The steel prison door swings open
and a security guard waves Toni Bonvillian into Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna, a Louisiana city just across the river from New Orleans. Bonvillian, the director of Reach-In C.A.R.E., is a regular visitor to the jail. She’s working to make sure the women who are there can leave as soon as possible – and make sure they don’t come back.
“The women we see here need us so desperately,” Bonvillian says, as she waits for a guard to escort her to the second floor where her weekly group will meet. “They’re hungry for this support. There are no programs like this for them.”
A guard watches outside a small window as six women in orange jumpsuits file into a room to meet with Bonvillian and Reach-In C.A.R.E. staffer Sidney Garmon. A representative from RHD’s corporate offices has been allowed to observe the program from the inside, an extraordinary step by the jail that illustrates how proud officials here are of Reach-In C.A.R.E., and how eager they are to show off the project’s success.
The group is engaged and interested; there is little need to break down barriers or convince the women to participate. They are genuinely impressed that – perhaps for the first time – someone is not telling them what to do, but asking them what they need. They talk about feeling judged all the time, as if they’re getting put down, and how Bonvillian and Garmen understand their issues and are providing a venue for them to have a voice. They are practically crying out for support, and pleading to find it here.
“It takes courage to fill out the application, to be present, to participate,” Bonvillian said. “These are big steps.”
At one point a young woman who has been in the program assures another, who is here for the first time, and says:
(Correction, Addiction, Recovery, Empowerment) provides services to adult women at Jefferson Parish Correctional Center who have been arrested and/or convicted of offenses directly related to their use of drugs and/or alcohol. In addition to substance abuse education and motivational engagement strategies for treatment, Reach-In C.A.R.E. provides intensive case management services to women who participate.
This year Reach-In C.A.R.E. was nominated for a National Criminal Justice Association award for the nation’s Outstanding Criminal Justice Program by Joseph Watson, executive director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and the criminal justice administrator for the state.
Gay LeBlanc, director of programs at the Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority, praised Reach-In C.A.R.E. for its work to “enhance the quality of life for the women, promote and support individual recovery and to reduce recidivism.”
Reach-In C.A.R.E. emerged from an effort between RHD and Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority to find a way to combat a high recidivism rate by developing a program that targeted the women while they were in jail. It’s an innovative approach that Bonvillian says can easily be replicated in other jurisdictions with the cooperation and support of a local correctional institution.
In Jefferson Parish, JPCC assistant deputy administrator Capt. Edward Olsen has partnered with and supported Reach-In C.A.R.E. since its inception, and Sheriff Newell Normand has worked closely with the JPHSA to provide services to the female inmates.
“I’d seen the way women struggled when they came in here, and we had a lot of frequent flyers – coming in all the time, coming right back as soon as they got out,” said Cindi Lachney, psych coordinator and assistant health service coordinator at Jefferson Parish Correctional Center and a staunch advocate for Reach-In C.A.R.E.’s presence at JPCC. “Now we’re seeing women actually have a chance to succeed. They need this help; they need it so desperately. Just from word of mouth, I get a lot of women asking how they can get into Reach-In C.A.R.E. just about from the day it started.
“It’s RHD’s program, but I take a lot of pride in being able to assist it and watch it grow. It’s just fantastic; it’s like we’ve been waiting for Toni and this program to come along.”
While women can be referred to the program from Lachney’s office, 90 percent of the women at JPCC self-refer to Reach-In C.A.R.E. The 35 clients served from July 1, 2001 to March 31, 2012 self-reported a total of 318 arrests during their lifetimes. Of those, 20 engaged in substance abuse treatment post-release and 31 attended community support groups post-release. Of those, none have been re-arrested on new charges.
“They saved my life,” said Kim. “Their dedication, the way they care about you – that’s not something they learned in school. That’s just them. The women at Reach-in C.A.R.E., they’re special.”
“This is the first time in my life I’ve gone 12 months without getting in trouble,” said Karen, who was part of Reach-In C.A.R.E.’s first group. “I’ve never had support like this. I don’t know where I’d be without them. I spent Christmas with my family for the first time in years, because they got me back together with my family. I feel like I can conquer the world with this help. They gave me some hope.”
Cheronne said she first joined a Reach-In C.A.R.E. group “just to get out of my cell and have something to do,” but soon found the support she needed there. Reach-In C.A.R.E. proivides face-to-face personalized interations in the community, and Cheronne found that the program’s main office was just two blocks from her mother’s home. Staggered by that bit of serendipity, Cheronne has worked closely with Reach-In C.A.R.E. recovery specialist Kayla Velez to become one of the most active participants in the program.
“I had created an atmosphere around me that was all negative, and I needed support that was positive – and I found it here,” said Cheronne. “Right when you get out of jail, there’s so many things that you’re required to do, and it’s easy to feel trapped. They take the pressure off you; when I’m having a tough time I know I can always call Kayla and have someone to talk to.
“When I feel like I can’t do it on my own, they’re there for you. They help you transition to a more productive life.”