- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - A nonprofit program in Chattanooga is finding success in helping female felons prepare for life outside of prison.

Since The Next Door Chattanooga started in 2011, 329 women have completed the program, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press (https://bit.ly/1LGtNT8). Only 7 percent are sent back to jail within three years, and just 18 percent - about 59 women - who have been out for longer than three years have gone back to jail.

In Tennessee, 42 percent of women released from prison between 2001 and 2007 landed back in jail within three years, according to a 2010 study by the Tennessee Department of Correction, the latest data available.

Donna Stephenson was once incarcerated for stealing to pay for her addiction to painkillers. She was released on parole in 2008 after serving seven months in jail, but was sent back to jail in 2010 for violating her probation.

With four months left on her sentence in 2011, Stephenson was sent to The Next Door Chattanooga, which she said changed her life. On Oct. 18, she’ll mark five years free of drugs.

“They taught me to respect myself, to respect others,” Stephenson recently told the newspaper. “I got a lot of hope back.”

The Next Door, founded in 2002, also has facilities in Nashville and Knoxville, but Chattanooga is the only location where women who are still incarcerated can live.

The Chattanooga program, a faith-based nonprofit, uses a mix of individual therapy, group therapy, classes, job training and activities to help female felons be successful once they’re released. The program also focuses heavily on addiction services because most of the crimes they see are connected in some way to drugs, said Rebekah Bohannon, Next Door’s regional assistant director for East Tennessee.

As many as 42 women live in three dorm-style wings, sharing a room with at least one, and as many as three other women. The windows have curtains, not bars. The beds are draped in purple and blue and polka-dot comforters; the walls decorated with paintings and pictures.

Of the women who do enter the program, 87 percent finish it, Bohannon said. She said four percent drop out because of technical issues like health problems or pending court dates, while nine percent are sent back to the prison because of disciplinary reasons.

Bohannon said an important practice of the program is not just treating a woman like she’s an inmate, because “nine times out of 10 she will be more than an inmate.”

“If you call her by her name and say, ‘I expect you to be a woman of integrity and these are the rules in place,’ she will meet and exceed those expectations,” Bohannon said. “When you just slap a number on her and call her ‘Inmate’ all the time, that is what she is going to act like.”

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com

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