URI’s College of Nursing helps brighten holidays for women inmates

Community comes together to support gift bag program

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Amanda Millan, a senior nursing major at the University of Rhode Island, and Ginette Ferszt, URI professor of nursing, organized an effort to provide 180 women in Rhode Island prisons with holiday gift bags containing toiletries. (photo by Jessica Vescera)

KINGSTON, R.I, December 22, 2016 — Every holiday season for many years, inmates at Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections Women’s Facilities in Cranston have received small gifts in colorful bags tied with ribbon. For many, the packages of travel-size toiletries are the only presents the women receive.

Ginette G. Ferszt, professor of nursing at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Nursing, started the gift program. A psychiatric mental health clinical nurse specialist, Ferszt led support groups for inmates as well as a group for those who were pregnant. Currently, she is working on a national level to promote legislation in other states to end the practice of shackling pregnant inmates en route to the hospital or during labor and delivery.

“As I got to know them more and more, I saw what little they had,” Ferszt said of the women. “That first year I was so taken aback by their responses when we were handing out the bags. Some burst into tears at the idea that someone had thought of them.”

Since then, Ferszt has tapped the generosity of colleagues and the commitment of nursing students — who often fundraise in their dorms — to gather enough items to fill 180 small bags with toothbrushes and toothpaste and sweet-swelling shampoo, soap and body lotion. The items are delivered to the women’s facilities unwrapped, and the prison chaplain usually gathers a group of inmates to package them for distribution, Ferszt said.

Amanda Millan, a senior nursing major from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., helped organize the student effort this year. Ferszt selected Millan to mentor the freshman nursing majors in her URI 101 class this fall, and she organized the effort to collect items and raise money to buy them. “I was excited to take part. Those of us who are more fortunate need to give back,” she said. “Even a little thing can help. Imagine if you can’t take a shower with nice body wash or shampoo. It’s something we take for granted.”

Millan said she was pleased by the commitment from students, staff and faculty. “We have had more involvement than we anticipated. It seems that the whole nursing community contributed,” she said. “The (collection) box would fill up day by day. Everyone was passionate about it.”

She said the student involvement became more than just a charitable activity. It made the nursing newcomers aware of issues facing women in prison, the factors that landed them there and the challenges for health care providers, particularly around mental health.

Millan said Ferszt’s passion for the disenfranchised and her caring nature are contagious. “She is the type of person that sees the best in people. She is not the type of person to make people aware of what she does. It’s amazing,” she said. “It just drives me to want to do more.”