Women Inmates Build New Lives

Boston's Charlotte House prepares offenders for release, but the center may have to close

THE house at 32 Charlotte Street looks like other houses on this street in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston. It's a large Victorian, painted light green and white, worn by time, but looking well-lived-in.

Although it is not home to a family in the traditional sense, it is a special place for women making positive changes in their lives.

Charlotte House, as it is called, is a pre-release center for female offenders. The 15 women who live here are still incarcerated in the state prison system, but have 18 months or less of their sentences to serve. Here they learn how to make the transition from prison to functional living in society. This means working with counselors, overcoming addictions and addictive thinking, getting a job, paying room and board, doing household chores, volunteering at an outside agency (such as one that teaches dru g education), and beginning the process of reuniting with families - especially children.

These days, however, more than the usual concerns permeate this household. With proposed cutbacks in government spending, Charlotte House, which has a contract with the state, may have to close its doors after 28 years of service.

To cut costs, the state plans to close all contract residential pre-release programs except one for pregnant inmates.

"We no longer need their services," explains Tim App, associate deputy commissioner for community corrections for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. He points to cost- effectiveness, saying that the state's own pre-release programs can handle the job. According to Mr. App, there are 100 people in contract pre-release programs and about 576 people in state pre-release programs. "It's easy for us to absorb those 100 [beds] instead of paying extra costs," App says. He adds that tougher, mandatory s entencing has shifted the need from pre-release beds to additional beds in detention facilities.

But critics of the proposed closings argue that any short-term savings gained by shutting down contract pre-release centers will result in long-term costs.

A study released in June 1992 by the Massachusetts Department of Correction showed that, in 1989, the recidivism rate for offenders who had resided in contract pre-release centers was 16 percent, compared with 18 percent for inmates in state-operated pre-release centers.

"What it simply means is that people who come through our contract pre-release system perform much better after release than any other release vehicle the state has," says Bryan Riley, executive director of Massachusetts Half-Way Houses Inc.

Mr. Riley notes that Massachusetts prisons are operating at well over 100 percent capacity, and 70 percent of inmates are being released without going through a pre-release program. "And they say they don't need us?" he says.

The women at Charlotte House represent the human face of the reintegration process. On a Tuesday evening, they talk about the transition - that it is difficult, that the regimented life in prison is easier, but that the responsibility and discipline required of them in the pre-release program force them to be accountable to themselves and therefore stronger when they go out the front door to freedom. They speak of the difference between the prison environment - using words such as "degradation" and "humi liation" - and the environment here that offers "respect," "support," "family, friends."

Most are disappointed by the proposed closing of Charlotte House and see it as a grave mistake. They say Charlotte House offers things that some other pre-release programs do not.

Some of the women cite little things, such as being able to wear their own clothes, instead of a prison uniform; or getting a job, paying rent (15 percent of income), and managing their own money, instead of handing it over to someone else to manage.

Some cite bigger things, such as being able to have their children stay with them over the weekends , and - perhaps most important - getting a job in the same community they will probably return to.

"Most of my women are from this area," says Sandy Dalton, executive director of Charlotte House.

AT Charlotte House, "they give you certain attention and time. They really worked with me. You're not going to get that in a state-run facility," says Mattie, a production coordinator and former resident of Charlotte House, who has stopped by for a visit.

`Our communities don't need people getting out of jail mean, bitter, and nasty. They need a helpful place. This is how I really changed," she continues. "Coming here I learned the tools and skills to go out in society and function. I learned I could do all right in the square world."

There are few women's programs, says Ms. Dalton, who has been with Charlotte House for eight years. She is trying to persuade lawmakers to restore contract pre-release residential centers in the 1994 budget.

"The national picture seems to be a lot more progressive than in Massachusetts," says Dalton, who attended a National Academy of Corrections seminar in Longmont, Colo., last year. "We seemed to have regressed," she says. While other states have implemented residential programs as an alternative to prison, not as an add-on to a jail term, "Here they're going to increase prison beds," Dalton complains.

"There's nothing rehabilitative about it," says Liz, a former resident speaking about her prison experience. "Nothing constructive about it. Here [with the low staff-to-resident ratio], they have a genuine concern.... It is essential to have a place for the turning point; it's critical."

Gail, a present resident at Charlotte House (who asked that her real name not be used), sums up the women's sentiments: "Here at Charlotte House they want women to be whole, dignified, and free. If every house on this street were like this one, we would be a lot safer as a society."

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