By Marion Softky
"I'm ready to get my life back. I like being clean."
It's hard to realize that, less than a year ago, the poised young woman who said that was a drug addict, pregnant, and in San Mateo County jail for petty theft.
Now Trina is clean and sober, and bonding with her baby daughter, Cy. They are living at Hope House, in a small tract home in Redwood City that she shares with nine other women and staff.
Hope House is a residential drug and alcohol recovery program run by the Service League of San Mateo County. Women who are addicted can spend six months taking a 12-step course and intensive classes in living skills, ranging from anger management and job skills to cooking and parenting.
Trina tells her story matter-of-factly, seated at the spotless dining room table in the neat living room of Hope House, while Cy enjoys the attentions of Mike Nevin, executive director of the Service League, and some other residents.
Trina's story may be all too typical. She grew up in Oakland, took up drugs when she was 17, and became addicted to heroin and coke. She has two sons, 15 and 19, who live with their father.
In 2000, she moved to San Francisco, where she kept going by fraud, petty theft, selling drugs, and prostitution. She was arrested several times, and was assigned to an earlier drug treatment program. "I didn't complete the first one," she says.
Trina's most recent arrest landed her in county jail in January. Cy was born two weeks later on Jan. 31.
Cy was born two months premature, underweight, and addicted to methadone and crack. "She was so small," Trina says.
Cy was taken from her mother for medical treatment, and raised for her first eight months in a foster home for the medically fragile.
A "kind lady" at Stanford Hospital connected Trina with Hope House, where she moved after a couple of more weeks in jail.
Hope House is a really hard program, Trina says, but she stuck with it, and the staff helped her get her baby back Oct. 30. "It was good for me," she says. "I never thought I would complete something like this and be interested in myself.
"The staff here is beautiful. Karen (Francone, the director) is like the mother I never had."
Now Trina is working toward her GED at JobTrain, formerly OICW, the Menlo Park job-training center. She hopes to get into transitional housing at First Step for Families, run by Shelter Network, while she works on the next stage of her life. "I hope to get housing, go back to school, and take nursing," she says.
The Service League, founded in 1960, has this mission: "Helping rebuild the lives of inmates, former inmates, their children and families."
This mission translates into programs that help current inmates and their families, programs that help inmates when they leave jail, and programs such as Hope House, which helps former inmates and others who are homeless and in trouble, move toward productive lives. All taking the Hope House recovery program are addicted; most have been in jail.
"We're trying to expand opportunities for people leaving jail," says Mike Nevin, the new executive director for the Service League. "We want to build a seamless connection between the inmates and the outside world."
Mr. Nevin, a former San Francisco police inspector, mayor of Daly City, and county supervisor, is leading the Service League through a major transition, following the retirement last year of Elizabeth Gheleta of Menlo Oaks, who led the organization for 27 years.
Challenges for the Service League at all three levels are huge. Both men's and women's jails are severely overcrowded, with more than 1,200 prisoners crammed into facilities rated for 800, notes Sheriff Greg Munks. "The Service League is a very important partner in operating our jails," he says. "It relieves our staff, and helps the safe operation of the jail."
About 70 percent of the jail inmates are there temporarily, awaiting trial; the other 30 percent are non-violent offenders serving terms of less than one year, Sheriff Munks explains. Prisoners sentenced to longer terms are sent to state prisons.
Increasing numbers of gang members and people with mental illness are making the jails harder to manage; almost all the inmates have substance abuse problems, Mr. Munks says. "The Service League makes a difference in recidivism."
In 2005 and 2006, a total of 556 Service League volunteers visited the jail regularly to ease the lives of prisoners, according to the organization's annual report; they spent more than 31,000 hours helping inmates and their families.
Next month, former director Elizabeth Gheleta will return to run the Christmas party for inmates' children, who will receive presents. Members of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church will bake thousands of cookies so that each of the 1,200 inmates can have a bag of goodies for Christmas. And the Service League will provide a Christmas tree for every pod in the jail.
Service League volunteers operate a message center at the jail that allows inmates to communicate with their families, lawyers and others on the outside. Volunteers provide clothing for prisoners going to trial, plus counseling and classes.
The Service League operates library services, and a room at the jail where children can stay when waiting to visit their parents in jail.
Inmates also have access to religious services and support through the Service League and some 250 religious volunteers of all faiths.
"We're bringing hope to clients, both inside and out," says Mr. Nevin.
Re-entry: Hope Houses
It's a Wednesday morning, and parenting instructor Marsha Howard of Redwood City leads eight residents of Hope House in a lively discussion of how to raise kids. She keeps everyone laughing and joining in, as she plays a bossy — do as I say — parent, or a permissive — every home should have a big bowl of candy — mom. And finally a moderate — listen to children and respect them — mother.
Later they'll practice cooking in the kitchen that serves two adjacent Hope Houses with a joint back yard and garden — which the residents tend.
Residents of Hope House work hard as they try to re-mold themselves in six months to re-enter society as contributing members. They're up at 6 a.m. for chores, exercise and grooming, before fixing breakfast at 8, says Director Karen Francone, who has been with the program since the first Hope House opened in 1990. Ed Brandle of Menlo Presbyterian Church was one of the original founders, and a committed volunteer.
The highly structured program sounds a bit like a boarding school, with not much freedom. The women attend classes eight hours a day — exercise, health, every aspect of life including the 12-step recovery programs, with lights out at 10 p.m.
It's not easy for the women to get over addiction; they often cry, Ms. Francone notes. "When you get clean and sober, everything you have stuffed down, does come up," she says. "I think of tears as ointment that flows over the body. Crying is healing."
Residents also find time to do community service, Ms. Francone says. They participate in cleanups of Redwood City or San Francisquito Creek. Sometimes they go to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco to feed the homeless. "They see people there they know. It's very powerful," she says.
The Service League now operates five Hope Houses, three for women and two for men, with 30 beds. Mr. Nevin would like to open more Hope Houses, for perinatal women or for women with older children.
Ms. Francone is proud that residents of Hope House have delivered 130 non-addicted babies. Three current residents are pregnant, she says.
Mr. Nevin sees Hope House as a model to break the revolving door that leads most inmates to return to the setting that got them in trouble, and then back into jail.
The people sentenced to county jail are mostly petty offenders involved with drugs and alcohol; they are not hardened or violent criminals, Mr. Nevin says. "These are people we're catching early in the game. We really have a chance to help them.
"We're talking about people who are victims themselves. They lack the things we take for granted —eating, dressing, talking," Mr. Nevin continues. "We're teaching them how to live."
And Hope House has been successful, Mr. Nevin says. The California recidivism rate is 75 to 80 percent, the highest in the country. But for Hope House it is almost the reverse. According to the last annual report, 72 percent of Hope House graduates remained clean and sober.
As Mr. Nevin reshapes the Service League, he is focusing on re-entry, and helping inmates and their families make the transition back to being solid members of their community — rather than recycling back into jail.
Besides expanding the Hope House programs, Mr. Nevin would like to see re-entry programs start sooner. "Our biggest mistake is that we don't begin programs while inmates are still in custody," he says. "I'd like to start turning lives around while people are still in jail."
Sheriff Munks sees opportunities to strengthen drug, alcohol, and other inmate programs as the county plans for a new jail. "We need to do a better job of preparing our inmates for readjusting to the social and economic fabric of the community," he says.