"Four months pregnant and a gun to my head."
It's a rehearsal for a new production, Women Overcoming Obstacles, opening in Raleigh next month. Jenee Williams, playing herself, is drawing from her story about how a fight with the father of her second child escalated out of control. When it ended, he was dead, shot with his own gun. She accepted a plea agreement and went to prison for the next eight years. She was 17. She delivered their baby in the Wake County jail.
The other women on stage reach out to her. One of them takes Williams' hands. They've been in prison too, and when they were released they made new lives for themselves and with each other in the same program that's helping Williams today. Harriet's House, a re-entry program cited by the National Criminal Justice Association in 2009 for its success in cutting prison recidivism, is run by Passage Home, a faith-based organization with ties to a dozen Raleigh churches. Its success is the subject of the play, a production of the Justice Theater Project and director Deb Royals-Mizerk, who believe it has important lessons to teach.
Since its founding in 1995, Harriet's House has enrolled 126 women and 298 of their children, providing them with housing and other basics so the women can gain a footing in life after they return from prison. That may mean more education, help finding a job or reuniting with their children.
Coming out of prison, Mae Stephens says, people are afraid, even desperate, at the idea that they'll be on their own with the deck stacked against them. That's why many "revert right back" to drugs or prostitution, Stephens says, "because nobody is going to give them a chance."
Stephens, too, plays herself. She served three years, eight months for attempting to have her ex-husband killed when he allegedly abused their children.
Since prison, she's uncovered talents and a determination that, if they were in her before, were deeply hidden. Harriet's House, Stephens says, gave her a chance to find herself. "If it had not been there, then—I didn't have anywhere to go," she remembers. "I didn't have the skills to survive. Yes, I had God. But they taught me so many things. They taught me how to stand."
Today, Stephens owns a business, an auto repair shop. Her four children are back from foster care and under her roof. The youngest, 12-year-old Carolyn, is the play with her. Harriet's House is the kind of program the state needs to clone in order to reduce recidivism (ex-prisoners committing more crimes) and reverse the upward spiral of prison populations—and costs.
So said Gov. Bev Perdue last September when she created a 34-member StreetSafe Task Force. Part of its assignment is determining how to work with community groups to aid ex-prisoners. "We help people stay out of prison by giving them a life and a job and a capacity to succeed in the community, and that's what we want," the governor said.
For the second consecutive year, however, Perdue's budget would eliminate state funding for Harriet's House and three other similar, well-regarded programs. Last summer, the General Assembly rescued them but still cut the programs' budgets by 20 percent or more.
For Harriet's House, that meant a 25 percent cut in its annual budget—from $275,000 to less than $210,000—for fiscal 2009–10. Passage Home CEO Jeanne Tedrow hoped for no less in 2010–11. But then Perdue released her proposed budget, and it's back to square-zero again: Harriet's House has no funding,
"It's very frustrating," Tedrow says. "We've never had a funding increase. But we've managed to hodgepodge along and grow anyway" in a system in which the partner churches own some of the housing, and Passage Home raises money for managers, counselors and other costs.
"We're highly leveraged with partners' contributions," Tedrow says. "But the state funding is the lifeblood of the program. Without it, it'll take the program down."
Meanwhile, a Chapel Hill-based re-entry program has yet to launch. Our Children's Place, says executive director Melissa Radcliffe, wants to house up to 20 women and 40 children in an unused federal facility in Butner. The group received operating grants from the state and a $3.9 million capital appropriation to renovate part of the Butner building, Radcliffe said. But before plans were finished, state revenues declined sharply, and Perdue was forced to grab every unspent dollar to avoid running out of money last June 30.
Thus, Our Children's Place lost its capital grant, and its annual appropriation was slashed by 25 percent, to $109,000, Radcliffe says. And in Perdue's new budget: zero.
To Bill Rowe, general counsel at the N.C. Justice Center, these events illustrate the problem confronting state budget writers when the economy is bad. It's tempting to cut programs for short-term savings, Rowe says, even if you know they'll save money in future years. "So you save a little, but in the long run it may end up costing a lot more."
Rowe is a leader in the N.C. Second Chance Alliance, a coalition trying to stop the "revolving door" of prisoners who get out, get no help, commit another crime and go right back in. State prisons are near capacity at about 40,000 inmates; it costs about $28,000 a year to incarcerate them, and it costs $80,000 per prison bed to add new ones.
On the other hand, re-entry programs like Harriet's House cost between $10,000 and $15,000 a year per person for one or two years, according to state officials. The rate of recidivism from Harriet's House is just 15 percent; however, more than one-third of ex-offenders who are unserved by re-entry programs go back to prison.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety. She agrees with Rowe. "Our intention is to restore funding for these programs," Kinnaird says of her committee, "because we know if you can cut the recidivism rate, you can lower the prison population over time."
Programs for mothers and their children are especially critical, Kinnaird adds, because the data show that, absent good transitional programs, the children of convicted criminals are six times as likely to later commit crimes.
Funding by Kinnaird's committee would need to survive scrutiny by the top budget writers in the Senate and House, and by Perdue. And their plate of worthy projects, including other justice programs, as well as schools and the university system, is overflowing.
That much was clear last week when Kinnaird chaired a hearing for corrections, law enforcement and court officials to air their needs. Nobody has enough money, it seemed.
For example, there's zero money in the Perdue budget for new equipment in the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) labs. Some microscopes are 20 years old, said Greg McLeod, legislative counsel for the Department of Justice. Without new ones, he said, "We'll be more like Barney Fife than CSI."
As for Jenee Williams, she's been out of prison for eight months. She's living in a Passage Home house, got a job almost immediately working in a restaurant off Capital Boulevard, has been reunited with her two children and is saving almost everything she earns toward a house of her own.
While in prison she studied cosmetology, and she hopes one day to own a beauty salon. She also learned to write poetry, sew and knit. She looks and sounds so optimistic but says she fights with depression in the morning and will begin seeing a psychiatrist soon—with help from Passage Home. "I've been through a lot, but God has seen me, is there for me, and that's who I trust in," she says. "And Passage Home is a great program."