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August 3, 2006 - Boulder Weekly (CO)

The Long Road Home

A Woman On Parole Struggles To Beat The System

By Grace Hood

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The past decade hasn't been easy for Rebecca. In and out of the system, she has struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Rebecca didn't pick good partners in the past, she says, and she regrets losing custody of her two sons-both of whom were taken away due to her drug-related crimes.

But this Saturday, Rebecca is turning over a new leaf. As Trinity's caretakers enter her apartment, Rebecca's face lights up. Usually reserved and shy, she begins cuddling her daughter and talking to her. Chris, Rebecca's husband and Trinity's father, stands nearby. He welcomes representatives from New Horizons, the Mennonite organization that cared for Trinity during Rebecca's incarceration

"Thank you so much for helping us out with the baby. I don't think they could have picked anyone better to watch our baby. You did such a great job," says Chris.

"Remember when we had our first interview?" asks Crist Helmuth, child-care director for New Horizons. "I told you that this is our goal-but you probably had problems believing it."

"Yeah, it seemed so far away," says Rebecca.

Rebecca has accomplished the first goal of her new life as a responsible parent, but it won't be the only challenge she faces. Like many women in Colorado's mandatory parole system, she must juggle childrearing, parole classes and work during the remainder of her parole period.

Next, Rebecca will face the most challenging test of her adult life -- a crime-free, stressful existence without the solace of drug use. She is married to a man who claims to want what's best for her, although he himself is a felon.

According to Christi Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, there are thousands of women like Rebecca in Colorado who are staged to fight long, uphill battles. Because women are often primary caretakers and have more complex emotional issues, women's needs are different in the system, Donner says. Unfortunately, the system has few female-specific treatment programs and is grossly underfunded, she says.

Most women like Rebecca are left to pave their own paths: Some find ways to beat the system; others relapse and go back to jail.

Says Donner: "It's a long road home -- but a short road back."

Bad Choices

Having grown up on the East Coast, Rebecca's mother Nell considered the Southern Colorado town of Pueblo a great place to raise kids. There was a low crime rate, and the schools were good. Nell remarried when Rebecca and her two brothers were young. The family did what many other Colorado families did for recreation -- camping, hiking and occasional RV trips to New Mexico, Arizona and Las Vegas.

While always a stubborn and ornery child, by the time Rebecca reached 13 her temper became almost uncontrollable. Nell sought counseling for her daughter, but Rebecca's emotional distress only intensified as she grew older.

One day, during the morning rush in front of her middle school, Rebecca's life was threatened by a close friend. Initially, the friend pulled a knife out of her backpack and threatened another student. Rebecca didn't want to get involved and tried to stay out of the way. But Rebecca's friend turned on her and held the knife to her collarbone, piercing the skin. It took police intervention to break up the quarrel.

Nell was concerned for her daughter and sent her for psychiatric treatment after the incident. Later, Rebecca continued acting out and threw a pair of scissors at her mom during an argument. Not knowing what to do, but wanting what was best for her daughter, Nell sent Rebecca to a state hospital for an evaluation.

"I didn't really know what to do," she says. "We just did whatever the counselor told us to do and thought was best."

Around that time, Rebecca's home life changed. Nell left Rebecca's stepfather for another partner and began a long-term relationship. The home rules became more relaxed than before. One time, Rebecca says she was caught with marijuana by Nell's new partner, but was never punished. At age 16, Rebecca dropped out of school and started getting drunk and partying with friends. She would run away for weeks at a time, returning home only for food and a shower. Nell put alarms on the windows, but that didn't stop Rebecca from sneaking out of the house.

"I was scared to death for her because she wasn't making very good choices," says Nell.

At age 17, Rebecca came home pregnant. Teenage pregnancy wasn't unusual in Rebecca's family; both her mother and grandmother started rearing children in their late teens. But, unlike them, Rebecca didn't have a husband or a family-all she had was herself.

