USA: life after prison
Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to show that The Reentry Initiative is one of two programs in the state that helps women parolees. Additionally, the program works with women before and after their release and men after their release. Roughly 250 to 285 people are released through Longmont parole.
Life shortly after Selina Davison’s release from a four-year stint in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility was a little like returning to one’s hometown after years of being away and discovering it has been completely rebuilt.
She shares her daily victories with The Reentry Initiative, a Longmont-based nonprofit Davison enrolled in while incarcerated. The Reentry Initiative works with women parolees before and after their release from prison. The nonprofit provides classes on self-sufficiency, and connects participants with mentors and resources for mental health and substance abuse. It is one of two prison reentry programs in the state that works with women and the only in Boulder County that offers the services. Because so few programs exist, Longmont’s Reentry Initiative program works with formerly incarcerated people across the state. With approximately 250 people released to parole annually through the Longmont Police Department, demand for reentry programs is high.
In Colorado nearly half of parolees return to prison within three years of their release. A statistic that ranks the state as one of the 10 worst in the nation for recidivism. Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said programs that prepare the incarcerated for life after their release could be key to reducing that recidivism rate.
“We all have vested interest to make sure people can return and have productive lives,” Dougherty said. “The reason they return (to prison) is a lack of support in the community, whether it is substance abuse, mental health or job opportunities, there needs to be more of a commitment to helping these people on a better track.”
For Davison, perhaps one of the most valuable assets provided by The Reentry Initiative is a fresh outlook.
“I know every day when I wake up that I have to do something to stay in recovery,” Davison said. “I have too much now to live for and work for to ever go backwards.”
Davison did her first prison stint in Pueblo after a conviction for motor vehicle theft.
After her release in 2007, Davison felt she was on track to never return to life behind bars. She earned a cosmetology license while incarcerated and put it to use at a job cutting hair. The work kept her busy, but she didn’t have any mentors to turn to when she bumped into an old acquaintance on the street. That encounter was all it took for her to fall into old habits.
“When I got out, I was doing amazing … but all I was doing was working,” Davison said. “That’s why I say ‘I was sober, but I wasn’t in recovery.’ I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do, because I was staying sober, but I wasn’t living.”
The Reentry Initiative founder Deborah Simmons is well aware of how people from the past can cause issues for those looking to rehabilitate. Simmons started the program three years ago. The nonprofit is housed in the Central Longmont Presbyterian Church, 402 Kimbark St., and recently celebrated a partnership with Recovery Cafe, a program that helps people with mental health and addiction through community-based recovery.
Before moving to Colorado, Simmons spent 15 years working with women in prisons in Ohio, leading Bible study, recovery groups and serving as a counselor. She saw firsthand the challenges women released from prison dealt with, including a prevailing stigma that led to daily rejections for jobs and housing because of their pasts. After earning a degree in addiction counseling, Simmons decided to do something with the experience she had cultivated.
“When I followed my husband’s job to Colorado, I came armed with my new degree and a strong desire to continue my work with women in prison — only this time to help them come out (of prison),” Simmons said.
Every six months The Reentry Initiative selects 12 to 13 women at the Denver Women’s Correction Facility to be part of prerelease program that uses a cognitive behavioral approach to teach students life skills. Hannah Astorga, The Reentry Initiative’s program manager, said they have seen interest grow since its inception. During the first year, roughly 27 women were interviewed after expressing interest. Now, she said they interview about 40 candidates.
Once they graduate from prerelease, the women’s work is not over, but neither is the support from The Reentry Initiative.
The initiative meets parolees at the prison gate with a “Welcome Backpack,” stuffed with personal hygiene items, a towel, mittens, hat and scarves. Released with only the clothes on their back and plastic bag of their belongings, these items can be crucial. Within three days of their release, the nonprofit helps parolees apply for food stamps, a driver’s license and identification, if needed, and a bus pass.
