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Get Out of Jail Dead: Cathy, a misdemeanor drug offender, died while waiting to enter a treatment program.

Breaking the Cycle

Gemma offers a new life for women getting out of jail

By Virginia Lee

You would think that the day a person finally walks out of jail would be the first day of the rest of their life. According to social psychologist Susan Greene, that's not necessarily what happens. Too often, women who had homes, jobs and families before they went to prison lose it all during their incarceration, and are thrown back into the community with no place to go. With no job, no home and often little education, it's easy to slip back into the same patterns that landed them in jail, which for more than 80 percent of people in our local jail justice system involves some sort of nonviolent, drug-related offense.

"Our criminal justice system tries to scare people out of their addiction with punitive consequences, but drug addiction is not a choice. It's a treatable illness--and not a crime," explains Greene, who first got involved as a volunteer for the Elizabeth Fry Center in San Francisco, an alternative residential program for incarcerated women that allowed them to live with their children. Greene saw that parenting their children was the greatest motivation for many incarcerated women to embrace recovery and make their lives work.

"As I began to see the inter-generational cycles of incarceration, I wondered: 'What is the good of sending women to prison for nonviolent drug offense?' Greene recalls. "It takes away from their ability to mother their own children, and puts their children at increased risk of following in their footsteps. These women want to provide a better childhood than they had. They want their kids to have the kind of childhood every kid deserves, but they need help to change and create a new way to live. In essence, they need treatment for their addictions, counseling and ongoing support."

Contrary to what most people assume, nothing like that exists for women the day they walk out of jail. Most have little access to mental health care. Often, all they're given is a bus ticket. With few alternatives, most head back to where they came from. As one woman said, "On the street, it's easier to get drugs than food."

To better understand this cycle, and in the hope of finding a way to break its patterns, Susan Greene decided to pursue a Ph.D. in social psychology at UCSC in 1995. The focus of her research (with the renowned Dr. Craig Haney) was the social history of incarcerated women from childhood to jail, and how their children are affected by their mother's incarceration.

Greene's initial goal was to conduct 100 interviews with incarcerated mothers in the Bay Area. She asked about their experience in the criminal justice system as children and then as adults, and wanted to learn if their children were repeating the cycles of abuse, addiction and incarceration. Adds Greene, "If we can learn more as a society, maybe we can make better decisions about the children of incarcerated parents."

Here are some of the statistics Greene learned from her interviews:

  • Eighty-six percent reported experiencing physical sexual abuse and/or witnessing domestic violence as children. As a result, many didn't feel safe at home, ended up running away at an early age and began self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Eighty-three percent of mothers admitted that their children had already experienced similar trauma.
  • Four out of five incarcerated women are mothers of an average of two children under age 10.
  • Most were the primary caregiver before their incarceration.
  • Usually the maternal grandmother (or another family member) takes the kids. Approximately 10 percent go to foster care.
  • Despite their best intentions, four out of five had been in jail an average of four times. Many grew up in the juvenile hall detention system and, once institutionalized, found it hard to function in the outside world.
  • During the course of her master's research, Greene discovered basic things the women needed but could not access from jail: information about schools and treatment centers; contact with former employers, family members, social workers and lawyers; clothing to wear upon release; finding a place to live and getting a job.

    As a result, Greene proposed a pilot program called Getting Out and Staying Out, a bilingual organization she created while a graduate student at UCSC. Over the next three years, Getting Out and Staying Out got funding from the Commission for the Prevention of Violence against Women, the Santa Cruz Community Foundation and the Sheriff's Department to go into Blaine Street, the local women's jail, three evenings a week. Once there, they tried to connect the women inside with the world outside and help them develop a re-entry plan. Many hours were spent helping the women fill out applications for jobs and/or Cabrillo College, treatment programs, housing and social services.

    In 2002, Getting Out and Staying Out merged with the Santa Cruz chapter of Friends Outside (a similar national organization) because Greene needed time to finish her Ph.D. dissertationčand so the organization would continue after her work.

    Greene's dissertation posed questions to incarcerated women: What do you do when you get out of jail? What do you face the first day, night, week, month? Where do you go if you don't have a place to live? How are your children affected? And she herself ended up working with three of the women, here in Santa Cruz.

    "I became a walking crisis line and social worker," confesses Greene, who found it impossible not to get involved in the chronic crises of these three women's lives. "By the time I graduated, it was keeping me awake at night. I noticed these women going back to jail over and over again because they had no safe place to live, few resources and little support to address the roots of their addictions. Jail was often the only place they felt safe."

    Ironically, the women would make progress in jail, but struggled with freedom once they got out, especially if they had no place to go and needed substance abuse treatment. (More than 70 percent of incarcerated women haven't received treatment for their addiction.) The Catch-22 seems to be: You can't get a home without a job, and you can't get a job without a home.

    One of the participants in Greene's research was Cathy, a woman who had been in and out of jail on misdemeanor drug offenses for 10 years, had four children, and would relapse into drug and alcohol addiction each time she lost custody of her kids. During the year they worked together, Cathy was in and out of jail three times. Once again, upon her release the treatment programs were full and Cathy had nowhere to go. While on the waiting list for three programs, she ended up back on the streets. Within days, a heroin overdose would be her final relapse. For Greene, losing Cathy was a grim reminder that this community desperately needs a transitional place for women to live when they get out of jail. Out of her grief and a collaborative team effort emerged Gemma, which was founded in 2003 by two women in jail, Rhea Hunter and another inmate, who shared their vision with Greene and Pat Zonca, a teacher at Blaine for 14 years. Committed to helping women reunite with their families and the community, and to stopping the revolving door of recidivism, Gemma takes its name from is a botanical term meaning "a bud ready to grow independently."

    With the support of Margaret Porter, the correctional supervisor at Blaine, and a group of 20 people from the community as well as in jail, a board was formed and has worked for the past 18 months to make the Gemma vision real. As Hunter puts it: "We know how to survive. Now we just need to learn how to live." Gemma will solicit input from currently and formerly incarcerated women in developing the program. It will provide a safe place to live and one-on-one counseling with therapists trained in post-traumatic stress disorder. It will accept low-income homeless women.

    Women in the program will receive help in getting a job, going back to school and/or reuniting with their children. Residents will do household chores, community service, and when financially stable, contribute a percentage of earnings toward their own living expenses, while saving for the day they get their own place. Advancement will be based on personal progress rather than on a specific timeline. Gemma will provide aftercare and continuing support though the challenging transition to mainstream life.

    Rhea Hunter's is a remarkable success story. After three years of living clean and sober, Hunter completed her second semester at Cabrillo and works full time at New Leaf. She lives in the Page Smith House and has had support since the day she got out of jail.

    Gemma's goal is to raise $300,000 through donations by December 2005 and to open a transitional house in 2006. Having recently met with the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Greene is more optimistic than ever that Gemma's vision will become a reality. To quote county Supervisor Mardi Wormhoud, who has been instrumental in gaining cooperation from various county agencies, including the Probation Department, Human Services, Health Services and the Redevelopment Agency, "The departments involved are eager to work with you and support Gemma's program in whatever ways they can."


    To contact Gemma, call 831.227.5725 or email gemma@cruzio.com, or attend the next general meeting on July 26, 6-8pm, at Holy Cross Church, 210 High St., Room 108. All donations to Gemma are tax-deductible. Mail to P.O. Box 443, Santa Cruz, 95061.

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    From the July 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

    Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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