After giving birth to her first son, Cameron, in 1998, Rebecca lost an unusual amount of weight. She started keeping odd hours and was up all the time. Rebecca had discovered the drug methamphetamine and had become addicted.

Rebecca says she started using because of the stress related to raising a newborn. However, she did have substantial help from her mom, who provided some childcare. The two worked opposite shifts in order to care for Cameron. As Rebecca started flaking out on her parenting responsibilities, Nell remembers talking to Rebecca about her irresponsible behavior.

"I don't mind watching the baby while you're at work, but I'm not going to take care of [Cameron] all the time. You don't need to be out there doing that kind of crap," Nell told her daughter.

But before Rebecca decided to get her priorities straight, the legal system determined them for her. Rebecca had stolen checks, and the police finally caught up with her. Facing a four-year probation sentence, Rebecca's custody of Cameron was challenged by Cameron's biological father and his family.

With her daughter facing a criminal charge and not having enough money to fight the custody battle, Nell was helpless and had little recourse. Cameron was 6 months old when he left Rebecca's care. Nell remembers the devastation.

"I tried to challenge them, and I got to the point where I figured out that I don't have the resources," she says. "It didn't help me legally that I was the grandmother and not the mother."

Relapse and Recovery

While serving her probation sentence, Rebecca met her first husband, John. From the start, Nell didn't have a good impression of John, and remembers him as a convicted felon with a bad disposition. It didn't help that Rebecca and John occasionally snuck into Nell's apartment and took things.

Knowing that her mom didn't approve of her relationship, Rebecca got married and didn't invite Nell to the wedding. Rebecca and John had a son, Ian, in 1999 and moved to Canon City in 2000.

After John violated his parole and returned to prison, Rebecca was left alone to raise Ian.

Hanging out with a new group of friends, Rebecca started using meth again and began stealing to support her habit. In what was perhaps her lowest moment, Rebecca stole jewelry from an acquaintance and checks from a patient who lived at a nursing home.

Perhaps Rebecca's biggest regret during that time is the unwise choices she made in relationships, which she says put her closer to crime.

"I've always been with a man that I've done my crimes with-it's stupid," she says.

For women, romantic relationships are one of the pathways to prison, Donner says.

"It's the choice in male relationships [where] oftentimes the men are involved in criminal activity, and [women] get pulled into that. It's almost more a lifestyle than an intention to be a criminal," she says.

It's hard for Rebecca to think back to the time that she stole from the weak to get drug money.

"I was just an addict trying to make myself high," she says.

Rebecca was sentenced to one year. She lost custody of Ian to social services before she left for prison.

For Nell, it was torture to see her adult daughter making poor decisions. Having provided support and guidance on many occasions, Nell grew more frustrated, and couldn't understand why Rebecca continued her behavior.

"I would talk to her and try to figure out the best thing to do, and she'd do whatever the heck she wanted to do," says Nell. "It would just get her into trouble, and I wouldn't have any idea what motivated her to do that."

During these years, Nell says she developed an anxiety disorder for which she had to take medication. It wasn't until Rebecca moved to Canon City, and Nell eventually moved back to the East Coast, that she realized her daughter was the primary source of her anxiety.

"It was terrible. It would make my heart flutter, and I couldn't breathe," she says. "I never directly related it to my daughter and all the fun things I had to deal with."

Nell visited Rebecca in prison, and she continued to write Rebecca after she moved to the East Coast. But because collect calls from prison are so expensive, Nell and Rebecca talked about once a month.

Rebecca divorced John in prison and in 2004 moved to Denver for a substance abuse program. Rebecca says she was ready to confront her drug problem. She began a two-month long drug treatment program at the Haven. While Rebecca was ready to make a new life for herself, her environment made it difficult to do so. She lived in a halfway house with other parolees and regularly came in contact with people who were violating their parole and using drugs.

"It was hard for me seeing people all jacked up," she says. "It made me want to see if I could get away with it-but I didn't."

