http://www.sltrib. com/News/ ci_10359542

Treatment for felons
New treatment center gives women second chance
By Steve Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:09/02/ 2008 04:01:36 PM MDT

After she was arrested for drunken driving in 2004, Anita Neal served what she called “seven long, cold months” in prison. Lucky for her, she was then moved to the Orange Street halfway house and eventually became one of the first women to benefit from the Women’s Treatment and Resource Center.

The felony conviction could have broken Neal’s spirit and pulled her into a spiral of negativity. Instead, the center helped her resolve an underlying alcoholism problem. She credits the center, a then-one-room trailer in northwest Salt Lake City beneath bustling Interstate 80, for catapulting her onto the road to recovery after a life marred by anxiety.

Neal returned to Orange Street on Thursday for the grand opening of a renovated $500,000 facility, complete with classrooms, offices, a kitchen and computers.

The goal: to gradually reintroduce women like Neal into society and help them overcome substance abuse or past trauma. Neal, a single mother of a 10-year-old boy, said it was in that center where she found crucial camaraderie with people she could trust and relate to as she integrated back into society. “In retrospect, this was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Neal said, praising the gradual assimilation that helped her overcome unbearable guilt, shame and the general stigma that comes with being a felon.

“I am a living example that this does work.” Tom Patterson, executive director of the Department of Corrections, said he hopes the revamped facility is only a stepping stone. He wants officials to one day be able to look back on the small building and compare it with the one-room trailer. And the need is there.

Women are the fastest-growing inmate demographic in the nation and in Utah, according to Patterson. He cited an 800 percent increase in nationwide incarceration of women over the past 12 years and a 336 percent increase in Utah.

Patterson said 90 percent of the women in the prison system fall below the poverty line, and 89 percent are victims of abuse. Half of the women will not have custody of their children when they are released, and those children will be six times more likely to enter the correctional system, he said.

The center has treated 1,400 women since its 2005 inception. It treats as many as 200 women at any given time, helping them with everything from mental-health problems, anger management, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress disorder to parenting classes, educational opportunities and employment training.

Ogden resident Cody Jennings, 26, said she used to run from Corrections programs, but she has no intention of leaving the Women’s Treatment and Resource Center before she has served her time. “I see hope everywhere,” said Jennings, a recovering meth addict who entered the center on June 24. “This is success by the handfuls. I have so much more potential now.”

Leslie Miller, director of the Orange Street Community Correctional Center, praised the clients and said she hopes to obtain funding to treat even more women.

“We are changing people’s lives. We are giving them hope and promise,” Miller said. “These women are mothers, partners, sisters, children, and they are survivors.”

As for Neal, she is preparing to apply to graduate school at the University of Utah’s School of Social Work. She wants to use her life perspective to open a substance-abuse program of her own, giving hope to others like her so they can start their lives anew.

“I never had a voice before this,” said Neal, adding that she earned a bachelor’s in accounting from Weber State and worked as a paralegal before she ever began to address her underlying anxiety and alcoholism issues. “I needed someone to listen to me and validate the things I was saying. Then I got a voice. I do know now that I can ask for help.”

Neal can thank Shannon Cox for part of the turnaround. The women’s resource center was Cox’s idea. Cox is a trauma survivor who says she, too, easily could have become addicted to drugs and alcohol were it not for her supportive family. Now Cox supervises adult probation and parole for the Department of Corrections.

“Somewhere along the way, these women lose their dreams, but it’s never too late to wipe the scarlet letter – ‘F’ for felon – off their foreheads and change the trajectory of their lives,” said Cox. “These women haven’t known happiness in years, but we help them believe they can have happiness again.”

Cox repeated a Harriet Tubman quote: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If they’re shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” Cox said. And Cox’s brainchild is getting a boost from community organizations in its effort to keep offenders from going back to prison.

Take, for example, Utah Homeless Taskforce Director Lloyd Pendleton, part of a national alliance trying to end homelessness. He and the state’s Department of Community and Culture have brought a pilot program, called WISH (Women In Successful Housing), to the Orange Street center, helping several women get into homes through a process similar to Section 8 housing.

The women pay 30 percent of their income toward housing, and the rest is subsidized with state money from the Pamela Atkinson Trust Fund and the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund. Pendleton said some people exiting the jail and prison system have a hard time finding housing and employment, leading them to re- offend.

But under the WISH pilot program, which began in 2007, Pendleton said not a single woman receiving housing assistance has re-offended. “This program is proving what we have intuitively known,” Pendleton said, “that housing is a huge piece for stability.” With assistance in fields such as housing, employment, recovery and reintroduction to society, officials tout the resource center as one of the nation’s most promising one-stop shops ready for further expansion.

But for people like Cody Jennings, the Women’s Treatment and Resource Center is about much more. Said Jennings: “This has pulled me from the gutters and put me on the pedestal.

I think I’m a princess now.” sgehrke@sltrib. com