Welcome Home Women
It's Not Just a Free Ride.
It's Not Just a Free Ride.
It's 5:15 a.m., and the stars are still twinkling above the Vista jail. A tall thin woman with stringy blond hair and torn jeans strides purposefully through the automatic double door that empties newly released inmates into the lobby. She beelines for the pay phone on the wall, then punches in the numbers.
"Where the f- are you?" she shouts into the receiver. "I'm here in the f-ing lobby."
A pause, then, "Well, I can't wait. I'm going down Melrose now and get me some f-ing smokes!"
The woman slams down the receiver and storms through the exit.
Veronica Thompson sits quietly, observing the tantrum. She, too, has just been released from jail. But in her case, a Welcome Home Ministries volunteer will be there shortly to treat her to breakfast, shower her with small gifts and new clothing, and buy her a train ticket to San Diego.
Welcome Home is a two-year-old volunteer program that helps female inmates bridge the gap between jail and the community by providing material, emotional, social and spiritual support. Thompson will be invited to join other ex-inmates at support groups, prayer meetings and social gatherings. The goal is to help Thompson and women like her become responsible parents and citizens, and most of all, to stay out of jail.
It won't be easy. Up to two-thirds of all inmates who are released return to jail within weeks, and women face greater obstacles to remaining on the outside than men, according to Prison Fellowship, a national prison ministry. Many of the ex-inmates are young mothers trying to re-establish a life with their estranged children. They may be homeless, have unstable employment records and suffer from mental problems. And those who leave the Vista jail depart with anything but encouragement.
"They are released at 5:30 in the morning without money, clothes that don't fit (most gain weight while serving time), and with no one to pick them up except for the people who helped get them into jail in the first place," says Carmen Warner-Robbins, Vista jail chaplain and founder of Welcome Home Ministries.
"There is a critical need to intervene in this cycle of release and re-entry, and there really are no programs to help these women. We must have a way to integrate them into stable, caring, productive environments. They need an alternative to the lifestyle that brought them to this point in their lives."
Most women learn about the ministry during a re-entry class at the Vista jail.
"We tell them that Welcome Home is not just a free ride," said Gloria Gayton, a counselor with the county-funded North County Community Services. "We tell them they have to get involved and become a part of the community. If they're not ready for us, we can't help them."
A few do take the free ride and disappear, Warner-Robbins said, but that's OK.
"The seed has been planted and they have my card. They are testing. They want to do the reaching out and the saying no. Sometimes they come about, and if we're there when they are ready, it may be the first time in their lives that someone hasn't left them."
So far, Warner-Robbins, who lives in Encinitas, has run the program with no office, no paid staff and less than $5,000 in donations. This has been used mostly to pay for transportation, emergency housing and the women's medical and dental needs. The chaplain's dream-budget would about $60,000: $40,000 to pay a counselor and a secretary,and the rest for operating expenses.
Warner-Robbins pays for phone, postage, mileage and other incidentals out of her own pocket, which in any three-month period is more than $350.
"I want the money we have to be used directly for the women," she said. "We have about $600 left now and I'm a little nervous, but people will help us."
Some already have. Warner-Robbins' friends and co-workers make monthly pledges. The Los Siervos Resale Shop in Vista donates some of its profits to Welcome Home and employs some of the women, who are paid in merchandise. And a free dental clinic at St. Leo's Catholic Church in Solana Beach is providing care to several of the women, whose years of drug abuse and lack of hygiene have caused extensive decay, infection, gum disease and tooth loss.
At the top of Warner-Robbins' wish-list, though, is a van.
"A lot more women would be active if we had a way to provide transportation, especially for those in South County. They can't come to a lot of activities because they have to take the bus."
Since its founding in December 1996, Welcome Home has helped about 110 women. About 30 are active members; another 30 are busy with school and work and stay in contact via phone and mail. About 20 are in drug rehabilitation programs, and the whereabouts of the rest are unknown.
A few have returned to jail briefly for failing to drug-test on time and for other probation violations.
"If they're back in jail, I hear about it," Warner-Robbins said. "The network is pretty solid."
Welcome Home works with the county-funded North County Community Services office in Oceanside, where counselors help former inmates obtain such practical necessities as identification cards; drivers' licenses; jobs; schooling; child care; health care; and emergency food, clothing and shelter.
But it's Welcome Home that gives them a sense of community. In the last year, participants have gathered for potluck dinners, a pajama party, a pool party and prayer meetings. The group has even thrown bridal and baby showers and a wedding.
The ministry demands, though, that the women give back. Alumnae help new members; visit those still in jail (studies show that women inmates get far fewer visits than men); and make presentations to community organizations, schools and churches.
Some of the women have participated in several projects: a doctoral study on the re-integration of former female inmates into the community; a book containing the autobiographies of about a dozen of the women; and a video, filmed and directed by a San Diego Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who donated his time and talent. Warner-Robbins will use the video to help raise money to support the ministry.