MOYERS: We turn now to a story on prisoners here at home.
Every year, 630,000 prisoners are dumped back on America's streets after serving their time. Most will be on their own, left to their own devices to stitch a life back together. Hard enough.
But a new study finds parolees are also sabotaged at every turn. The Legal Action Center says there are laws on the books in every state that hamper ex-convicts' ability to either find a job, a place to live, or a chance to start all over again.
In recent years, more and more parolees are women facing problems of drug addiction. For many of them, it will be a short trip back to prison. But there is another way. Our report was produced by NOW's Kathleen Hughes, with ABC correspondent Juju Chang.
CHANG: Watching Mychelle Bustamonte work up a sweat, it's hard to imagine just how far she has come. How lucky she is to have made it here at all.
BUSTAMONTE: I'm doing this in a good way. And it's healthy for me. And I feel good about myself. I sleep at night. I eat right.
CHANG: She's lost weight.
BUSTAMONTE: 17 pounds! If you do like five of these a day, your stomach gets rock hard…but I can't even do two.
CHANG: It's been a complete makeover. A remarkable transformation for someone who started as a teenager working the bars of New York…and the street.
BUSTAMONTE: When I was 14, I got a job in a bar stripping and hustling champagne. And then I would get up on the stage and dance and take my clothes off, and more guys would want to buy champagne to sit and talk with me.
CHANG: Mychelle says she began using drugs at age twelve, when she shared a joint with her mother. Before long, she was hooked on crack. Stripping gave way to prostitution, then robbery…anything to feed her drug addiction. After 34 misdemeanors, she drew a mandatory three-year sentence for burglary. Doing time in upstate New York did nothing to prepare her for life on the outside.
BUSTAMONTE: You have a tough exterior. You have like, "Yeah, well I just got back from upstate, and I did this and I did that." And you have no clothes, no money, no place to live. Basically, people don't trust you. Now you have a record to live with. What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do? You're basically a reject from society.
CHANG: Just days after her release Mychelle picked up a crack pipe, and was in trouble again. A failed drug test could have sent her back to prison. Instead, Mychelle's parole officer gave her an option that would change her life, a chance at an alternative to prison…New York City's Project Greenhope.
RHETT: What are some of the healthy things that are happening for you opposed to what was going on before?
BUSTAMONTE: When I came in here I was twisted because I just wanted to be part of someone's life, because I had no life.
CHANG: It's one of the nation's few residential treatment centers for female offenders.
ELLIOT: They do have to prove to us that they want their sobriety and they want their recovery.
CHANG: Anne Elliot is the Project's executive director.
CHANG: Why is it so hard for women to be straight and stay straight when they get out of prison?
ELLIOT: Well, most women are not blessed to have a program like Project Greenhope. They're gonna go back to the same places and the same people that they were involved with before they got back to prison. They will not have the tools to stay off the drugs.
CHANG: Greenhope recently gave NOW extraordinary access, a unique opportunity to witness first hand a program which provides addicts services for every step along the way toward re-entering society.
WOMAN: They teach us to go out and do healthy things.
CHANG: It's a real shot, a second chance to overcome their addictions and the government policies stacked against them.
Greenhope is non-religious. Sessions often begin with a standard feature of recovery, the serenity prayer.
WOMEN: …the courage to change the things I can.
CHANG: The 50,000 female drug abusers released from prison each year walk out onto a high wire. For the 60 women here, Greenhope offers a safety net.
LEGAL AIDE: Could you have the judge give me a call back?
CHANG: A web of services, from legal aid to parenting classes.
COUNSELOR: So, this is your first parenting class.
ELLIOT: So when they hit our doors, our first goal it to make sure they can live and negotiate society on society's terms. A lot of them… I mean, haven't dealt with those issues of personal budgeting, haven't dealt with issues of learning how to wash your laundry, haven't dealt with issues of learning how to pay a bill, have never had a bill.
COUNSELOR: Do you know how to make it all caps?
CHANG: Elliot oversees job training and medical care. Basic education is crucial. Sixty percent of these women have a fourth grade education and little experience living a normal life.
CHANG: But you're talking about basic human skills.
ELLIOT: Yes we are and so in many cases I always say we're talking about habilitation and not rehabilitation.
CHANG: Greenhope prides itself in being a nurturing program, a place that's not about punishment, but healing. Mychelle was given a roommate, Mona Johnson. Back when they were addicts living on the street, neither woman was able to have meaningful relationships.
BUSTAMONTE: You can't have friends, because you're all out for yourself, it's only you.
BUSTAMONTE: Like you live for drugs, and that's it.
CHANG: But at Greenhope, over time, they learn to trust people again.
BUSTAMONTE: Mona is very special in my life, she will always be very special in my life.
CHANG: These two became devoted friends or "bunkies" as they call themselves.
