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SD women's prison event turns adversity to empowerment

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Terry Liggins speaks about adverse childhood experiences during the first session of the Empower Campaign, which was held at the South Dakota Women's Prison in Pierre on Thursday. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)

PIERRE — Among the usual crowd of khaki and red outfits at the South Dakota Women's Prison, hints of purple were seen on staff and incarcerated women alike on Thursday.

In the middle of National Domestic Violence Month, the small purple ribbons many wore were in honor of the first domestic and sexual violence-focused event held at the prison. Known as the Empowerment Campaign, the event at the Pierre facility brought in several people with expertise in childhood trauma, human trafficking, prostitution and other areas that disproportionately affect women.

Warden Wanda Markland, who said she has been working on holding more events at the prison since she took over the position last year, said she selected domestic violence as a focus because it's something that likely affected everyone who opted to attend to some extent and has played a role in what led many of the women into the correctional system.

"There's something powerful about us being in the same place and sharing some of the same things," said the Rev. Kimberly LaPlante, pastor at the Church of Hope at the prison. LaPlante shared her personal experience with domestic violence as well as her experience working with women who have been involved in human trafficking, which she said is often rooted in domestic violence.

Markland said 77 total women signed up to attend the event, though not all showed up Thursday morning.

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Jamee Corean, Amanda Kaur and Whitney Turney, all of whom are currently serving sentences at the prison, began planning the event about four months ago to ensure that logistics such as finding speakers and making sure those speakers got the proper clearance to enter the prison could be worked out well ahead of time. Markland said with planning by Corean, Kaur, Turney and Renae Kueter, the prison's cultural activities director, Thursday's event was the most organized the prison has had.

Corean told The Daily Republic that many of the women in the prison tend to see themselves as lost causes, and one of the goals of the Empowerment Campaign was to show them that there are factors other than personal decisions that may have contributed to the behavior that ultimately led to their incarceration.

"We do make choices," Corean said. "It's about making healthy choices now, but knowing how it came about."

Corean said that when Markland asked for volunteers to organize the event, she took on the role with the intent of showing attendees that even in a place like prison, hope can still be given.

The day began with education on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the effect they can have on people well into adulthood, even on someone who doesn't have a specific memory of the experience. Mary Beth Holzwarth, who works with the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment based in Sioux Falls, said there are 10 types of ACEs which are categorized as household dysfunction, neglect or abuse, and that 87 percent of the time, someone with one ACE will have had at least one other.

Holzwarth said ACEs can often change how parts of the brain function, and those dealing with trauma may find it difficult to learn what others might consider basic concepts because their brains are busy trying to work through the trauma. She said while the women in the prison may not have had a choice in what happened to them as children, they can take action now.

"Just because you've grown up in that type of environment doesn't mean you're a lost cause," Holzwarth said.

Markland said she put some of the prison's staff through ACE training to help them understand the struggles the women they're overseeing may have encountered. While the topics discussed Thursday morning centered on information about trauma and its effects, afternoon sessions were designed to focus on resiliency and moving forward.

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"Keep on the journey. Don't give up," LaPlante said. "You're not meant to be broken at the level that you are today, tomorrow."

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Woman incarcerated at the South Dakota Women's prison, three of whom helped organize the Empowerment Campaign, listen to Pastor Kimberly LaPlante speak during the day-long event Thursday. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)

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