During the first three weeks, parolees are assisted in applying for jobs, visiting relapse prevention and counseling. In the first three months, the program offers financial counseling and assures parolees are connected with resources for emotional, mental and health support.
Staying true to her goal
Going into prison, Davison vowed to use the time behind bars working to change her life for the better. When she saw a poster for The Reentry Initiative at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, she applied and was one of 12 chosen.
“It really helped me to figure out when all the negative thoughts came into my head and how to readjust those thoughts and challenge them,” Davison said. “It helps me every day think about things differently.”
Simmons said while she didn’t teach Davison personally, she heard from teachers that the Northglenn woman was a class star, who showed great potential.
“She always came to class prepared and she was really looking at how she was going to avoid the things that got her in trouble before,” Simmons said. “She put a lot of thought into her work in class.”
Davison also enrolled in a canine program that taught prisoners how to work with dogs. Growing up with dogs all her life, she quickly found a career path that aligned with her passions.
Davison became eligible for early parole and only served about four and a half years on her prison sentence. She has five years of parole to complete, but said it could be possible for her to serve only two years if she meets all requirements.
For Davison, her passion working with animals is among the things in her life that has helped her realize what’s at stake.
“My career path is a big part of my sobriety,” Davison said. “I know that I can’t do this job if I go back to my addiction.”
The Reentry Initiative gave Davison important tools for rehabilitation that her first stint in prison did not, she said. She added that on days when she is struggling, she now has people she can call to help her through it.
“When you go to a halfway house, they expect you to look for a job and go get clothes and do all this stuff, but they don’t provide any assistance to help you,” Davison said. “If not for TRI helping me with a bus pass and clothes, I would have had a really hard time doing that. If you have family that can drive you places, they have to be approved. It took my family almost eight weeks to be approved.”
Halfway houses’ rigorous curfew guidelines also have led to some women in the process of being rehabilitated being sent back to state prison. According to Dougherty, during the last three years, 1,096 women were convicted and sentenced for escape — a crime he said stems from women not meeting curfew. Another 1,909 were convicted for attempted escape.
Dougherty serves on the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee, a group of state legislators and officials working on solutions to reduce recidivism rates and the prison population. A bill aimed at reducing the penalty for not meeting curfew has been passed by the committee and is expected to be introduced to the state Legislature in January.
“We’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of women going to state prison statewide,” Dougherty said. “When we look at data driving that increase, one of the top two charges is attempted escape, which sounds more serious than it is. These are people walking away and not returning to halfway house by curfew. **So often they are struggling with drug addiction and other issues, bringing them to prison is not the solution.”**
For Davison, one huge challenge was being uprooted from her first halfway home. In August, Denver City Council members voted not to renew contracts for six halfway houses, including one where Davison was staying. She was among 500 in limbo after the contract was pulled. The threat for her and fellow residents was they could be resentenced or even sent back to prison.
Davison was transferred to a halfway house in Littleton, complicating travel logistics to her job and ripping her from the support system she had established in Thornton. Despite the tumult, she has continued to thrive.
When Davison talks about her job, she speaks passionately about helping some of the shelter’s most challenging canines become adoptable.
“It’s rewarding to see them go from those behaviors that they had and not be able to get homes to finding their forever home,” she said.
While in prison, Davison got married to her girlfriend, Denise Willenborg. It wasn’t quite the wedding they had in mind, but Davison said that in addition to their love for each other, they knew being married would make it easier to be together when she was released. The couple has been together for seven years.
This summer, Davison and Willenborg hope to have a wedding ceremony so they can celebrate with family and friends. While she doesn’t have any concrete plans for the ceremony yet, she knows it will likely take place in the mountains and include animals. Willenborg and Davison have three dogs of their own: Daisy, Franky and Optimus Prime.
For Davison, the challenges are far from over, but the path to a brighter future is clear.
“I’ve known success and I’ve known losing everything,” she said. “Now, I have learned how to rebuild.”