Further obstacles came from the parole classes Rebecca had to take and the regular scheduling conflicts they caused with her job. The fact that she had to use public transportation didn't make her life any easier. Rebecca had some support from her mom, but most of her friends were still in prison. It was beginning to look like life on the outside wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

Wanting to go back to prison isn't that uncommon for convicted criminals, says Donner.

"When you go from an institutionalized place, your life has been managed. People tell you when to get up and when to eat-you make virtually no decisions for yourself," she says. "I think for a lot of people, they are overwhelmed with trying to get back on their feet, and they give up because they don't know how to do it. I don't know that this is a question of weakness-these are overwhelming barriers for a lot of people."

In September of 2004, Rebecca met Chris Hutton, a tall, talkative Californian in his 40s. Chris had been in and out of the prison system in California and Colorado for decades and was finishing what he hoped to be his final parole sentence. The two crossed paths outside a parole office in Denver. Chris gave Rebecca his number, and they ended up going out on a date.

Rebecca liked Chris because he was mellow, kind and wasn't violent like the other men she had dated. Chris also had aspirations. He dreamed about leaving his life as a drug dealer and heroin addict and becoming a tattoo artist. Eventually, Chris hoped to own his own shop.

Based on his own parole experiences, Chris encouraged Rebecca not to give up.

"They set you up to fail pretty much," he says. "They set you up for this class and that class-one might be on a Tuesday and the other on a Wednesday. If you don't find a job in three weeks, they're going to send you back for not working."

As the two fell in love, life grew complicated. Chris was a convicted felon, and the conditions of Rebecca's parole restricted her from associating with felons like Chris-even though he was no longer on parole. She experienced a similar predicament with her younger brother, who also had a felony record.

The social void that Rebecca experienced is not uncommon, Donner says, and can impact women more than men because women tend to be more relationship-orientated.

"If your family wasn't an option and your friends weren't an option, what would you do? Who would be your support system? How would you make new connections in your life?" she asks.

Considering that many parolees are busy running between classes, work and other responsibilities, there's little time to make new friends or acquaintances, she says.

Rebecca and Chris continued their relationship for two months, but Rebecca's parole officer finally caught up with them. Both Rebecca and Chris were charged with "interference with the police" in November of 2004.

Struggling to keep her addicition under control, Rebecca relapsed and used drugs with Chris.

"She asked me to do [it], I told her no," he says. "One day, we just broke down and went to her friend's house and got high."

Rebecca later failed a urine test, which all parolees are required to take.

With new charges, authorities sent Rebecca back behind bars to serve one and a half years of her parole sentence. At the time that Rebecca learned about her new sentence, she also learned she was pregnant with her first daughter, Trinity.

New Challenges

Being pregnant in prison wasn't easy for Rebecca. Reclusive and quiet by nature, her pregnancy attracted a lot of attention. People always wanted to touch her belly, she says. Rebecca remembers sounds seeming louder and being more irritable than normal. All she hoped for was peace and quiet.

Rebecca gave birth to her first daughter without the company of family, friends or her husband. The birth wasn't complicated, and the hospital gave Rebecca an epidural. Rebecca came up with the name Trinity because it means "three," and Trinity was the third member of the Hutton family. Rebecca had little time to bond with her daughter, she says, but managed to stretch the time out so she could be with her newborn.

With Chris unable to take custody of Trinity, Rebecca contacted New Horizons Ministry and applied for its child-care program. New Horizons is one of the few programs that works with moms who give birth in prison and don't have family to rely upon for support.

During the remainder of her prison sentence, Rebecca had weekly and sometimes bi-weekly visitations with Trinity.

Chris established a common-law marriage with Rebecca while she was behind bars, but wasn't able to call or write because of his felon status. The two had agreed to officially marry when the state released Rebecca from prison. During his arduously long wait, Chris worked several jobs and saved money for his new family. He collected a few rings for his bride-to-be and thought about the day they could marry.

In the spring of 2006, the Colorado Department of Corrections released Rebecca with about four months remaining on her parole sentence.

