Red Tent Women’s Initiative offers incarcerated women a pathway to success


ST. PETERSBURG —Within the dismal walls of prison, women now account for approximately 30 percent of the inmates at the Pinellas County Jail.  Their stories are ones of crime, abuse and drugs, and now with the Red Tent Women’s Initiatives, introspection, redemptions and chances of a new life can be added to the list.

The Red Tent Women’s Initiative was developed by founder Barbara Rhode after she assisted in a work release/court ordered drug center and witnessed firsthand the trauma experienced by the growing female incarcerated population and the effect it had on the inmates’ children she assisted.

Rhode, who has a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, said she was inspired to create a safe haven for women by the book “The Red Tent” by Anita Daimant.

Set in biblical times, the novel is about women coming together in a red tent for the healing of the body and mind and to share stories and the wisdom of others who have suffered and overcome similar situations.

Red Tent

Rhode said 85 percent of women incarcerated in jail or prison have to leave their kids behind. She was shaken at the heart-wrenching site of women leaving their children to either a relative or the impersonal foster care system.

“These young children show signs of separation anxiety trauma,” she said, adding that 60-70 percent of these youngsters will eventually end up in the judicial system also.

Once parents are stripped of their parental rights, there are mountains of obstacles to overcome to regain custody and re-enter into society. However, it is the rebuilding of themselves that must begin first, and here’s where the Red Tent Women’s Initiative steps in.

Their mission is to improve the lives of incarcerated women, benefiting their families and communities through mentoring opportunities, financial empowerment and the social bonding that is the natural result of creating marketable crafts together in an atmosphere of trust and encouragement.

According to Rhode, most of the crimes committed by women are 98 percent drug related with the balance of crimes involving domestic violence, shoplifting and driving without a license.  The common thread is their personal background.

Sexual abuse as a child Rhode cites as one of the core issues.  She also stated that parental neglect, domestic violence and generational family drug use are also major factors.

The relationships that these women have had with the men in their lives have left a deep imprint on them.

“A lot of stories [shared] have not had a positive male experience,” said Rhode. “A lot of the women have partners who are also in prison, dad left or dad was the perpetrator.”

The initiative strives to show women the different forms of exploitation by men such as working two and three jobs while their partner stays unemployed, or the concept of a “sugar daddy.” Rhode explained how these older men can sometimes lure a young lady into a relationship and then become totally depended on that man and cannot develop a life of their own.

The group of 15 meets three days a week at a private room in the jail facility.  The room is filled with plants, soft music and quilts on the wall to give the room a nurturing effect. Some of the skills learned in the class are job readiness, employability, conflict resolution and stress management.

“Most of the women feel overwhelmed and never had the tools to help them cope.”

Here they begin counseling that hopefully will lead them to stability and a more productive life.  They also create “marketable art” items such as crochet, embroidery and jewelry and sometimes learn to start a business.

“When women create something with their hands, the chemical oxytocin is released in them and they begin to feel more safe, secure and comfortable,” explained Rhode.

Once the women reentry society, they are faced with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.

“It is hard to rent an apartment or get a job. Some of them have no photo ID and public transportation can be challenging,” Rhode stated.

However, the Red Hat Women’s Initiative has been assisted by several agencies that offer invaluable support including, the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition, which Red Tent is under, Pinellas Technical College, Office of Prison Ministries under Catholic Charities that provides a licensed clinician that provides individual counseling to released offenders, PSTA Disadvantaged Reduced Bus Program  and the Red Tent Community Closet co-partnered with  St. Petersburg Free Clinic where participants can shop for needed clothing.

“It’s been the most rewarding experience in my life,” said Rhode.  “These women have taught me so much. We’re all connected and if we don’t help them it’s vicious a cycle. That could be my daughter, neighbor or me.”

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