- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) - Nearly a dozen women convicted of felony crimes in Houston County will now have an unrestricted facility to call home in an effort to help them transition back into society.

Houston County Circuit Judge Michael Conaway said the launching of the New Bridges program will provide a transitional living environment for women.

Conaway called the New Bridges program a partnership between the Wiregrass Rehabilitation Center Inc. (WRC), the Houston County Community Corrections program, several local foundations and multiple private donors who helped get the program started.

“We have a number of offenders who are women who are not a threat to society and need rehabilitation,” Conaway said.

Tony Weber, the director of the Houston County Community Corrections program, said seven women have already been accepted into the program, and officials hope to have them placed and living in the facility by the end of the month.

Weber said the New Bridges facility, which will house 11 women with the capacity of double that number, is located behind the WRC complex facility in east Dothan, just outside Ross Clark Circle. He said the program is supervised by officials with community corrections, but the women live in an unlocked building.

Weber said all the women accepted into the program will come from community corrections and will already have a job. He said the women will also pay rent for living at the facility.

“In order for them to be in the program, they’re going to have to work,” Weber said. “They’re going to have to contribute to their own well-being.”

Weber said there is a handbook put together through the National Institute of Corrections, along with a code of conduct for the women to follow in the program.

Dr. Jack Sasser, the New Bridges project manager, said one of the rules includes “keep your hands to yourself.”

“The entire therapy program will help them see things differently,” Sasser said. “Maybe they won’t see stealing as the answer.”

Weber said they will have classes offered on site at the facility offered through Wallace Community College.

The program calls for a house mother, who he said has already been chosen. He said she is a state department of corrections inmate assigned to the Houston County Community Corrections program.

“She has no family here so she is perfect for this program,” Weber said. “We’ve got a room here for her, and space for one more (person) she can mentor too.”

Each room comes furnished with a dresser and bed with a full bathroom shared by two rooms.

“We provide the bedding, all they have to do is provide a pillow,” Weber said.

The building also includes a classroom and living room area with a flat screen television. The women will also share and cook out of one kitchen in the center of the single-story building.

“We’re not allowing any food in the bedrooms,” he said. “It cuts down on bugs, and it teaches them to be responsible.”

The target time period for the women in the program is 11 months and 29 days, Weber said. He said anything beyond a year leads to people becoming dependent on the program.

“They’re not going to just come in and have it be like a sorority house,” Weber said. “They’re going to be guests in our house, and they’re going to treat it that way.”

Conaway, the program’s judicial advisor, said programs such as New Bridges coordinated through community corrections help reduce recidivism, or repeat offenders. He said 35 percent of all inmates who leave prison in Alabama become repeat offenders.

“We don’t want them going back out into the community and committing the same type of crimes,” Conaway said. “We’re looking at a whole different way of trying to improve corrections.”

Weber called the Houston County Community Corrections work release program the largest in Alabama, which he said means it has the largest bed capacity. As of Wednesday afternoon he said there were 111 men and women in the community corrections program. But he said it has a bed capacity for 190. He said of the 111 in community corrections, 33 are women.

Conaway said there needs to be constructive programs in place to assist the inmates in rehabilitation.

Weber said the National Institute of Corrections provided the model and guideline for the New Bridges program. He said the nearest one is in Jacksonville, Florida.

Conaway said New Bridges was selected as a pilot program, and is the first of its kind in Alabama.

“It gives us an opportunity to be more closely involved in making sure these people are rehabilitated,” Conaway said. “We are trying to protect the general public. If offenders are released from prison without any structure, they’re going to reoffend.”

Conaway said the program helps teach the women life skills such as planning meals or how to use money wisely, including budgeting.

“This is not a program to mollycoddle them,” Conaway said. “Each one of these potential occupants will be assessed by community corrections to make sure they fit. It’s designed to help them transition back into society.”


Information from: The Dothan Eagle, https://www.dothaneagle.com

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