Helping to build new lives
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Williston resident Lisa Riley could have gone home after she was released from a Florida prison earlier this year.
Instead, the 43-year-old chose to live in Alachua County where she is the first female resident of the House of Hope, a faith-based program in Gainesville offering housing and support to former inmates.
Organizers say expanding the program to accept women who are former inmates fills a needed niche in the state's corrections system.
Although men far outnumber women in Florida's prisons, the number of female inmates is keeping pace with the growing number of people incarcerated, meaning more women are being sentenced to prison. Florida's prisons housed 5,299 women in mid-2004 compared to 4,019 at about the same time in 2000.
The state prison population also increased from 67,214 in 2000 to 76,675 in 2004.
Nationally, 101,848 women were being held in state and federal prisons at the end of 2004. They constituted 7 percent of inmates, an increase from 6.1 percent in 1995.
"It's time for me to do some things for me right now," Riley said in explaining her decision to spend the next six months in the House of Hope instead of returning home.
The Levy County resident may have served her prison sentence, but said she's not ready to go back to the area where she first started using crack cocaine and later was arrested for forgery.
"I'm hoping to accomplish how to live free, how to be completely honest with myself, how to live," Riley said. "Just get my life structured."
Riley has criminal charges dating back to 1983, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Most recently she was sentenced to a year and a day in prison on forgery charges.
In prison, Riley said she learned from a chaplain about the House of Hope program. The nonprofit program began operating in Gainesville in 1996.
Participants live in a structured environment that requires them to abide by a curfew, perform Bible study, and seek and keep a job.
About 250 men have gone through the program since it began, said founder Thomas Johnson.
He started the program after serving time in prison in New York on charges of carrying a loaded gun and sale and distribution of crack. The program has a nonrecidivism rate of 85 percent, he said.
But this is the first year that the House of Hope has accepted women that are former inmates. The women live in a separate building from men participating in the program. Three slots are available for women and nine for men.
The program operates independently of state or government funding, using donations from churches, businesses and individuals, Johnson said.
Participants also pay rent and perform chores while living at the house.
Riley now works at a local McDonald's, getting up early throughout the week to get to her job by 4:30 a.m.
Joanna Lee, who serves as the director of the house where Riley lives, helped the woman find employment.
Like Johnson, Lee said she can relate to the program's residents and their struggles.
"It was a life of hell," Lee said about her own personal history several years ago. Lee said she used to be a drug addict. She also was involved in prostitution and suffered from health problems, but said she was "saved" when she found God. Now, Lee said, she's "clean" and serves as a guide and example to others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
"They can't sell us anything we haven't suffered ourselves," Johnson said, explaining how he and Lee translate their own life experiences into lessons for the program's participants. "We both know what it is to be on drugs, to be no good, to be shiftless and lazy. And we know what it is to be reborn."
Florida has six correctional institutions that house female inmates including Hillsborough Correctional Institution.
Like the House of Hope, the prison is faith-based, one of three such prisons in the state.
While the Hillsborough County prison offers women the same opportunities as men receive at the state's other two faith-based facilities, Riley said there aren't enough opportunities for female inmates hoping to improve their lives.
"Men have all kinds of jobs they can do," she said, referring to job opportunities inside the prison system.
The same isn't true for women.
If she had the chance, Riley said she would ask legislators to provide more funding and chances for women in prison as well as opportunities for inmates with shorter prison terms like hers to get involved in prison programs offering training and education.
And, Riley said, "Open more programs like this."
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@ gvillesun.com.
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