A look at life behind bars at Ohio's largest prison for women

Published: Jul. 18, 2012 at 9:59 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2012 at 11:56 AM EDT
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MARYSVILLE, OH (FOX19) - Ohio Reformatory for Women, ORW, in Marysville is where many of the convicted female prisoners from some of the most talked about crimes end up. Fox19's Kimberly Holmes Wiggins went behind bars for an inside look at what life is really like for those locked up at ORW.

The prison is not your typical one.

There are several brick buildings. The main open area almost resembles a college campus, but these dorms house women classified by charges.

Warden Ginine Trim runs Ohio's largest prison for women. It houses 2,300 inmates and nearly 500 employees work at ORW.

Warden Trim firmly believes in the prison's two missions.

"One is reduction in violence," said Warden Trim. "The second one is reduction in recidivism. The true measure of how successful we are is that people don't come back to our facilities."

To achieve that goal, inmates are encouraged to nourish their minds while they're at ORW. More than 110 programs are offered.

Unique ones such as Achieving Baby Care Success allows mothers convicted of non-violent, shorter sentences to live and learn how to properly raise their babies.

Almost a quarter of the inmates get their GED while at ORW.

Others learn a trade.

Some prisoners train service dogs. Currently, there are 55 canines enrolled in the program. The dogs will soon help the blind, the deaf, and the autistic. The women in the program even live with the dogs.

Some trainers like Carol Obanion are then able to take those skills off campus.

Obanion, 30, has spent three years at ORW. She was convicted of theft and forgery, but hopes her work at the local humane center will help her land a job working with animals once she's released.

"I just need to look back at how all of this has made me feel and how much it was a knock to my pride and self esteem," said Obanion. "I never want to go back to that. I'm the happiest now than I have been in a very long time."

Leaders here said that Obanion is proof their programs are working. Warden Trim said their recidivism rate is low; two-thirds don't come back. She added that rehabilitation is the key.

Laura Hysell agreed with that sentiment.

Hysell was a registered nurse. Now, the 44-year-old is an inmate at ORW. Her journey to prison started after she become hooked on drugs after a car accident.

"Never in a million years," Hysell responded to the question of whether she ever imagined she'd end up in prison. "When I graduated from my first year of nursing school, I was first in my class out of 35."

Her story is like those of numerous women at ORW.

"The average age is 35 years old," said Warden Trim. "She's here for possession of drugs or theft. They come in with a dual diagnosis of having some mental heath illnesses, as well as a substance abuse issue."

76-percent of inmates here are white. They are typically non-violent offenders. The average prisoner spends two and half years behind bars.

"Since I've been here my sister's been here, as well," said Hysell. "Twice. Her daughter just arrived here."

In Hysell's five years at ORW she's joined the tapestry program. It's part of the behavior modification unit. She's also now a leader in the reintegration dorm.

"My role in the reintegration center is a peer advisor," said Hysell.

All of the inmates in the program must work, and often have jobs lined up before they're released.

"The hiring decision for Sheila was actually a very challenging one," said Scott Bowers.

Bowers helps run FOCAS, a faith-based non-profit in Cincinnati. The organization works with ex-offenders like Sheila Luther.

"What made it more challenging is when we learned Sheila's violent history that got her incarcerated it was a little bit more difficult," said Bowers. "But we decided that we needed to practice what we preached."

Luther was convicted of attempted murder after she almost killed her husband in 1992.

"I shot and nearly killed my husband," said Luther. "That was a very wrong thing to do."

She spent 13 years at ORW.

Luther soon became a model inmate. She was determined to change. She joined 80 programs.

Since her release, she's held several steady jobs and even married again a few weeks ago on the sixth anniversary of her release from prison.

"Life does not end in prison," said Luther. "It's a horrible, humiliating, degrading experience, but it can change your life, too."

It's an idea that many of the women at ORW are counting on.

"You can be handed so many things," said Obanion. "You can be handed a pot of gold, but it's whatever you do with it. Good or bad."

To keep costs low the prison relies on volunteers. According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, it costs a little more than $42 per inmate per day. That rate is one of the lowest in the state for male or female prisons.

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