Although Rebecca had challenges before, she had many more being a mom and parolee. But this time, there was an incentive: Rebecca wanted desperately to gain custody of Trinity. In the grand scheme of things, work, therapy, classes and urine tests seemed logistically possible.

Even though they were married, Rebecca wasn't allowed to live with Chris as a parolee. She applied for and was accepted into a halfway house geared toward women, called the Matthews Center in Denver.

During this time, Rebecca and Chris visited Trinity as much as they could. Starting with a few hours every week, they eventually earned weekend visits with their daughter. According to Laura, a caretaker with New Horizons, Chris and Rebecca were great parents and showed a tremendous amount of affection for Trinity.

"Rebecca and Chris were really good about giving clothes, and they bought a car seat for Trinity," she says. "You could tell that they cared about Trinity. Not very many parents do that."

On Saturday, May 13, Rebecca gained full custody of Trinity. As Trinity became more involved in Rebecca's life, Nell became a part of Rebecca's daily activities as well. Rebecca called her mom with questions about bug bites and other parenting dilemmas. They began exchanging pictures through e-mail. Nell sent Rebecca helpful items for Rebecca's home.

Nell also warmed up to Chris, who is the same age as his mother-in-law. While that was perhaps an initial stumbling block, Nell says she respects Chris because he takes good care of her daughter and loves her. "He provided a house for her and had a ring waiting for her," she says. "I don't care what age he is -- I just want him to be good to my daughter." A third try

Now that Rebecca has finished her parole, she's a full-time, stay-at-home mom. In some ways, being at home all the time is more stressful than working, she says. It helps that Chris often comes home from work and helps feed Trinity and change diapers, she says.

While they're learning how to be parents, Chris and Rebecca are also figuring out how to live a clean life-together. Recently, the two encountered a good deal of stress when Chris' shop was robbed and their car broke down. In spite of the stress and recent challenges, Chris says that both he and Rebecca have stayed drug free.

"We have to talk about it," he says. "It hit Rebecca more than me as far as triggers and having an urge. If I was going to use, I would just go out. When I decide not to, I stay clean."

Jokes Rebecca: "He's too old to do drugs, anyway."

Despite the fact that he and Rebecca have used drugs together, Chris says he isn't worried about using again.

"I've shot heroin since I've been 14. I've never been married and had a kid," he says. "Life is too good out here. I'll lose everything if I ever get like I was."

There are a lot of factors that determine whether women like Rebecca can beat the system, Donner says. Rebecca's ability to stay sober, her support system and the stability of her relationships will play major roles in her recovery, she says.

"There's a lot of different recovery patterns," says Donner. "You have to build a life that you really want and that you feel connected to."

But there's a lot working against convicts, she says.

"This is the cat chasing its tail. Prison doesn't cure addiction any more than it cures mental illness or it cures poverty or lack of job training," she says. "People come out with the same problems they had before."

Chris and Rebecca say they've found other things to replace their drug use. Both like to spend time with Trinity, take her for walks and go to the park. Chris took Rebecca to a show at Red Rocks a few weeks ago. Rebecca stays in close contact with her mom and will visit with her in New Jersey in August.

During her visit, they plan to arrange a family picture with Rebecca's grandmother, great-grandmother and Trinity-five generations of women total. For both Rebecca and Nell, the picture signifies change. But this time around, change seems to be heading for better-not worse.

Having watched her daughter flounder in the system for years, Nell can't help but to feel a sense of hope for Rebecca this time around.

"Trinity's name is for three; it's [Rebecca's] third try," she says. "She's got to do it right this time-[Rebecca] said that when she was born."

Happy to be done with parole and walking on eggshells, Rebecca is heading into uncharted territory. While the future will prove challenging, Rebecca says she doesn't want to do drugs anymore.

In stark contrast to before, Rebecca says she knows what will motivate her to move forward and live a drug-free life.

"My daughter keeps me strong and keeps me sober -- I have a responsibility," she says. "Having my daughter changed my life."

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