REGION — With tears streaming from her eyes, Amber Macias read a letter she wrote to her eldest daughter aloud to the group.
Her striking blue eyes cast down at her notebook, Macias described the day her daughter was born and how the cake for her third birthday was decorated with her favorite characters from Teletubbies.
She also detailed the day that Child Protective Services came to take her daughter away.
“That day, my heart walked out with you,” she said, her voice trembling.
The women around her listened attentively, some holding back tears of their own. They could relate to what she had experienced.
Macias, 39, is currently serving a two-year jail sentence for multiple felony counts of burglary and identity theft. She rarely gets to see her daughter, who is now 15 years old.
She shared the letter she wrote to her daughter with her fellow inmates as part of her participation in a unique re-entry program in San Diego County’s Women’s Detention Facility, Las Colinas.
“I really need to work on these behaviors (that led to my criminal actions) in here because I’m not going to be any good to my kids out there if those behaviors don’t change,” she said.
“I’m trying to get the help I need while I’m in here.”
Run by the Oceanside nonprofit Welcome Home Ministries, the one-of-a-kind re-entry program offers hundreds of incarcerated women peer-driven counseling, life skills classes and bridges to resources outside of jail.
But more importantly, the program fosters a loving community of peers that provides encouragement to build lives free of drugs, abuse and crime. In doing so, the program offers support that many of the women can’t find anywhere else.
Longtime Welcome Home Ministries volunteer and counselor Donna Cleveland formed the program. She wanted to design a program that would teach women how to live law-abiding, emotionally healthy and self-sufficient lives.
“When people get arrested and put into these dorms, they aren’t really told how to change their thinking,” she said.
And as a formerly incarcerated woman herself, Cleveland knew that these lessons needed to come from other women who could genuinely relate to the inmates in Las Colinas.
“I was watching these women and I could relate. I knew their fears. I knew their dreams. I understand them,” she said
“I give them something that somebody in the counseling world, who has never been incarcerated, can never give them, and that’s transparency.”
Cleveland partnered with Welcome Home Ministries’ Executive Director Reverend Carmen Warner-Robbins to develop the program.
Warner-Robbins had worked with women who had been released from jail through Welcome Home Ministries and ministered to inmates in San Diego’s jails for over a decade.
When she’s with an inmate, she doesn’t see a criminal. She sees a woman who has been traumatized and needs love.
“(These women have) never had anyone believe in them, that’s why they got into drugs in the first place you know,” she said.
With Cleveland’s honest approach and Warner-Robbins’ faith-driven affection, they garnered the support of Las Colinas staff and opened the program in August 2010.
Since then, 491 women have entered the program, and 451 of them have completed it, according to Cleveland.
Of those women, 212 have returned to Las Colinas or a state prison, but Warner-Robbins insists that the majority of the women who have been re-incarcerated are back due to supervision violations rather than new crimes.
However, Welcome Home Ministries is currently working on analyzing its data to establish concrete statistics on the program’s success and is unable to provide an exact number of how many women committed new crimes versus those who returned to jail on violations.
To help participating inmates remain focused on their recovery and separate from the negative influences of the jail’s general population, the program was granted its own dormitory known as the FAiR Dorm, which stands for Future Achievers in Reentry.
Las Colinas inmates request to be in the program, and Cleveland interviews them to determine their level of commitment to the program.
With the FAiR Dorm almost always at its 31-person capacity, Cleveland maintains a waiting list of women who want to transfer in, which currently has about 20 inmates on it.
Cleveland, Warner-Robbins and dozens of other volunteers have dedicated hundreds of unpaid hours running the program and supporting women as they are released from jail.
In the jail, they hold classes to usher the women through drug and trauma recovery, counsel them about developing positive relationships, and teach them how to apply for jobs.
Warner-Robbins offers elective prayers and Bible study for the women as well.
The program leaders also ensure that every time a woman is released from the jail there is a volunteer from the program to treat the woman to breakfast, check her in at her probation office, and take her to wherever she will be living.
Welcome Home Ministries’ volunteers connect released women with a myriad of services including housing, dental care and addiction recovery.
In return, the women participating in the program are required to follow strict rules within the FAiR Dorm, including no drugs, violence, swearing, or napping.
The women currently in the FAiR Dorm readily acknowledge how the program has changed their lives.
They express that it’s a privilege to live in a place where they are called “sister” and “beautiful.”
“I’m more free in here than I’ve ever been in my life. Jail has saved my life,” said June Cooper, 41, of joining the FAiR Dorm.
Cooper has been in Las Colinas serving time for burglary and petty theft since November 2012, and was accepted into Welcome Home’s program just over two months ago.
