An afternoon at Wyoming Women’s Center

I recently wrote a story about a flower shop in Lusk called Bloomers, whose owners take orders for families and friends of women incarcerated roughly a mile away at Wyoming Women’s Center (WWC). 

Flower delivery is a fairly simple concept, but I was interested. I’ve lived in Torrington and reported there and in Lusk for seven months now, and I haven’t heard much about WWC. Bloomers owners Twila Barnette and Carrie Bannan explaining to me the rules involved in delivering these arrangements – size, material and content restrictions typical of a prison – was the first time I spoke with someone about people incarcerated in the facility, despite such close proximity to both towns, Torrington to Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution and Lusk to WWC. 

How little we read about prisons locally led me to write this story and to speak with the husband of one woman who sends flowers each and every week and WWC Warden Rick Catron, who oversees all aspects of the facility.

Catron, sensing my desire to dig a little deeper, graciously invited me to tour the facility shrouded in mystery. To be clear, I know the point of a prison is to separate the folks inside from the rest of society, but as a reporter, I want in. Thank you, Mr. Catron, for allowing me this privilege.

Last Thursday afternoon, I drove the windy road, following the unique signs indicating WWC lies ahead. The sign just before the prison struck me in particular, resembling a “Welcome to Wyoming” sign drivers can find at state borders. It felt a bit whimsical for the setting, but in a sense, you are crossing a border when you enter WWC.

The building, brown brick with darker red accents, reminded me of a school. Drive a mile to Niobrara County’s schools, and they don’t look all that different, other than high fences and barbed wire.

Inside was no different. Rooms and hallways reminded me of college, other than doors that are locked at all times and women dressed the same, in matching orange clothes, for the most part, and matching face coverings. 

WWC has largely avoided the impacts the pandemic has had on the nation’s prisons. Three staff contracted the virus as of Dec. 7, according to a Wyoming Department of Corrections press release, but inmates have thankfully avoided COVID-19. Catron chalks this up to the masks, made by the women themselves, and careful cleaning also carried out by inmates. 

Visitation has been restricted since the onset of the pandemic, but in its place, women are allotted time to video chat with loved ones. This has been better in a sense because one woman, who I’ll call R, (Catron asked me to refrain from using names due to privacy concerns), told me she had the chance to speak with a brother she hasn’t seen in 24 years. Other women have similar stories of relatives living across the country who didn’t have the time to travel to Wyoming for an hour-long visit. The prison will keep the system even once in-person visitation is allowed again, Catron said.

WWC has an abundance of programming, some of which I’m sure folks know about, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much normalcy these women are offered despite circumstances. I saw their renowned aquaculture program firsthand, along with opportunities for practicing religion, yoga classes and more. 

I’m not naive; I know these women are paying for whatever mistakes they made in their past with their residency at WWC. It’s not summer camp. But activities, education and work help these women to rehabilitate and prepare for their second chance at life. 

I don’t have enough print space to relate my interactions with all of the women I met and the information they and staff gave me. There’s Ms. S, an older woman who crochets and teaches others how to do so. There’s H, who graduated earlier in the day we spoke from WWC’s Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU), a program for those with substance abuse issues. I’ve read news reports scrutinizing the program, but I can only speak on what I heard from H and what I was told, and while intense, it can help people. The same goes for the rest of the prison; I can only speak on what I saw.

I’ll leave you with one more interaction I had, one that stuck with me most. R, a different R from the first woman I mentioned, is the head sewer in the garment unit. She was in charge of the mask-making effort for inmates and staff, as well as Governor Mark Gordon and state employees. I struggled with the morality of this set-up for a moment until R said how proud she is to make these masks that protect the governor and his staff when he appears on television for press conferences. She estimates she’s made 10,000 masks at this point. 

R must be my grandmother’s age. She told me she started sewing at a garment factory, which is where my grandmother started and eventually became a talented seamstress later on. 

As I talk with her, R works on a jean jacket, which the women wear when they’re released from WWC in the winter months. She’s proud to make these, too, for the women embarking on their second act of life.

R herself is being released soon. She can use these skills on the outside, or as she said, if she ends up back inside. I didn’t push her on this, I just told her I hope to see her selling face coverings she makes rather than making them from the confines of WWC.

I appreciate the opportunity to visit and hope this leads to more stories about the ordinary: women succeeding in various programs and jobs, new programs, profiles. As always, please reach out with tips, questions or ideas. 

WWC is a vital part of Wyoming, and so are the women inside.