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Let's Start: a chance for women 'just to be normal' after prison

NCR Staff
St. Louis

Sandra Ware was barely out of her teens, long addicted to drugs, when she showed up at her dealer's house desperate for a fix. She had fenced stolen goods to him to get drugs, but this time she had nothing, and he turned her away.

Ware had come armed. "He turned around and I shot him," she recalled. "I stepped over him and went through the house looking for dope. I looked back and saw blood coming out of his mouth. I didn't call the ambulance. I stayed in that house 30 minutes. I found the dope, shot it, took all the rest and went home."

Ware had been on the streets since she droppedout of school at 15, angry at her chaotic family life. After the shooting, she spent 20 years in and out of prison, seven years of it for that second-degree murder. "During all that time," she said, "I wasn't given any help. Nobody talked to me about my addiction. Nobody told me I was sick, that I had a problem."

It was during her next incarceration, for armed robbery at a suburban mall, that Ware met School Sister of Notre Dame Jackie Toben, a fixture at area jails, doing whatever she can to help women. The two women began meeting while Ware was living at a halfway house. They talked about the problems that women out of prison face: coping with addictions, readjusting to life after prison, restoring relations with families and children.

"We became medicine for one another," Ware said. "Sr. Jackie told me my life could be different."

Soon Toben and Ware decided to open their talks to other women. "If it makes us not want to steal and get high, why not share it with everybody coming out of prison," Ware said. "We found that women empower each other."

The organization they formed, Let's Start, has now helped hundreds of women over the past seven years.

"When you've burned all your bridges with your family and friends, where do you go for support?" Toben said. "That's what these women try to provide for one another."

Ware, in her early 40s, now boasts of "eight straight years" of sobriety. She has a husband and three children, ages five to 25. She is a voice of self-knowledge and wisdom sharpened by years on the street and in recovery. She is looked to by many, including Toben, for inspiration and no-nonsense advice.

And in a twist that seems infuriatingly unfair, she is dying of cancer. Short of a miracle, an aggressive form of systemic cancer is expected to take her life by the end of the year.

Seven years of peace

Still, this woman who once took out her inner rage on herself and others finds room for gratitude. "What I am most grateful for is that I have had seven years of peace and happiness," she said. "God has shown me and not only that, Let's Start has shown me that."

She knows she is spending her last years with good people -- "spiritual people," she said -- who care.

On Tuesday nights, an average of 25 women show up for Let's Start meetings at St. Vincent de Paul Church on the city's Near South Side, a parish run by the Vincentian order, one that is know for its outreach. Many women describe Let's Start as family. Others come because they are pushed by relatives or forced by parole officers. Those who are made to come are often hostile at first, but many eventually turn around, said Ware.

"The key thing to making a change is a willingness to be honest," Toben said. "You have to have something deep within that makes you want something different, something better. The program shows that is possible."

Virtually all who come to Let's Start trace their crimes to drug addiction. Thirty-nine-year-old Karen Robinson -- an anomaly in the group because she's never been convicted of a crime -- said, "We're here to watch out for each other and to help each other stay clean and sober. We don't sugarcoat anything."

Karen's twin sister, Kim, convicted of welfare fraud, tired after 18 years of being in jail, running from the law and going back in, is also in the program. They and six other siblings -- a close family, Karen said -- lost their mother when Karen and Kim were 15.

At a recent meeting and in interviews, Let's Start women were clear-eyed, good-humored and straight talking. Although most can point to problems in their homes or in themselves that put them on the street, they are impatient with those who see themselves as victims. Rather, they are survivors -- literate, articulate and, although short on formal schooling, street smart. They are women who knew how to get drugs, whatever it took, but are now driven to self-reform and are varyingly angry at, wary of and grateful for "the system."

Indeed, said Toben, most of the women have in common "a certain rebelliousness or independence, an attitude that says, 'People are not going to tell me what to do.' "

"They're hard on one another. They challenge one another if they are dishonest," Toben said. "But they often remind each other, 'You know I love you.' "

Robinson joined the group when her addiction threatened her with loss of her four children. She was 22 when she started using drugs after linking up with David, her "significant other," who is today, like Robinson, a recovering addict.

