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Helping women rebuild a new life

When Louise didn't have enough money, the first solutions that would come to mind involved criminal acts.

Stealing from her parents or her employer.

Robbing a Purple Parrot deli.

Buying drugs and trying to double her money by selling to other addicts.

That kind of thinking netted Louise, 33, a history of convictions that include theft, forgery, driving under the influence of intoxicants, eluding police and possession and delivery of drugs, court records show.

But she says programs at Jackson County's Transition Center between Talent and Phoenix have helped her change those old thought patterns and come up with positive solutions for her problems. The Mail Tribune has changed her name to protect her identity. 

One of the key offerings at the Transition Center is moral reconation therapy, the term for a treatment strategy that seeks to cut recidivism among criminals by improving their moral reasoning.

The therapy isn't about blaming and shaming — it's about having offenders face up to their selfish, predatory thoughts and swap them out. Instead of making excuses, they acknowledge their own actions led to jail or prison.

"You can't make 'victim' statements and blame other people," Louise says. "It's about accountability."

Writing out her old thoughts and replacement thoughts on worksheets, Louise substitutes stealing from her parents with, "No. My parents don't deserve to get stolen from."

To the old thought of robbing a Purple Parrot, she counters, "No. I don't live like this anymore."

She lists her old thoughts that rationalized buying and reselling drugs to make money as, "This will be fast cash. Nobody will know cause I'm doing good. (I) won't do any of the drugs."

In her new thoughts, she acknowledges she probably would quickly spend that fast cash and be left with nothing, wouldn't be proud of herself and would dip into the drugs herself — damaging her own recovery from addiction.

Louise comes up with substitute actions: Putting the money she does have in a savings account, asking her current boss for more hours at work and taking on a second job.

She's learned to interrupt downward spirals of negative thinking.

"If you just sit there and get stuck on a feeling, you'll end up doing that negative thought you're fixating on," Louise says.

A rocky start

Louise and Katie, 20, are in a group of a half-dozen women living in a house on the grounds of the Transition Center.

Katie's name also has been changed to protect her identity. Court records show she has convictions for a variety of crimes, including drug possession, trespassing, theft, fraudulent use of a credit card and unauthorized use of a vehicle.

The two women are four months into the six-month residential Transitional Care Program, which helps offenders recover from addiction and reintegrate into the community.

The Transition Center also has two 20-woman dorms that provide housing for women on probation and post-prison supervision. Some go out on supervised work crews, while others have jobs in the community and stay overnight at the drug- and alcohol-free center.

The more high-security dorm of the two houses women who are serving out the end of their state prison sentences while getting employment and education help, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and other reintegration services.

Men have their own living areas at the Transition Center.

Louise and Katie were strangers when they won spots in the Transitional Care Program at the house.

Louise had gone through the worst phase of drug withdrawal symptoms when she first arrived, but was so exhausted she slept for the first week.

"I was scared of her," Katie recalls. "She was sleeping the whole time."

Louise was hesitant to ask Katie for anything, even a glass of water.

During their first two months, they were in a "black-out period" in which they didn't leave the house. They focused on programs to change their criminal thinking and address addiction, plus the Moving On program for at-risk women, which helps them build healthy relationships, develop skills and personal responsibility and learn stress management techniques.

"A lot of what's helped me is recognizing my old thoughts and coming up with replacement thoughts," Katie says. "That's super helpful. Like when I'm having a bad day, sometimes I'll just sit and talk in my head, and I'm saying all these horrible things and then I end up acting on it. They really taught me that my thoughts drive my actions and I really need to take a look at my thoughts and retrain my brain."

They've learned to do a cost-benefit analysis, looking at the short- and long-term costs and benefits of different actions, then choosing the healthier alternative.

Early on, Louise gave in to her urges to use drugs.

"When I first got here I ended up messing up. I relapsed. And instead of them kicking me out they let me stay and start it over," she says with tears in her eyes. "If there were more places like this, it could save people's lives."

When the women did well, they could earn tickets with which to buy soap, toothbrushes, lotion and other personal items.

"When you get off the streets, you don't have anything. That helps you get your daily necessities," Louise says.

For every month they stay clean, they earn a key tag to remind them of the progress they've made, she says.

Moving forward

In early February, Louise and Katie landed jobs in housekeeping at a local motel.

They get up at 4:30 a.m., catch a bus to work, put in eight hours of work, ride the bus back, do their recovery homework and tackle their own household chores.

Both said the schedule is exhausting, but they help each other through, with one sometimes encouraging the other to get up out of bed, or one making a sack lunch for her new friend. Their counselors are only a cellphone call away, offering support if they face a challenging situation, like a man offering to sell them drugs on the bus.

They remain worried about the future when they leave the Transition Center house in April, but are formulating strategies to deal with the challenges and temptations ahead.

Katie hopes to work as a wildland firefighter.

"I'm not making enough money now to take care of myself when I get out," she says. "I want my own place. So I hope to be a firefighter this summer. It's good money, and it would help me if I could put that on my resume. I want a job with a purpose."

Katie says it's easier to stay clean in the artificial environment of the Transition Center house, but the programs there and their new jobs are helping them gradually reintegrate into the community.

"I wish we could take this whole program with us wherever we go because it's safe," Louise says.

Both are putting money from their paychecks into savings accounts so they can afford housing once they leave. They also will be able to participate in an after-care program.

Staff members at the Transition Center already want to tap the two to become mentors for women beginning recovery programs.

When Louise describes the program that changes women's criminal thinking, she now sounds like an experienced, self-assured teacher. 

"Little things make you stronger every day," she says. "That's what I'm gaining recently is inner confidence — which I haven't had in a really long time."

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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Katie works on cleaning the kitchen at the transition home. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Katie has found a new life, a new way of thinking and even a new job through Jackson County's Transition Center. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]