Program in D.C. seeks to bring measure of control to lives of female ex-offenders

Shaseana Jackson, 27, can’t remember the number of times she’s been arrested. More than 10.

“Guns, drugs and all kind of stuff,” she said. Marijuana at 12. Later it was PCP, crack, cocaine.

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She tried getting help for her addiction. There was a 30-day stay at an inpatient center in February. The year before, a 90-day stay. Both times she relapsed soon after discharge.

But Wednesday, Jackson took a step toward leaving her difficult past behind when she joined nine other women as the first graduates of the Women in Control Again program, which serves female offenders dealing with substance abuse and mental illness.

Jackson has been drug-free for four months.

“At first, I didn’t want to stay,” she said of the program, which provides psychological and educational services. “But after a couple of days, I realized it was for me.

“Anybody can do an inpatient drug program because you can’t leave there and go back to the streets and challenge the world,” she added. “In an outpatient program, you have the opportunity to come and get treatment and go back to the streets to see how you react.”

Twenty-two women completed the program, an initiative of the D.C. Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Only 10 participated in the graduation ceremonies. Officials said they created it to address some of the vulnerabilities faced by women coming out of prison. Research shows that gender-specific programs provide better outcomes, agency officials said.

“They’ve been exposed to drugs and alcohol at an early age, poverty, little or no education, violence,” said Willa Butler, a supervisor who developed the program for the agency. “Men and women go through the same things, but women handle it a little more differently. We are trying to create a safe and healthy environment for them, where they can feel relaxed and be able to communicate. We are trying to break the cycle of pain so it won’t be repeated from generation to generation.”

In January, the agency established three teams to supervise more than a thousand female offenders, find out how they got involved in criminal activities and prevent them from returning.

In 17 one-hour sessions over 21 / 2 months, the participants discussed issues related to relationships, self-esteem, decision-making, spirituality and sexuality.

“The first part is dealing with self, getting to know self and understand self. A lot of times, due to drinking and drugs or any type of addiction, they are not aware of who they are,” Butler said. “So first they find out who they are, and then we work on that.”

The program also examines the relationship of the offenders with their mothers. The participants usually feel a lot of resentment, and the group facilitators try to introduce a different point of view.

“Society treats a mother as a superwoman at times, but at the end of the day, a mother is a woman just like you, and she has made mistakes just like you,” says Marcia Davis, a facilitator in charge of one of the groups that graduated Wednesday.

The women deal with some of the issues by talking to an empty chair that represents their mother. They get to say what they’ve always wanted to but in some cases never have.

“It gets pretty emotional. Some of them break down,” Davis said. “A lot of times the women hold so many things in: traumatic experiences, guilt, shame, depression. The group gives them the opportunity and the safe environment to discuss. What they learn is that ‘It’s not just me. I’m not the only one who was raped when I was 5 or 6. It has happened to other women in this room.’ ”

Crystal Brown, 33, was locked up for 21 / 2 weeks in September on a domestic violence charge involving the father of one of her sons. The judge who presided over her case recommended the program. On Wednesday, her youngest child, Terrance, 11, attended the graduation. “I’m a better mom now. He’s proud of me,” Brown said.

A few of the graduates made speeches after certificates were awarded and photographs taken. Jackson talked of the long road to recovery.

“Ladies, the light is shining,” she said to applause from her fellow graduates.

Jackson said she has been reading the Bible. She said she thinks she is more respectful of others and herself. She’s looking for a job in a fast-food restaurant — the last one she had was in 2005. And she’s making plans for the future.

“I want to be an addiction counselor,” Jackson said. “I know how addicts think. I know how they react to certain stuff. I know about the depression. What I have to offer could help somebody.”

 
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