The women have smoked and/or shot up virtually every kind of street drug -- heroin, cocaine, PCP, speed. At a recent meeting, they discussed which was worse, heroin or crack and settled on crack.

Robinson would agree. By the time of her second pregnancy with David, Robinson was addicted. "It was crazy," she said. "I didn't want to go to work, but I did, just for money to keep the habit going." Her "crack baby," Brittany, now at 7 a healthy, bright and lovable 62-pound "miracle child," was born seriously underdeveloped at eight months, weighing one pound, four ounces.

During her third pregnancy Robinson gave up crack but after the birth took it up again. Her turning point came three months later when her niece, "tired of David and me getting high," called a hot-line. Officials took her children, promising they'd be back in 72 hours -- a period that grew to nine months. She and David went into drug treatment and have been drug-free for almost five years, said Robinson. She has since forgiven the niece, saying, "She saved me."

Toben, honored earlier this year by NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, with its Women of Justice award, said she knows of no other program like Let's Start.

Friendship first

"Most of these women are coming out of poverty," rural and urban, she said. "People tend to start programs thinking these women need a job or a GED [a high school equivalency certificate], but they tend to overlook the first thing: internal motivation, friendship, camaraderie."

Let's Start doesn't find jobs or housing for people but often links them up with outside resources or provides a little cash in a pinch. "After a while, they're our friends," Toben said. "We know their stories. We care about what happens. You forget who's the helper."

Michelle Williams, 36, came from a family of 10 children who "raised each other," she said. Their mother was never home but "in the bar a lot," she said. Williams was molested at 13. Her experience with drugs came later, when she started dating a dealer. She began pushing drugs herself for money and eventually became a user. After four years in prison for dealing, Williams went before the parole board with 78 in-prison violations, including shoving an officer down the steps. "I used to be a very violent person," she said.

She spent 20 months of her first three years in prison in the hole. During one of those stints, she decided she'd had enough. "I wanted to go home," she said, "to be with my kids."

Searching deep inside for strength, Williams wrote a letter to God, begging for "one more chance." She sealed that letter, put in in her Bible and, to this day, five years out of prison, hasn't opened it. But she believes her prayer was answered.

A corrections officer, a woman "who always liked me," Williams said, told her what to do. "She told me when an officer tells me to jump, I should ask 'How high?' " Williams said. She was paroled in October 1992 and has been going to Let's Start ever since. She got a job as a room attendant at a hotel and was gradually promoted to executive housekeeper -- "number three" in management, she said proudly. "I was determined to do the right thing," she said in an interview in her living room, decorated with pictures of her children and portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. And she got a lot of help -- from a former foster mother who has always "been there," from a corrections officer at the prison with whom she's still in touch and from new friends at Let's Start.

"People come out with nothing," she said. "They need a lot of support, a lot of people to show they love you."

After her release, Williams hooked up for a while with her former boyfriend, the dealer, whom she hoped to reform. After she finally sent him packing, she returned from a weekend away to find her house on fire. She lost everything she'd managed to acquire since her release and she had no insurance. She was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

Williams has also had to face long-standing problems with members of her birth family who offer little emotional support. Talking about them brings this vibrant, take-charge woman close to tears. "That family has scarred me so much," she said. She has regretfully decided that she can no longer be part of their lives, she said.

"Let's Start. That's my family," she said.

She often hires former convicts to work at the hotel. It can be a risky choice and has not always worked out. "I look at it this way," she said. "Somebody took a chance on me. I'm giving back."

"Stories of Hope"

An important element of Let's Start's success, according to Toben, has been outreach and education programs offered by members. Some do dramatic presentations around the state based on their experiences in and out of prison. They call the presentations "Stories of Hope."

