A Second Chance
BACK IN MARCH, Debra Williams had what should have been reason to celebrate: after three years of incarceration at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., she had been granted parole. It was conditional, however, on her ability to present an approved plan for where she was going to live once she left prison, and Debra had nowhere to go.
“While I was incarcerated I lost both my mom and my dad,” Debra says. “I had lost contact with the rest of my family a long time ago. I didn’t have anyone.” Even the halfway house that had accepted her had a long waiting list. “I made parole, but I couldn’t leave.”
Then she heard about Aid to Inmate Mothers, or AIM, a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping women who are incarcerated or about to be released from prison. AIM had recently opened the AIM Service Center, a transitional residential facility, in Montgomery and invited Debra to come and live there.
The parole board gave its blessing, so on June 25, Debra walked out a free woman, headed for a new home and hopeful for a second chance.
AIM serves incarcerated women in Alabama by providing emotional, material, and logistical support both before and after their release to promote successful transitions back into the community. While some aspects are designed specifically for inmate mothers—bringing children for monthly visitations with their moms and helping the moms make DVD recordings of children’s books for their kids—the goal for all inmates, including those like Debra who do not have dependent children, is to help them regain a sense of dignity and humanity.
“At the root of a lot of the women’s issues is very poor self-confidence,” says executive director Carol Potok. “When they’re mothers, piled onto that is the desperation they feel about their children, so we work to help them reconnect and rebuild their relationships. At the same time, we provide re-entry classes, parenting classes, women’s health education, and help them set life goals so when they get home, they’re not just at sea.”
Debra was not involved in AIM programs while in prison and had no idea what to expect the day AIM program coordinator, Karen Carr arrived to take her to her new home. First, Debra was handed a new purse filled with soaps, shampoos, makeup, and other personal items from volunteers who donate these supplies for women to receive on the day of their release.
One of these volunteers is Shannon Burgett, who first found out about AIM when she happened to come across the website and began organizing co-workers and members of her church to collect items for purses as well as baskets full of household supplies.
“The first thing that hit me was, it didn’t matter to me why they were in jail,” she says. “What mattered was when they were getting out and how they would need just some basic, day-to-day things.”
For Debra, who hadn’t received so much as a letter in the mail during the long years she was incarcerated, receiving one of these purses felt like a stunning gesture of kindness. It was only the beginning. Next, Karen drove Debra to the AIM Service Center and took her upstairs to see her new room.
“When I walked in, my bed was full of clothes and brand-new hygiene products, and she said, ‘All this is yours. We’re going to help you through this.’”
Talking candidly about her past, Debra describes a life that felt lost long before she entered prison. She left home at 16, struggled with drug addiction and lived on the streets. Now 35, for the first time she was beginning to understand what it felt like for someone to care about her and her future. The staff helped her use the Internet to start reaching out to her family members—a slow but hopeful process, she says, after so many years of estrangement. She is attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The staff even helped her apply for ID and Social Security cards.
“It’s the stuff people take for granted, but I didn’t have any of that.”
Then came the break she least expected: they told her about a job opening in the office of a local political party. Debra thought her chances were slim but went for an interview anyway.
“When they said they were hiring me, I just couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “Who would have thought I would have a job just a few weeks after I got out of prison?”
Now, Debra says, she is beginning to believe that anything is possible. “You can do so much when you know you have support,” she says. “It brightens you. It makes you want to be somebody.
“I don’t think about what I used to be anymore,” she adds. “Now all I think about is what I can be.”
For more information on AIM, please visit http://www.inmatemoms.org.
SHANNON BURGETT is a Regions associate in Birmingham, Alabama.