Addressing the scars of prison life

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Cynthia Stevenson-Johnson started using drugs at age 16, with heroin as her drug of choice. She often paid for the drugs by shoplifting.
In 1994, at age 45, she went to prison for shoplifting. By then her lifestyle and poor parenting skills had resulted in her children getting into trouble, with one going to jail at age 16 for stealing a car and another joining a gang.
Stevenson-Johnson spent eight months in prison and 10 months in treatment. She made up her mind to never use drugs again, and she's kept that resolve. When she left prison, she came to the Let's Start program, sharing her story and getting help from the women there, former inmates who serve as volunteers.
In 1997, Stevenson-Johnson joined the staff of Let's Start, which aims to break the cycle of incarceration in families by working with formerly incarcerated women and their children. It supports recovery and re-entry, mitigates the impact of parental imprisonment, educates the public and provides insight to policymakers.
The program, based at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in south St. Louis, "keeps parents with their children," Stevenson-Johnson said. "It gives back hope, lets people know change is possible. If I can do it, they can."
Before she came to Let's Start, she said, she wasn't willing to ask for help. She turned to drugs and alcohol as instant gratification in dealing with struggles she faced. Let's Start helps her stay connected with people who have allowed her to forgive herself and help her feel good about herself and see the negative impact she had on her children because of her drug use. "Let's Start has given me a lot of hope and put me in places to give back that hope," she said.
She still struggles with her connection with her adult children, but things are better today. She feels fortunate that she got treatment in prison -- many women have never had that opportunity.
'My life was crazy'
As an inmate at the St. Louis City workhouse, Patty Berger met Let's Start founder Sister Jackie Toben, SSND. Berger was seven months pregnant at the time, and she had a 3-year-old. She started using drugs at age 13 and quit using when she was 43. For 20 years, she was in and out of Missouri prisons and jails -- 11 times, mostly for shoplifting and other crimes to get money. She maintained contact with Let's Start during that time, finding the women loving and caring, but didn't give up her lifestyle initially. Because she hadn't been sent to prison for a drug offense, she couldn't get treatment.
"My life was crazy for 20 years. I was always in trouble, always using drugs, pressure that I put on myself," she said. "And I had two kids. My husband was murdered going to buy drugs in 1992 when I was pregnant with my daughter. I went just deep in this hole of addiction. My in-laws picked up the slack raising my kids. I just gave up on life."
Eventually she lied to prison authorities, saying she used crack instead of heroin, which at that time made her eligible to get drug treatment in prison. She didn't follow the treatment plan when released and relapsed. In the St. Louis County Jail, she again received treatment. Ten days before her release, her father died in Pennsylvania, and she received a three-day pass to attend the funeral.
Her dad, she noted, was the only one who had faith in her, and she knew she let him down. After Mass on that weekend, a relative urged her to go to confession. She hadn't received the sacrament in a long time, but told her story, crying the whole time, and expected the priest to come down hard on her. Instead, he simply asked her to go and be the daughter her father always knew she could be.
"I get chills even now thinking about it. It was what I needed. I can't even tell you who that priest is or what he looks like, but he was speaking to me from God," Berger said. "He relieved me of my guilt. And I came down here (to Let's Start), where I felt connected and where they gave my daughter a voice."
Berger went back to college in 2001, is working on a bachelor's degree in social work and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren. She has done some work as a substance abuse counselor but is unemployed now and looking for work. Through St. Vincent Parish she found affordable housing. "Being a part of Let's Start has opened up so many opportunities for me, as has this little church," Berger said.
Support
Let's Start began 25 years ago when Sister Jackie and three formerly incarcerated women began meeting informally. Soon afterward, Let's Start developed a support process for women in transition.
Women coming out of prison immediately face a number of challenges: housing, education, employment, dysfunctional families or addictions. They are faced with overwhelming demands which often leave them feeling alone and powerless.
As a process dedicated to assisting women in transition from prison life to society, Let's Start is unique in that it is coordinated by women who themselves have been through the criminal justice system.
Maureen Gelzer, executive director of Let's Start, said it takes a three-generational approach -- care for the women, their children and the caregivers in order to break the cycle of incarceration.
Monthly bus trips are arranged for children and caregivers to visit their mothers to women's prisons. A therapist works with them as well.
An outlet
Jillian Palacios was 5 years old when her mother was incarcerated. Her grandmother raised her and her sister as well as two cousins. Because of the toll the caregiving took on her grandmother, she and her sister began staying during the week with her godmother. It was a home with structure, which she had not experienced before and couldn't handle, so she bounced back and forth between homes. "At my grandmother's house, we did whatever we wanted," Palacios explained.
When her mom returned home, Palacios had resentment issues. But she is thankful that her mother no longer uses drugs. And she is glad that she was helped by Let's Start, which provided an outlet to talk about the situation and to meet other children with mothers in prison.
"I know now that I'm not the only one who had to deal with the emotions of having a mother who is incarcerated," said Palacios. As a young adult, she helps mentor children who have incarcerated parents. She attends St. Louis Community College at Forest Park and her sister graduated from St. Louis University with a nursing degree.
"My mother's decisions that led her to go to prison had nothing to do with me," Palacios said. "I tell the kids that it's not their fault and they don't have to be like their mom or dad. I tell them they can go to school, get an education and be something."

Let's Start
The program assisting women in transition from prison life to society offers:
• Weekly support groups at Let's Start and the Clayton jail with follow-up and referrals for housing and employment;
• Monthly parenting sessions;
• Monthly legal clinic that offers free legal advice;
• Prison visitation program so children can visit their moms;
• Individual and group therapy sessions for children;
• Field trips for children to provide respite time for caregivers;
• Monthly group sessions for caregivers;
• Structured activities for children when their moms are at support group;
• Talks in the community about issues that impact their lives;
• "Stories of Hope" — true stories relayed through dramatic presentations;
• Discussions with legislators about policies that affect female offenders' lives and their children's.
Let's Start is a nonprofit organization funded through grants, foundations and individual donors. For information, visit www.letsstart.org, call (314) 241-2324 or write to Let's Start, St. Vincent's Church, 1408 S. 10th St., St. Louis, MO 63104. 
Statistics
• Women are now the fastest growing segment of the prison population.
• 80 percent of women in prison are mothers.
• 66 percent of the mothers in prison have minor children, and 70 percent of these women are the primary caregivers
• Their children are 5 to 6 times more likely to be imprisoned in their futures.
Source: Centers for Youth and Families and the program Mothers in Prison: Children in Crisis.
• Following the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the federal drug laws in the mid-1980s, the number of women in prison has risen by 400 percent.
• The percentage of females incarcerated for drug offenses now surpasses that of males.
• Most of these women are nonviolent, first-time offenders.
Source: National Women's Law Center 

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