"We realized early on that when you're on the receiving end all the time, it doesn't do much for self-esteem," Toben said. The presentations began in 1992 as reader's theater with the help of volunteer directors. They have since been enhanced with music and dance. "Sr. Jackie empowered me with the will to do good by letting me tell my story," Ware said.

"I learn so much from these women," said Precious Blood Sr. Regina Siegfried, one of several Let's Start volunteers. She is also adjunct professor at St. Louis University and associate editor of Review for Religious, a national journal focused on spirituality and religious life. "I learn theology here," she said.

"Although these women have no formal theological training, I've witnessed and heard deep and solid theology and spirituality around the table. Their faith in God, their profound sense of prayer that is rooted in desperation and their love for one another are some of the clearest messages of Christianity I've heard. Praxis might not be in their vocabularies but its meaning is lived out in their lives."

Siegfried got involved with the program when five nuns of her Ruma, Ill.-based order were killed in Liberia in 1992. One of them, Agnes Mueller, had always been concerned about helping women.

Just to be normal

Siegfried said she sometimes wonders what she has to offer these women who have battled personal demons she's never known. "Sandra [Ware] says we're their connection to normal society," she said. "They can tell their stories to people who haven't been there and still know they are loved, respected and understood."

"The goal for many of the women is 'just to be normal,' " Siegfried said. "To go to work, take care of their kids is a big achievement for them. Never having known what normal life is, they have to deal with its lack of excitement. Sandra says, 'I've made it. I have a job and kids. Now I'm normal and it's boring,' " Siegfried said, laughing.

Few women in the program are churchgoers, but "they know we're connected with the church and that's important," Toben said. "They value the fact that we are women who have a belief in God."

The social adjustment can be terribly hard, and not all succeed, Toben said. "It's hard to define success and nonsuccess. If a woman stays out of jail, that's success. But we like to think about what we're doing here as a process rather than a program." Some women stop coming, then return "when they need a friend," she said.

Let's Start cofounder Holly Clemons, one of the youngest members at 31, pointed out at a Tuesday evening meeting that success does not mean happiness. "You've been using drugs and think you're over it, but you can still hurt," she said. Clemons once sold her body to buy drugs. "I don't do it now because you lose your soul," she said.

Earlier in the day, as Ware talked about her former life with more than a hint of self-disgust, she began sobbing. "Death is in front of me all the time," she said. "Something I want to ask God is, 'Is everybody's death as painful as mine?' "

"Sandra's cancer has affected us all very profoundly," Siegfried said later. "I ask, 'Why Sandra, who got her life turned around and does so much good?' "

"I look at Sandra and know it could be me," said Cynthia Stevenson, who once made shoplifting and drugs a way of life. "So I appreciate each day God allows me to wake up."

Stevenson, 48, had been in and out of jail since 1971, but went to prison for the first time in 1994. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me," she said. "Prison was my break." After six months there, she was sent to a drug treatment program for nine months and remains drug-free.

Of Stevenson's five children, one son is now in prison for selling drugs. Another son was paralyzed in a gang shooting while she was in prison. One of the hardest challenges she faced after prison was gaining back their trust. "They were angry. They were hurting. But I was caught up in my own selfishness. I didn't know," she said.

LaTanya Jones also talked about the pain her drug abuse and imprisonment had caused her children, now 9 and 8. They were separated from her for five years.

"It's been stressful getting to know them and them getting to know me and to make them understand that I'm their mother," she said.

Since her release she has been attending family counseling with her two daughters and is trying to get a new job with better hours so she can get her children back. "I've led a dangerous life," Jones said. "I've played catch me if you can. I know they have a lot of guilt and anger inside of them because of what I have done."

Some women bring young children or teenagers to meetings, hoping to help them avoid their mothers' mistakes. Let's Start Youth had a first meeting the end of July, and Robinson holds monthly group sessions at the city's juvenile detention center.

