Roni Burkes-Trowsdell connects inmates to outside community
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.”