Programs aim to help women avoid revolving door of prison

- The prison system in America has been called a revolving door. But now a new trend is sweeping the nation, many states are investing more money into rehabilitation programs to keep the same people from going back to prison.

So what does that mean for Arizona, and what does that mean for one of the most vulnerable prison populations here.

Just 25 miles west of Phoenix is Perryville Prison. Thousands of women live here; many will be released just to land back behind bars. Critics say the system cares more about punishment than rehabilitation.

"Once you are in prison you are in a landfill of the hopelessly lost and forgotten," said Diana Morgon.

Morgon has been to prison three times; she says the most frightening part for many women inmates is the day they're released.

"It's like being shot out of a cannon naked into a brick wall; it's overwhelming," she said.

When Morgon got out, her first challenge was finding a job. She said she sent more than 100 applications, believing her college education and even a career writing TV commercials would help her. But what she says kept her from interviews was her three felony convictions for heroin possession.

"Well it doesn't matter how you explain it, as soon as you x that box, they are going to give it to someone that doesn't have it on their record, someone that may be less qualified than you but doesn't have that scar," said Morgon.

Morgon is not alone. According to the US Department of Justice, about 60-70% of ex-inmates cannot find jobs within the first year out of jail, and prison advocates say for women the challenges are enormous.

"How society treats women that are incarcerated is entirely different than men. You're a man who went to prison you made a mistake, where as women have a lot of underlying issues," said Jeff Taylor.

Taylor advocates for prison reform as a lobbyist for the Salvation Army.

"When you are talking about the non-violent population of women, about 90% are in that bed because of a drug crime, or a drug motivated crime," said Taylor.

In Arizona about 40% of released inmates return to prison. Prison rights advocates say a good job and sobriety will keep many from going back. And there is now a state program to help. The Prisoner Transition Program releases inmates a few months early, to get help with everything from substance abuse to job placement.

But as the state's budget has climbed to more than $1 billion, the state has moved money away from the program, slashing more than $2 million in the last five years.

Non-profit groups and the DOC agree those who go through re-entry programs are generally less likely to return to prison, but with dwindling funds for the program, non-profit groups say they are scrambling to fill the void.

"I'll tell you if you don't have hope, the only person who says welcome back is your friendly neighborhood drug dealer," said Sue Ellen Allen.

After Sue Ellen Allen served a 7-year securities fraud sentence. She helped start the non-profit "Gina's Team" and now she leads life skills workshops for women behind bars.

"If we don't help them when they get out, pay now, or pay later, pay to help them, or pay for more prisons," said Allen.

Morgon found Gina's Team in prison. She also got out early through the prisoner transition program. With the combined help she says she's been sober for two years, and even secured some work. She says she's one of the lucky ones.

"I have a network of women that care about me, that believe in me, but  I'm the 1%, the rest of these women they get out with nothing," said Morgon.

In the last year of the nearly 20,000 released inmates, only about 900 went through the prisoner transition program. Prison rights activists say the DOC should do more to enroll eligible inmates. FOX 10 asked the DOC for an interview on the subject; they declined, but issued the following statement: "While ADC would like to see the number of inmates eligible to participate in the program grow, the Department has done as much as it can administratively to facilitate that."

People like Taylor believe thousands are falling through the cracks. He's helping craft legislation that would require the DOC to expand the prisoner transition program to 5,000 inmates.

"I think we can shift some funds here, and be very successful on doing that, let's start being smart on crime, let's start treating the core issue of why people go to prison in the first place," said Taylor.

The legislation Taylor is crafting will be introduced in the beginning of the next legislative session in 2016.

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