Women in Transition from Prison
to the World at Large
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States, Oregon has the nation's lowest rate of recidivism: only 22.8% of ex-inmates receive a felony conviction within three years of release from prison. Still, that’s thousands of people. The LIFE class intends to reduce that rate even further, and Mercy Corps’s Doug Cooper sees tangible progress.
"The transition from prison can be terrifying," he says, “but those who've gone through our life skills training have a 40% lower recidivism rate.”
Even after release, the program continues. Because most inmates have no income and no access to a checking account, Mercy Corps provides a debit card loaded with $500 to pay for necessities such as auto insurance, or to pay off parking tickets that accrued while the inmate was behind bars. The Reentry Transition Center in Portland provides clothing, toiletries and access to Navigators — ex-felons themselves — who know the system on the outside and provide links to housing and other needs.
"We give them money and stuff, and we make sure to get receipts," Cooper says.
But the ex-inmates themselves do the hard work of reintegration, and for the most part, they succeed.
“Especially those mothers with children, they just want to be good moms,” Cooper says. “All the stereotypes fall away.”
Three days after her release, Nealy Alley sits on the concrete steps of the Southfair Apartments in northeast Salem, near the railroad tracks and the Oregon School for the Deaf. Wind chimes, hung outside one unit's boarded-up window, plink in the late-May breeze. A child-size bicycle hangs on a faded-gray wooden fence by its purple handlebars.
"The hardest part is at night when I try to go to bed," Nealy says, breathlessly. “I’ve slept maybe ten hours since I’ve been out. That first night, I was up 24 hours before I could finally sleep. And I haven’t been able to eat because I can’t keep anything down. The anxiety where everything is just going too fast, and I keep thinking like I’m forgetting to do something. I think I usually have a pretty calm demeanor, but really, inside I have a hard time breathing. The structure that I had for so long is obviously gone, and that routine was really helpful.”
Nealy worries about rejoining her life, especially now that all her old friends know she’s around.
“Everyone wants to talk to me. I’m the new toy. I want to see everybody, but I need it to happen slowly.”
One old friend has been a friend in deed — Ragen, in whose apartment Nealy has been sleeping in, and is sitting outside. Ragen went through Mercy Corps' LIFE program as well, before leaving Coffee Creek in April, 2013.
"She’s gotten out and gotten her life together," Nealy says. “We knew each other… before.”
The way Nealy’s voice trails off makes clear that they were both involved with the same drugs in the same city in the same situations. Now, years later, they are both starting over in Salem again.
“She’s one of the few who does what they say they’re gonna do when they leave,” Nealy says. “So many people get left behind and you never hear from them again, but she stayed in contact. She said, 'Hey buddy, I have a couch and you’re welcome to it.’ It’s not ideal — it would be great if I could have my own room — but housing is not cheap.”
Ragen manages the Green Apple frozen yogurt shop at Salem Center Mall, and told Nealy she could get her a job there. But after walking through the mall — neon-lit, sensory overload — Nealy sits at a food court table, eats no yogurt and does not ask for an application form.
"Food always smells really different out here," she says, rattled by the intense overstimulation of the free world. “Just one smell after another. Perfume, cigarette smoke, everyone has a different scent. The most perfume you get in prison is, you know those little flaps in fashion magazines? We would tear those off and rub them on our shirts. And it works!”
One week later
As the denizens of Salem Center Mall begin their weekday morning routines, Ragen unlocks and lifts a metal security gate and flips on the light that shines in green and pink neon: GREEN APPLE FROZEN YOGURT.
“I got out of prison and got in a relationship and had a baby first thing,” Ragen says while setting up her store, stacking napkins and spoons. “Not smart. I'm surprised I haven’t stuck a needle in my arm or started selling or something. But I feel like I got a job right away and I think that might have saved me. It’s really hard out here, being in Salem where you know everybody. You’re set up automatically for failure.”