Robinson, Stevenson and Ware are among Let's Start's coordinators, three of five who rotate as meeting moderators. They also follow up on women who come, and, along with volunteers, provide rides to meetings from area institutions. One of the women has been hired as the group's administrative assistant, and Ware has been hired as advocacy coordinator. The positions are paid with grants, money from fundraising efforts, such as selling cards designed by a former member, and voluntary donations from viewers of "Stories of Hope." St. Vincent's Church provides Toben's salary and office.

Let's Start works to reduce the number of women sent to prison for nonviolent offenses. Such offenses account for about 80 percent of women doing time nationwide, according to JusticeWorks Community, a national effort in support of alternative sentencing, such as community service, job training, drug treatment, probation or suspended sentences.

Mary Randle, cofounder of Let's Start with Clemons and Ware, believes an alternative sentence would have been appropriate in her case. She was sentenced to three years for welfare fraud, "made an example of," she said, although she believes she was the victim of bad information. She said a social worker had told her she could get food stamps for a brother living with her and dying of cancer, even though she was working and going to school.

When she turned herself in "it seemed as if my whole world was falling apart," she said. Thanks to the kindness of a judge who advocated for her early release, she served only three months.

Rallying for reform

Women of Let's Start have joined in local, regional and national rallies in support of alternative sentencing and better care for children of prisoners. They have joined in the annual National Convocation of Jail and Prison Ministries, a program started by a Catholic prison chaplain. In 1996 they lent their voices in support of a bill proposed by Missouri State Sen. William L. Clay Jr., hoping to establish a task force to address needs of children of incarcerated parents. Some women spoke at the Missouri Senate committee considering Clay's bill. Sandra Ware met with the senator. The bill was defeated.

"The state of Missouri is not looking at any of this in a creative way," Toben said. "The way we deal with criminals is to build another prison. We forget that most people are going to be coming out of prison."

On July 15, Karen Robinson led the Tuesday night meeting in place of Ware, who attended but was exhausted from the NCR interview earlier in the day. The women introduced themselves first, most adding, "I'm an addict," or "I'm a grateful recovering addict." When Ware's turn came, she said, "I'm Sandra and I'm a child of God and I'm grateful to be here." The other women burst into applause.

Much of the talk focused on day-to-day problems with jobs, family, neighbors. One woman spoke of having "bad using dreams." Everyone listened, several responded, but the room grew still when Jane Petty spoke. She is a newcomer who's just finished her third prison term: four years for stealing to support her 20-year addiction to heroin.

"I feel like I just woke up and 20 years is gone," she said. "I kept thinking I'd stop before I lost my house or before I lost my health," she said. "Now, three years before I hit 50, I'm way past all those stopping points. I don't have that much time to build a life, to work up to where I should be at my age. In a social sense, in a financial sense, I'm not who I'm supposed to be." She paused. "You pass the mirror every day and don't stop to look" she said. "It's been too easy to keep turning away from that mirror. But I don't have much time left."

Ware responded quietly. "You get a blessing for yourself by sharing," she said. She added, "You're 35, then you're 45 and all your youth is gone."

"It's death out there," Robinson said. "That's what keeps me clean. It took my family from me. I have to watch those bad ways of thinking. It's a constant fight with myself."

Another woman arrived late, shouting about a man in her building who had rigged the wiring so that all the electric use registered on her meter. Even after Let's Start had pooled resources to help, she had been unable to satisfy Union Electric. The power had been turned off and her aging father had collapsed from the heat. She had a gun, she said, and didn't know if she could resist the urge to kill her neighbor.

Others tried to calm her. Then Sandra Ware rose, obviously deeply fatigued and in pain, drawing herself up and turning slowly toward the overwrought woman.

"Listen to her," Toben urged, knowing that the threat of murder was not an idle one.

"You're on the devil's playground now," Ware warned the woman, as the room grew still. "We've all been there, and it comes to no good."

Persuasive, eloquent as a preacher, she talked until the woman grew calm. Then others led her away to another room.

"She's not going to kill him," Michelle Williams said to those remaining. "She wants some love, and that's just what she's getting right now."

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997