She said that for years she struggled with the heroin addiction, which she developed to cope with being HIV positive.
“Drugs were my salvation for a long time,” she explained in her soft voice. “I smoked to unconscious.
But she said her perspective on life and her recovery efforts have taken a leap forward because of bonding with the inmates and formerly incarcerated program volunteers in the FAiR Dorm.
“It’s easier for me to look up to (the program leaders) because they’ve been through…the pain, the depression,” she said.
“Because there are women that I trust, I can tell them exactly how I feel,” Cooper said. “I recently had a cold, and I was getting scared about that. And I could tell the other girls and get support. In another dorm, I would probably get isolated.”
She said that if she had remained in a general population dorm in Las Colinas, she would not have been able to work on her recovery.
“I would probably still be pursuing drugs,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel safe talking about what I’m going through.
“Today is so much different. I cannot wait to go and live my life.”
The participants and the volunteers aren’t the only ones who are aware of the program’s progress.
San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s Detention Services officials have monitored the program closely since it was first proposed.
“I really like the idea of a therapeutic community where people can work together instead of just getting housed together,” said Robert Vander Kamp, the Inmate Services Manager for all of San Diego County’s jails.
He said that in the FAiR Dorm there are far fewer “institutional behavioral problems,” including verbal and physical altercations, than in other general population inmate dorms.
He said that the program’s success stems from its gender responsive design and continuation of services outside of the jail.
“We could do the best job we can with programs in custody, but if it doesn’t carry over on the outside, it doesn’t do us very good,” he said.
He added that the program has been particularly useful counseling inmates who are serving longer sentences in the jail as a result of the state’s prison realignment.
He said that given the program’s positive influence in the jail and on the participants, the Sheriff’s Department is “fully committed” to helping maintain the program.
Las Colinas Capt. Edna Milloy agreed.
“The inmates that participate in the FAiR Dorm follow all jail rules and conform to program expectations. I have been at this facility for eight months and can’t recall ever having any major issues with the inmates in this dorm,” she said. “They are role models for the other inmates.”
As the new, larger Las Colinas Detention Facility is being built, Sheriff’s Department authorities are considering carrying the FAiR Dorm and its program over to the new jail, according to Vander Kamp and Milloy. However an official decision will not be made until housing in the new facility is planned out more.
But space isn’t the only issue to consider in regards to expansion of the FAiR Dorm.
Funding is a constant problem for the program.
While the program has received various grants and private donations throughout its three years, there’s rarely enough money to pay its volunteers, according to Warner-Robbins.
“Somebody that has a lot of money would much rather give to a program for children with cancer than women who have been incarcerated,” said Warner-Robbins.
As a result, nearly all of the volunteers have full-time jobs outside of their time supporting women inside and outside of the jail.
Cleveland visits the FAiR Dorm six days a week, amounting to well over 20 hours, on top of her full-time job.
“I really don’t know of more committed people,” said Vander Kamp.
He pointed out that in many ways the program could not sustain itself without their dedication and passion.
He said that even during the times when the program’s funding has run out, “They never once stopped the program, never once stopped giving care.”
“People ask, ‘How do you keep going when you don’t have any money?’ And I said, ‘How can you turn your back on the women who are really trying to make a difference?’ And you can’t. We can’t,” said Warner-Robbins.
Cleveland knows that the women participating in the program need full-time reliable leaders
“These women hurt. They need consistency. They need women there,” said Cleveland. “I just wish we could have more time in there.”
But she acknowledged that without cost of living pay, “I can’t be there every day.”
“I don’t know how to get the money to fund it,” she said. “I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but no one wants to fund inmates.”
Warner-Robbins said that the program is desperate for full-time staff that could analyze the data the program has collected and perform case management duties to follow up with the women who are released from the jail.
For now, she and Cleveland are waiting to hear if they will be awarded a $150,000 per year grant from the Bureau of Justice. The grant would last for two years and would pay the salaries for their volunteers and full-time staff
But with or without that grant, they said they will carry on with the hopes that one day they will be able to secure enough financial backing to sustain their mission.
Most of the inmates seeking their help are fighting drug and or alcohol addiction. A number have experienced sexual traumas and have been in violent relationships. Many of them are mothers. And all of them are fighting to turn their lives around.
Describing her peers in the FAiR Dorm, Traci Bojorquez said, “We’re all women. We’ve got schoolteachers, moms, girls from the ghetto. I used to have my own escrow company. We come from all walks of life, but we all have this disease.
“We’re in a sisterhood and we’re all trying to change our lives.”