Ragen is tiny, barely five feet tall, and a whirl of energy as she counts the money in the till and turns on the yogurt machines, each marked STRAWBERRY or CEREAL MILK or BUTTER PECAN. Ragen works six days a week, managing this and another yogurt shop, and she picks up bartending shifts, though spending time around that crowd is bad for her sobriety. Today her first paying customer does not come to Green Apple for more than two hours, giving Ragen time to reflect on how her life has changed. Part of it started with getting into the LIFE class.
"Everybody in that prison was kiting for that class," she says, using the slang term for messages sent by prisoners. “There were 500 people and they all wanted that, you know. They just wanted to be able to be in something, to be one of the people that were accepted.”
Ragen says she is “kind of embarrassed” to be 33 years old and working at a yogurt shop in a mall, but part of what the class taught her is to see every day and every situation as an opportunity.
“I'm still me,” she says. “I’m still crazy, wild and unpredictable but I’m reliable and I’m honest and hard-working. There can’t be a tragic ending for my life. It’s got to be something good comes out even if I created it. At Mercy Corps, I learned a lot and business-wise, that’s my passion, that’s my niche. I know it’s not good to [relate things to] selling drugs, but it’s the same concept for everything you do. You know supply, demand, wholesale prices, you know retail. It’s all the same concept.”
That afternoon, Ragen sits in her darkened apartment, on the ratty couch where Nealy had slept. On one wall hangs a small ceramic crucifix. On another hangs a large, striking oil painting of a woman wearing skeleton makeup and holding a pistol. Half the room is filled with Ragen’s toddler’s plastic toys. The blinds are drawn to keep out the sun that bakes the adjacent asphalt of the Southfair parking lot.
“She’s a decent person,” Ragen says of Nealy. “It’s hard to find people like that. I met her in the dope world. I was a baller and she needed dope, you know, but she was different. She wasn’t scandalous. I had to go through like twenty-three-thousand drug addicts to get the five good people I know.”
Ragen freely says what Nealy wouldn’t — that she was one of the felons who helped complicate Nealy’s trouble with the law years earlier.
“She did get arrested going to a place where I was supposed to meet her at, because the police were looking for me there,” Ragen says. “So that’s kind of like the guilt I carry like because she didn’t really have a place at the time to go and that was one of my safe houses, but the cops were looking for me then."
"Somebody must have tipped them off that that I was going there and they got her instead and she got 55 months for something stupid."
Relationships are hard. Nealy only spent two nights at Ragen's apartment before leaving, and is once again bouncing from couch to couch in search of a place to sleep. Adding to the flux, Ragen recently kicked out her abusive boyfriend, the father of her child, after a particularly bad fight. Ragen and Nealy found they couldn’t share such a small space, not with a toddler always crying and the abuser lurking, especially with Ragen’s anxiety and Nealy still in the shock of adjusting to the craziness of the free world. Still, Ragen wants to help her friend.
"Nealy didn’t have a lot of support, you know," Ragen says. “We’re like two peas in a fucked-up pod, excuse my language, but you know we both have nobody. We’re out here trying to make it on our own and it’s not easy, especially when you come back to fucked-up Salem, Oregon. Prison’s not great either, but there’s no bills, there’s no kids wanting this and that, you don’t go out and sacrifice yourself because in prison it’s all about you, and when you come out it’s not about you at all, and you have to figure out how to make it about you, make things meaningful and make a difference, I guess.”
On the side table beside her is a photo of Ragen’s young son, who she calls her sunshine. But life on the straight-and-narrow, and all-of-a-sudden alone, is proving very, very difficult.
“I don’t know how I make it these days,” Ragen says, beginning to weep. “As down as I feel, as hard as it is, like every day on your own, I don’t know how. I just think there’s some piece of me that doesn’t want to give up. It would be a lot easier not to have to be a mom, you know. It would be a lot easier to not have feelings. But something’s keeping me going… I sold drugs for 15 years, and to just have hope is a lot. Because you can live off hope.”