JOHNSON: I was selling drugs, I was selling my body, I was stealing, doing just about everything I had to do to support my habit. You know, it was a lot of days I prayed to God that, you know, that I could stop getting high, you know. I did things that I wouldn't normally do. Things that I'm not proud of. I stole from my mother, you know. I stole from my daughters, you know. I stole, I mean, I would do just about anything to get the next hit. You know…
BUSTAMONTE: It's so… you know, there… and being in the streets and being degraded day after day after day and doing whatever you have to do to get drugs, it's degrading. And you-- you learn and people teach you that you're nothing. You're nothing.
WOMAN: I really didn't know who I was.
CHANG: The addicted lifestyle robbed them of their dignity. Greenhope aims to give it back. The biggest priority for the women here is staying off drugs for the long haul.
WOMAN: And I don't want to go back there.
CHANG: To succeed, counselors say, they need to understand how drugs and alcohol have changed their body's chemistry, hijacked their brains…
BUSTAMONTE: My mother had it. My father had it. My brother had it. My grandmother had it. And everybody I know in my life has been an addict.
CHANG: To get sober, to get well, they need to learn that addiction is a disease.
BUSTAMONTE: I mean it's a disease that you can not stop on your own. That if you don't get treated for this disease, the ends are always the same, jails, institutions and death.
CHANG: You said it's like cancer. What do you mean?
BUSTAMONTE: It goes into remission.
BUSTAMONTE: But it doesn't ever go away.
BUSTAMONTE: So that means you have to keep treating it and treating it and treating it.
COUNSELOR: When we say low self-esteem, what is esteem?
CHANG: That treatment involves getting the women together to share their stories and one-on-one sessions with a counselor like Gerald Rhett who helps them recognize and change their behavior.
JOHNSON: I'm going through like little problems like with my brother. My brother is getting high.
JOHNSON: Okay? And my mother wants me to be there for him. And I be telling her, "Mommy, I can't."
RHETT: Identify the feeling that, he'll probably take you backward before you can move him…
CHANG: Gradually they begin to trust their counselors and each other. The hard shell they brought from the outside world begins to soften…
JOHNSON: That man put me through so much downstairs in his office until I was like, oh, I can't stand him. He get on my nerves. I be like Mychelle, I don't know who he thinks he is, but I want to hurt him…
CHANG: Confronting their own stories can be a painful process. The staff here says six out of every ten have been sexually abused. An overwhelming majority have been physically abused. Many were abandoned as children. This mirrors the female prison population as a whole. It's a legacy each woman struggles with.
BUSTAMONTE: Gerald Rhett has you write a life history, like from the time you were a little girl until now. God, it was painful for me to write this.
CHANG: Writing this journal helped bring back one of Mychelle's most painful memories the day her mother abandoned her.
BUSTAMONTE: Mom was drunk most of the time. It was my last day of seventh grade. I came home and she was gone. All her stuff was in the house, but she was gone and she didn't come home again. And I get thrown into these foster homes, and group homes. If it was someone else's story, and I read it, I would cry, you know?
CHANG: This therapy forces Mychelle to confront her childhood trauma, she realizes she'd been using drugs and alcohol to blot out the pain of her abandonment.
BUSTAMONTE: But you have to deal with it and you have to say okay, this happened, and I will move on now.
CHANG: Greenhope has helped hundreds of women move on. Government and independent studies show treatment is a more effective way than prison of returning non-violent drug offenders to society. Despite this, state legislatures continued passing punitive "tough on crime" laws throughout the nineties. The upshot? Nearly half of all people released from prison are re-arrested within three years. But now state budgets are no longer able to pay for the costs of incarceration. Politicians are finally paying attention.
PRESIDENT BUSH: This year some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society.
CHANG: In policy circles the buzz is not so much about rehabilitation, but "re-entry." President Bush made it a priority in his last State of the Union address.
PRESIDENT BUSH: So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups.
CHANG: Advocates applaud President Bush for raising the issue but they say his plan ignores the elephant in the room…addiction. There's no provision for comprehensive drug treatment for ex-cons. Worse, they charge his plan does nothing to address laws that continue to punish ex-cons long after they've left prison.
ELLIOT: If we're committed to corrections, it's supposed to be corrections. And when they finish correcting, they should be able to get on with their life when they get on the outside. But we have these post conviction obstacles that we put in their way, that they're not able to get on with their lives. So what are you encouraging them to do but go back to prison?
CHANG: Case in point: in most states, in an effort to keep drug dealers out of housing projects, ex-cons can't qualify for it. But without a place to live it's tough for a person fresh out of prison to get back on her feet.
RHETT: And so they're forced to get rooms and stuff like that that may cost them $100 a week. So now how much latitude did someone have when they're making $150 a week maybe, and then they have to pay $100 or $75 a week for a room? So that's a problem.
CHANG: In many states ex-felons can't get food stamps, drivers' licenses or student loans. They're barred from dozens of jobs that require state licenses, such as hairdressers or bus drivers.
WOMAN: That's frustratin'. How are you gonna do what you gots to do when nobody's bringing in no money?
