Students help incarcerated women

UMPI CJ majors devote semester at County Jail

     PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Criminal Justice students at the University of Maine at Presque Isle devoted their spring semester to a service learning project aiding the women incarcerated at the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton. With help from Hope and Justice Project, students in the class fundraised and collected items for the women to receive upon their release.

    Dr. Lisa Leduc’s “Women and Crime” class is a service learning course, meaning that students are expected to dedicate 20 to 30 volunteer hours to the chosen project.

    “In the past, our class has worked with the incarcerated women’s center in Windham and the Women’s Re-Entry Center which is now in Alfred,” said Leduc, UMPI associate professor of criminal justice. “But when I found out that one of my former students was co-facilitating a support group in the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton, I saw an opportunity for our students to have a positive effect locally.”

    Leduc was referring to Chelsie Higgins, who graduated from UMPI with a bachelor’s of arts in criminal justice in 2011.

    “Many women who commit crimes have experienced abuse in their family or dating relationships,” said Higgins, who is now employed as the outreach coordinator at Hope and Justice Project, the non-profit organization that provides services to anyone affected by abuse and violence in Aroostook County.

    Higgins co-facilitates a support group for women in the Aroostook County Jail who have experienced abuse. “A lot of the women in the jail have very few resources and little to no support on the outside — which becomes problematic when they try to move forward after being released.”

     As a part of the course, Higgins visited the 11 students for one of their classes and shared her experiences. The students then got to work brainstorming ideas of how they could be helpful to the women in the Aroostook County Jail. It was decided that the students would create “exit packets” for the women to receive upon release. The packets would include a resource list with information on anything from transportation to mental health and substance abuse services, tips on how to apply for jobs with a criminal record, and gift certificates for local area restaurants.

    Students also set out to collect used books to contribute to the jail’s library and researched activities and curricula for Hope and Justice Project advocates to use in their support group in the jail. The students created a Go Fund Me page, sold Scentsy products, and organized weekly bake sales. The funds raised went toward the purchasing of gift certificates for the exit packets.

    Several of the students accompanied Hope and Justice Project advocates to the jail to observe the support group. “Visiting the Aroostook County Jail was a crucial part of this college course for me, because it put faces to the situations we had discussed in class time and time again,” said then senior criminal justice and psychology student, Erica Hemphill.

    A sophomore criminal justice and psychology student with a pre-law minor, Valentina Annunziata, said, “At first our project seemed to me to be a bit superficial, until I saw in person the emotions of the females at the jail when they heard what we were doing. To hear their stories and how happy they were that someone cared was truly eye opening.”

    In the end, the students collected five boxes of used books and completed 85 exit packets, each with restaurant gift certificates for $15 to $20 for the women in the Aroostook County Jail.

    “They were beyond thankful that strangers were considering helping them,” said Hemphill.

     “It is unfortunate that some community members are unwilling to help those in jail; it is even more unfortunate that some are unable to recognize the possible payback in the future that will come with helping those who are incarcerated in the present.”

     Annunziata, Hemphill and their classmates recently presented the donated books and exit packets to the Aroostook County Jail. They also shared their findings from their service learning project at University Day at UMPI, a daylong event where students showcase their academic research, scholarly work, and community service.

     Hope and Justice Project works with anyone who has experienced or been affected by abuse or violence in Aroostook County, Maine. For more information, visit our website at or email us at To speak with an advocate, call the 24-hour hotline at 1-800- 439-2323. Services are free and confidential.