Women in Transition from Prison
to the World at Large
One month after her release, Nealy wears her best dress to the State Fairgrounds Pavilion in Salem and clutches the string of a Mylar balloon that reads CON"GRAD”ULATIONS. She laughs with her son, Dustin, before he lines up with his friends, who are, like him, all identically dressed in royal blue caps and gowns. After the McNary High School commencement ceremony, she rushes back to Dustin's father’s home in Keizer to prepare his graduation party.
"I am so freaking excited that I got out just in time to see Dustin graduate,” Nealy says, and she has slowly but surely been reconnecting with him. “It’s a really big moment that I’m fortunate not to miss out on. He’s more of an adult than most people my age I know.”
In adjusting to the outside world, Nealy worked with Marion County Judge Jane Akin to have her parking tickets reduced, and used money from Mercy Corps to pay them and for auto insurance. Judge Akin also set Nealy up with a community-service maintenance job at the Salem Airport. And after couch-surfing for a month with more reliable offers falling through, Nealy finally found stable housing with another sober, employed ex-felon friend. What a relief to have a routine, to become an insider again.
"I feel like I can breathe," Nealy said, “like I'm not such a crazy alien, uncomfortable in my own skin, not knowing how it’s going to be in the next hour. After 30 days that’s something I can wrap my head around. That’s what I learned at Mercy Corps, not to cover [the anxiety] up but to manage it. It’s almost like meditation, but not so disconnected from the world. It sounds kind of corny when I say it out loud, but it makes so much sense to me.”
“She seems more responsible now,” Dustin says, smiling at his mother as she hangs paper cutout stars and streamers from a gazebo in a park across the street. “I don’t think she’s going to go back at all. If she does, I’ll kick her butt.”
Four months later, the week before Angie Sherer’s release from Coffee Creek — six months early, due to completion of a drug treatment program — she returns to the LIFE class one last time, recounting her transition plan and role-playing instances of how her life will be different next week.
“Mercy Corps is giving me $500 to get me started with clothes and things that I need to start over,” Angie says, and she plans on using the Reentry Transition Center. “It’s really nice knowing that I have these resources. Without Mercy Corps there is not a lot that continues for me. That’s the piece that keeps on going.”
Mercy Corps’s Doug Cooper also lined Angie up with a possible internship with Rep. Jennifer Williamson at the State Capitol. Angie is thankful for all the opportunities she has to rebuild her life.
“If you do what you’re supposed to do, are trustworthy and show that you’re going to be different, people will reach out and help.”
Some relationships will take longer to heal.
“My dad and I have had our issues, lost trust and all that. I never imagined my dad would ever want to pick me up from prison, but he said he would.”
He does. At 8:15 a.m. on October 2nd, Dan Sherer stands outside the gate at Coffee Creek Minimum with his hands in his pockets, looking a little sheepish.
"First-grade, all through high school, she was a straight-A student, graduated a year early," Dan says about his daughter. “Had a real nice Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible car, doing really well. Then she started hanging around with the wrong people, and it was all downhill from there.”
A nervous chuckle. A tall, gruff man with a grey goatee, he is soon joined by Angie's stepbrother Jacob, who himself recently released from the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.
“Probably didn’t come nearly as often as I should have,” Dan says, of his occasional visits to Angie in prison. “But it’s depressing in there.”
“That is a fact,” Jacob says.
At 8:30 Angie emerges from the building and walks through the gate, pushing a cart marked INMATE PROCESSING. In the cart are boxes of clothes, notebooks and toiletries, and after a hug her father takes the cart from her and loads the trunk of the family midsize sedan, a Toyota Avalon.
"The other side of the gate," Angie says, beaming at her father, who beams right back. “So weird. I feel anxious and proud and excited.”
Into the Avalon. Then Dan and Jacob drive Angie directly from prison to check in with her parole officer, then to shop for clothes, then to a halfway house in Salem where she will live with six other women in drug treatment. Tristan lives in West Salem, which is in Polk County, but Angie's new home is in Marion County. Accordingly, each time she will cross the bridge over the Willamette River to see her son, she must call her parole officer.
Another four months later, Angie now makes $15 an hour at a Salem law firm, working for a defense attorney who serves post-conviction clients. Angie is also a full-time student at the local community college, on the path to become an addiction counselor or work elsewhere in the health services field. Anything to help people learn from her mistakes.
"It's interesting how things can change," Angie says outside Keizer City Hall, where she has come on her lunch break to pay off years-old parking tickets. “To buy drugs, to sell drugs, that’s all I did, all day, every day for two years. There were no priorities as important as that. People didn’t matter.”
Salem is the only city where Angie has ever lived, and people from her dark past contacted her shortly after she released. Angie has never called any of them back.
“Everyone in my life, other than my family, is new," she said. "Coworkers, housemates, and a lot of them have been through the same things [I have.] I know this is my shot to do it differently.”
Three times a week, Angie picks Tristan up at the downtown YMCA and drives him to her father's house to spend a couple hours with her son. Today is special, because mother and son get to celebrate Valentine’s Day together for the first time.
After playing and laughing and giggling, blowing off the energy of the day, Angie and Tristan finally sit together quietly at a small dining table. Tristan hands a small red envelope — emblazoned with MOM scrawled in the child’s handwriting — to his mother, who reads the inscription of the enclosed greeting card aloud: "From your little boy: There could never be another Mommy as special as you. Happy Valentine’s Day."
Angie gives Tristan a small, heart-shaped box of chocolates. The boy unwraps the red ribbon, opens the box and hands the first piece to his mother, then takes a piece for himself.