CHANG: The counselors at Greenhope say it amounts to a catch-22 for their clients, the majority of whom also have children.
RHETT: You can't get housing without having money. You can't get your kids back without having an apartment. .
CHANG: And you can't keep your kids if you lose contact. A federal law says that if your kids go into foster care, you can lose custody if you fail to see them for 15 months. That's a real problem when the average time served is 19 months. Many of the mothers at Greenhope have been cut off from their children.
WOMAN: The year 1997, to be exact, that was the last time I seen my oldest two children. So, that was… they were… one was five. My daughter was four years old and my son was five. My son is 13 years old. My daughter is 12.
CHANG: Whether or not they gain custody, the parenting class helps women face up to how their addictions have damaged their families.
COUNSELOR: Hi ladies…
CHANG: If the women are to stay sober, counselors say, it's crucial that they not only come to terms with the pain they've caused their children, but deal with their profound guilt and shame.
COUNSELOR: Worthlessness, shame, fear, regret, heartache.
JOHNSON: I beat myself up because what was I thinking that I had to be separated from my son? You know what I'm saying?
CHANG: When she went to jail, Mona left her eight year old son behind with family members.
JOHNSON: I always thought that I was a good mother. You know, even though I was using drugs, as long as I would leave my son with my mother, right? Because I'd be out two, three days, getting high.
CHANG: I think people would say, well, if she's a crack addict, how could she have been a good mother?
JOHNSON: That's what the disease tell you. My disease told me that I was good mother, using, you know? But I know now that I was abusive. Not physically but as far as leaving him for three days, regardless of it was with my mother or not, that was abusive.
CHANG: Mona and her bunkie Mychelle have both moved up to phase two of the program, called "aftercare." They're now living on the outside but they still come here three times a week for counseling.
RHETT: Out there is a learning process as well. The process is continuous.
BUSTAMONTE: I still look at normal women on the train and on the subways, you know, do I have too much make up on? Or am I dressed, you know, all right? And just trying to fit into society. You don't know how to fit in. You know, you have to learn these things. These are things they teach you here.
CHANG: You sound like you feel like you're an alien from another planet.
BUSTAMONTE: Totally, totally.
WOMAN: Everybody just get into position.
CHANG: It's Friday morning at Project Greenhope, time to unwind and celebrate sobriety…at least for now. The success rate for completing this program is 70 percent, double the rate for less comprehensive programs. But how effective is Greenhope once the women move on? Just ask Renee Davis.
DAVIS: This is my daughter-in-law, and my grandson, my son, and my grandson, my son and daughter-in-law.
CHANG: Today she's a productive and reliable executive secretary. Davis is a far cry from the hopelessly crack-addicted ex-con she was just four years ago.
DAVIS: I was married on Valentine's day. And we had a beautiful wedding. I'm fifty years old. Come on. I never thought I would get married at this late state in life. Life's good.
CHANG: Compared to prison, Greenhope works, but only for a precious few. Of the roughly 100,000 women currently behind bars experts believe that 70 percent are addicted. Only a small percentage of them receive any treatment at all.
DAVIS: I go back to Project Greenhope because I want to give them that hope and just show them by example, the treatment works. You know it really works, you know?
CHANG: How much does it cost to salvage a person's life? Greenhope costs roughly 20,000 dollars a year for each woman, paid for by a combination of state money and private contributions.
COUNSELOR: That's your undo button.
CHANG: The irony is that the therapy and treatment is far cheaper than the 32,000 dollars a year it costs taxpayers to keep a non-violent drug offender behind bars.
DAVIS: A lot of girls know me. Whether it be from the streets or the penitentiary, a lot of them know me. And for them to see me today compared to who they knew before, it's such…there's really not much I have to say, you know?
CHANG: As for our bunkies, Mona says each day is a struggle. She recently found an apartment in New York City and landed a job caring for handicapped people. Money's short but that's okay for now.
JOHNSON: This is the first time I ever worked in my life, okay? My… at a legal job, right? Ok, and to be doing something…
CHANG: What did you do when you got that first paycheck handed to you?
JOHNSON: I wanted to frame it.
CHANG: And she has a new bunkie, her eight year old son, Elijah.
JOHNSON: Are you finished playing your game now?
CHANG: Meanwhile, Mychelle's makeover is indeed extreme, but no where near complete. She's working at an upscale deli in downtown Manhattan.
BUSTAMONTE: These are my recipes, my homemade recipe. What would you like with that ma'am?
CHANG: She's living in a halfway house for recovering addicts while she goes to school and searches for a permanent place to live. Her felony record disqualifies her from of public housing.
BUSTAMONTE: The salary started at $6 an hour. And I went up to $6.50 an hour. But I started with no experience, nothing to put on a resume. Nothing. It barely pays my bills but, hey, that's all I need right now. So, you know, when I have one voice inside my head telling me, "Oh God, this is… I can't take it. I can't do it. Go ahead. Go get high." I have another voice telling me, "You're gonna lose everything that you've worked for..." And I'm not willing to let it go.