Program to help women exiting prison


Cynthia Agyemang, far left, Verdell Long and Pastor Eddie Hall Jr. are among those working to establish to a faith-based transition home for women recently released from prison.

KAREN VOYLES/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

STARKE - Today, the doors will open at a unique program for women who are getting out of prison and want help integrating themselves back into society.

Chapter 2 is a faith-based residential program for nonviolent female offenders that opens this week. It has been developed as an outreach program of Hold On 2 Your Faith, a Starke ministry. State prison officials said this may be the first program of its kind in Florida.

"We're not bleeding hearts," Executive Director Eddie G. Hall Jr. said. "But we recognize that the government can't do everything."

Hall, the pastor of Hold on 2 Your Faith, said Chapter 2 has been designed to provide women who want to change their lives a place to live for up to a year. A home next to the ministry has been renovated to accommodate four women initially, along with a resident manager. Like many American homes, there is a dining room table where everyone will eat their meals together, a living room where compromises will have to be made on what television shows to watch, and a kitchen where residents will have to come up with a system to make sure everyone takes turns cooking and cleaning up.

Women who enroll in the program will be required to take classes in adult basic education and computer literacy, life skills and dressing for success. Participants will also be expected to hold down a job and to attend Christian education classes.

"If a person is a Buddhist, she will be welcome and will be allowed to practice her faith, but must still attend the Bible study classes everyone else will be attending, too," said Cynthia Agyemang, the program director. "We would not require anyone to become a Christian, but this is faith-based and our faith is Christian."

State prison officials said Chapter 2 may be the only program of its type in Florida.

"There are substance-abuse treatment facilities for women leaving prison and some women are under court order to report to one of those when they leave prison," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections. "However we are not aware of any other voluntary, post-conviction, faith-based, residential programs."

Verdell Long, the education director for Chapter 2, said women who arrive at the home should not expect a lot of hand-holding by the staff and volunteers, but they will not encounter a boot camp environment, either.

"We want to show them how to take control of their lives," Long said.

Organizers said they understand that women who are leaving prison are accustomed to having routines forced on them.

"Here we want the women to see that if they can learn their own routines and follow them, they will see the benefits of being in charge or their own lives," Long said.

All the organizers said they have heard again and again - from correctional officers, former inmates, police and others - that the biggest problem facing women leaving prison is learning how to live in the free world without making the same mistakes that sent them to prison.

"Lives are like books," Hall said. "They all have different characters and themes. We want Chapter 2 to help women change how their story turns out."

Karen Voyles can be reached at 352-359-5656 or kvoyles@gmail.com.

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