenders. At weekly orientations for new prisoners, she says, “I tell them that I want them to develop so that they will go home and live in a safe society and not become a victim, nor create another victim.”
I sit in as Burkes-Trowsdell interviews a group of four candidates for $16-an-hour jobs as corrections officers. “I don't want a corrections officer who comes in wanting to be a police officer,” she tells them. “You'll be working with people where they live. I want you to hold people accountable, but I want you to do it in a way that is nurturing and caring.”
Later, I ask Burkes-Trowsdell whether inmates should fear a warden. “The perception is that I need to be big and tough and mean and aggressive and all that,” she says. “But the reality is that doesn't work—and it especially doesn't work with women, because many of them have dealt with aggressive people all their lives.”
In fact, she says, the best way to keep the prison safe is for her and the staff to get to know the women. If the inmates trust them, they will share helpful information. “The women come and tell us, ‘Hey, you might want to go search this person,' or, ‘You might want to go talk to this person. She got a bad call from home, and she's back at her bunk crying.' When you have mutual respect between that correction officer or any correctional official and that offender, it helps when incidents happen. It really is about building those relationships.”***
Burkes-Trowsdell's favorite corner of the prison is the nursery. In 2001—well before her time—ORW became the first prison in Ohio to allow pregnant offenders to keep their babies with them in prison. The mothers must pass a background check and be serving a sentence of three years or less for a nonviolent crime. Despite the success of such programs—a similar initiative in New York resulted in a 3 percent recidivism rate, compared with 30 percent systemwide—there are still only 11 states in the U.S. offering such an opportunity.
Burkes-Trowsdell breezes through the nursery like everybody's favorite aunt: picking up a child to calm him by singing “Elmo's Song,” tickling another, peeking into a room where a mother is resting with her 23-day-old son. “Are you doing OK?” she whispers. “Feeling good?” The woman smiles and nods drowsily.
Inside JG, one of ORW's two reintegration units, we chat with Marie, who, 24 years into a life sentence, still hopes to get out one day. In the meantime, she uses her stint productively. She trains dogs, teaches yoga and oversees other prisoners in craft projects: making blankets for kids in foster care, sewing quilts for charity auctions and constructing pretty “release bags” for departing inmates so they won't have to go home with their belongings in a garbage bag.
“I have a life here,” Marie says. “I have a wonderful job. I have great people that I work with. I get plenty of recognition for the things that I do.” She turns to Burkes-Trowsdell. “And I just want to thank you for that because I've worked under many wardens, and there's been some that have been less than grateful.”***
Canterbury says that the relationships she developed with members of the outside community while she was in ORW have made a huge difference in helping her to stay clean and live responsibly and within the law.
“You've got to figure out a way to live differently, and that's difficult,” she says. “The volunteers that came in gave us a chance to see what normal, real-life people were like. Normal people. People who lived their life clean.
“I think Roni really sees that the connections that you make with people outside of the culture that you're used to makes a huge difference in your recovery,” Canterbury says. “In changing your life.”
During our first interview, Burkes-Trowsdell showed me an OSU-themed quilt an inmate had made from donated scraps of cloth. “Look how beautifully all these scraps came together,” she said. “We're trying to create beauty out of women who felt like scraps for most of their life. And it's possible,” she continued, holding up the quilt. “If you can make this out of scraps, just imagine what we can do with a human being.”