Leadership training at women’s prison drastically reduces recidivism

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ATHENA International is a women’s group that conducts leadership training for female inmates at Perryville Prison west of Phoenix. The results have been a drastic reduction in recidivism for the women participating in the program.

The founder of ATHENA International, Martha Mertz, and the group’s president, Andrea Conner, discuss the leadership training and its results.

Conner says increasing the women’s confidence is crucial.

Authenticity, for the women to get in touch with who they really are and what they value, is also important.

Ted Simons: All right, we'll keep an eye on what's going on. Coming up on "Arizona Horizon," we'll hear about a program that's helping to cut the recidivism rate for women inmates.

Ted Simons: Athena International is a women's group that conducts programs for ip mates. The program has resulted in a reduction in the prison's recidivism rate. Joining us now is founder Martha Merits and the group's president, Andrea Connor. Good to have you with us. What is Athena International? Where did you start?

Martha Mertz: Good question. 35 years ago it was started by one woman on the board. It was determined that there were many women in the community that had talent that would contribute to the community as a whole. The way to do that was to arrive at this honoring one woman who represented all.

Ted Simons: Through eight principles of the strengths of highly successful women, translates to a program for prisoners and inmates. Talk to us about this?

Andrea Conner: It's building confidence. You see female executives, they have a level of confidence. If we have that internal confidence growing up or we are in a marginalized situation, we are able to help these women at Perryville find their internal confidence.

Ted Simons: I bet their confidence is shot. How do you build that up?

Andrea Conner: It's starting with the journey. It starts with authenticity and leading by authenticity, giving back the way the women tend to lead.

Ted Simons: We have had Athena on before and living authentically is big. What does that mean?

Martha Mertz: It's an almost intangible topic to get to what we do to ask the women, what do they value? What are their values? Are they living their values? Who are they at the end of the day, not dealing with the world at large. The wisdom of that comes from Shakespeare, to thine own self be true. If we try to teach them as all of us need to learn, what do I value? How am I holding on to the values in the prison for instance, can be tough.

Ted Simons: I imagine to break out of that, got to have courage there. How do you instill that courage into the women?

Andrea Conner: It comes from exploring what drives them and what impact and imprint do they want to have on the world for the rest of their life. What you find happens there, most of the women are mothers. If you show the impact they can have on their children, it gives you courage. You hear about mothers lifting cars up when their baby bear is injured. They know it has an impact for them personally and their family.

Ted Simons: When you started the idea of living authentically and looking at successful women and transferring it to others, did you think of prison inmates?

Martha Mertz: We spent ten years honoring women to bring women into the circle of this is what the new face of women looks like. We studied ways women lead. We expected to teach high achieving women that set of principles. We have over all of these years. The unbelievable, accidental discovery this model has an impact on women who are in prison and unfortunate circumstances, was a surprise to us. We didn't expect that. It's been happening now in this area five years. It's a pilot program. It had never been presented to women in prison before. Andrea is in charge of seeing the program expand across the country, and it's beginning.

Ted Simons: Congratulations on that. You like return rate.

Andrea Conner: There are a lot of statistics around that.

Ted Simons: Just the culture saying don't say recidivism but return rate. That is 67 percent. What are you hearing from graduates of the program?

Andrea Conner: They find their confidence in who they are and knowing what their purpose is. They find they are impactful, that it was life changing for them. That the experience impacted them, their family, their community. They are contributing members of society. They have a purpose.

Ted Simons: These meetings, are they classes or forums, how do they work?

Andrea Conner: They are classes that work six weeks. Perryville, they do three sessions a year. 50 women go through the program. Each week volunteers take a leadership principle and do a deep dive. There is reading and homework assigned for the individual classmate. They go back and do a lot of self-reflection.

Ted Simons: This must be so graphiting to start something so long ago with an idea and making that kind of difference.

Martha Mertz: We have had the Deputy Warden tell us that she can tell the difference by the way women carry themselves in the yard, those that are enrolled in the program or going through it. One woman said I thought I was signing up for a standard prison program. I never expected something this powerful to change my life, but it has.

Ted Simons: It certainly has. You can't beat the numbers. Thank you so much.

Martha Mertz: Founder, ATHENA International
Andrea Conner: President, ATHENA International

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