A native of Maine, Ferszt grew up in Connecticut and received her master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She moved to Rhode Island in 1993 and, at the urging of a colleague, started counseling women at the ACI. Her doctoral thesis was titled "The Grief of Women in Prison."
Three years ago, she shifted her focus to pregnant inmates. The stories moved her, like the one about a 29-year-old pregnant woman locked up for a minor drug offense who felt shame every time she went to the hospital for a check-up and the other mothers stared at her at handcuffs.
"I remember one woman saying, 'It makes me feel like I'm not even a real person,' " Ferszt says.
Ferszt's interest in the issue intensified after she went to a conference sponsored by Penal Reform International, an organization devoted to prison reform worldwide. The survey followed soon after.
Other responses from the 19 states — all were promised confidentiality — were equally startling. Only five states, including Rhode Island, provide women prisoners with two mattresses for comfort in their cells. And only eight states, again including Rhode Island, allow a relative or friend to be present during delivery.
An article about Ferszt's findings is forthcoming. Meanwhile, she continues to counsel women at the ACI for free and to lobby for prison rights. Ultimately, she'd like to see fewer women locked up and more in residential treatment centers, where the focus is rehabilitation, not punishment.
"They have so much to teach us about all the things we have in our lives," she says. "I get far more from them than they get from me."