Mothering High-Risk Women

For 10 years, Carole Pope has been guiding ex-offenders into lives with new beginnings. INTERVIEW: DEFENDER OF EX-OFFENDERS

CAROLE POPE has a knack for disrupting people's comfort zones. You might say that's in her job description. Ms. Pope is founder and executive director of ``Our New Beginnings,'' a sentencing alternative for female ex-offenders here in Portland. Making people aware of - and often uncomfortable about - society's so-called ``throwaways'' has helped her gain respect and support for the program, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.end of sept. 1990

``We've lopped off a third of our society: gays, homeless, HIVs [people who carry the AIDS virus], junkies, prostitutes - all the people who mirror the cancer in our society,'' says Pope in an interview. ``Society doesn't want to own them. [But] they're responsible for it.''

Our New Beginnings takes responsibility. Instead of going to prison, women may be sentenced here: The program provides the tools and the place for women to make the transition to living in a non-criminal way. The ``clients,'' as they are called, live in a large Victorian house (technically a jail), and receive professional guidance and support. They may learn how to kick addictions, land a job, find a place to live, take care of their children. Many non-residents also receive counseling.

``Just to get to 10 years was imperative,'' says Pope, sitting in the living room of her small houseboat. ``At first, people didn't give me 10 minutes, let alone 10 years,'' she says, referring to the initial skepticism from the courts and correction systems.

Help is needed, not a cage

On Nov. 13, 1989, Pope signed a contract with Oregon State Corrections. It was a symbolic validation for the program, but also a great irony: Pope herself is an ex-con and now works for her former keepers. Eight years to the day she had been released from prison.

The idea for the nonprofit Our New Beginnings Inc. surfaced when Pope was serving time for theft and forgery at the Oregon Women's Correctional Center. Hatred for the system, she says, drove her and several other inmates to create a program that would prevent other women from going through what they had. ``I went into prison Carole Pope, 35, and was labeled 39960. ... In one hour's time they dehumanized me,'' she recalls.

```Corrections' is a misnomer,'' Pope continues in her gravelly voice. ``Prison taught me nothing. It stopped the momentum of my own destruction,'' she says, speaking of her alcohol addiction.

At a turning point, Pope realized her life ``was not what it appeared to be. I wasn't the only one. I was surrounded by hundreds of women exactly like me'' - women with histories of incest and abuse, she says. She saw her ``sisters'' get out of prison only to come back - some within 24 hours. ``They pop you out and expect you to be instantly responsible. You have to pay them to watch you...It's hard on parole officers. There's not enough resources. ''These women didn't need a cage, they needed help, she reckoned, and the prison system was not giving it.

According to Pope, 98 percent of the 300 to 400 women who go through Our New Beginnings (ONB) every year are victims of incest. About 90 percent have been substance abusers for 11 years or more. ``There are far too many women on the waiting list,'' says Pope, whose clients are referred to her by judges, parole officers, district attorneys, private attorneys, parole boards, prisons, or other programs. Sometimes women find it on their own. The program runs on grants, county and city funds, and sometimes Pope's own money.

A large part of the program consists of counseling to dispel feelings of worthlessness. ``Society validates their feelings - feelings of being valueless, worthless. Corrections enhances and exacerbates that,'' Pope charges.

The women take responsibility for their actions, but they learn what led them to crime, drugs, and destructive relationships. They come to grips with their past. ``It's like disconnecting one big switchboard,'' Pope says.

The program also serves as a major treatment center that includes medical help and counseling for drug, alcohol, and mental-health problems.

``Our New Beginnings is a program who's time has definitely come,'' says Barbara Fleisher, a circuit judge in Tampa, Fla.: ``Carole works with a very difficult population.'' Tampa recently launched a residential women's program modeled after ONB. ``It's going very well,'' Fleisher said during a telephone interview. ``We need to adjust the program, tighten up some things.... If it works in one part of the country, there's no reason in the world it couldn't work in other parts of the country.''

Recognizing their value

For many, Carole Pope is Our New Beginnings. During the interview, Pope herself refers to the program as her ``child'' and ``the physical manifestation of my spirit.''

``Some people say I'm obsessed with this,'' she admits.

Clients and staff describe Pope as tough and tender, compassionate, a fighter, a believer. ``She's a caring, loving person, but she's not into playing games. It's tough love,'' says Brenda, a three-time resident at ONB. ``You have to be willing to take steps.''

``I'm an unabashed fan about what she does,'' says Michael Schrunk, Multnomah (Ore.) County's district attorney who has seen Our New Beginnings rise from the ground. ``This has one of the options that has been a raging success,'' he says, adding that ONB's recidivism rate is much lower than the normal probation or parole programs. (Pope estimates the rate at between 30 and 35 percent; she herself has sent women back to jail.)

``I would hope that part of the credit are those people who took a chance with her, particualrly the people who helped fund it,'' he adds.

What does it take to make a program like this work? ``It takes the flesh and bones, the human spirit to do it - that's what's unique about Carole,'' says Schrunk. ``My hope is there would be people to come in and be her assistants for a while and go out and start similar programs.''

``What I do isn't unique and special,'' says Pope. ``That's a sad comment on society.''

Recently, Pope has directed some of her seemingly endless energy into making ONB a program that can stand on its own. The staff of 17 - five of whom are former clients - are very protective of her. (``We try to keep her away on weekends,'' says one staffer.)

``It doesn't take a `Carole clone' to make it work,'' says Pope. It takes willingness and understanding to recognize the value in these human beings, she says.

Pope refers to rehabilitation as ```inner child' work. Although all the women are chronologically adults, emotionally they're 8 to 13 years old. We are fortunate that in this age in society, it's OK to get counseling.'' she says. ``I parent my women the way I wish I had been parented. I spoil them rotten, but hold them accountable and punish them. But I never turn my back on them.''

Showing several photos of clients and their children, Pope says, ``I am a mother to these women, nanna to these children. I don't want Amy coming back like her mother,'' she says about one. Most of the 300 children who have accompanied their mothers through ONB have been drug addicted.

``It is a cycle,'' she says, raising her voice as if addressing an audience. ``If you interrupt it, it can be stopped.''

But in order for such programs to work, society can't expect 90-day wonders or Band-Aid solutions, Pope says. ``There has to be willingness to know what you get back will be a generation of healthy people,'' she says. ``It is cost effective.''

However, just as ONB is a halfway house, society must come half way too, she says. In addition to money, top needs are jobs and affordable housing.

When someone is ill, society will help. ``Well, my women need heart transplants too.... they are spiritually ill,'' says Pope. People ``look at them as society's cancer as opposed to having cancer,'' she says. ``That has to change.''

Despite the 10-year haul, Pope says her vision for ONB is only half complete. She would like to have more housing and resources for clients - ``provide them with a place long enough so they can heal.'' Ideally, she would have a home in the country for them. ``Some cannot live in the world. They need to go to camp. Some need a place to grow old.'' ONB was the first residence in Oregon to place individuals tested positive for the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV).

When will she be satisfied? ``Success is when I have no more clients,'' Pope says, adding flatly: ``That's not a reality.''

``Society as a whole fails to demand change ... until it's your kid. We are all each other's kids.''

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