BILLINGS -- Lisa Hammond won't let her past define her.
Her life has included an alcoholic father, an abusive stepfather, several failed marriages, drug addiction and the loss of custody of her three children. In 2005, she was convicted of two felony drug charges after months of recurring jail stints.
“I re-offended over and over again,” Hammond said. “I didn’t know how to cope with life, and I used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and escape reality.”
Hammond, 49, has been out of the correctional system for almost four years and will celebrate six years of sobriety this month.
But she's an exception. Almost 40 percent of women released from the Montana Women’s Correctional Center will re-offend within three years of their release. Most commit the same crimes that landed them in prison in the first place.
In October Hammond became a volunteer mentor with the Montana Women's Prison Reentry Initiative. She said she hopes to be a positive role model for women preparing to move from incarceration back into the community.
It's a path she knows well.
“I am also a felon,” Hammond told a group of inmates at the women’s prison on Dec. 19. “I’m here tonight because when I was released I had one person who believed in me and didn’t give up on me. I want to be that for you, someone you can identify with and someone that will offer you hope.”
Called the Montana Mentoring Project, the pilot program, which began in November, aims to shut the prison’s revolving door by providing support to women who are considered medium- to high-risk repeat offenders and are six months to one year away from their release. The goal is to reduce the recidivism rate by 50 percent.
“The overall goals of the program are public safety and providing the necessary tools that seem to hold promise that women will not re-offend,” said Kim Gillan, program director for Montana Women’s Prison Initiatives.
The correctional center is one of 10 women’s prisons in the nation awarded the Second Chance Act grant. The two-year federal grant of nearly $300,000 is operated by Montana State University Billings and is designed to help communities develop ways to reduce recidivism.
Gillan and Cindy Bell coordinated programming for the grant from the Downtown MSUB campus, which offers three programs through the Montana Re-entry Initiative.
The project emphasizes academic and workforce skills but also encourages female inmates to build healthy relationships with people committed to the success of their re-entry into the community.
Thirteen volunteer mentors who have been previously incarcerated and have successfully re-entered the community or have faced such challenges as substance abuse, domestic abuse and poverty are matched with inmates who face similar hurdles.
The mentors and the inmates meet twice a month in jail as a large group focusing on resources and addressing individual needs of offenders. Once an inmate is released, a mentor follows her throughout the re-entry process with additional training that focuses on financial education, relationship counseling and career counseling.
Recidivism rates are measured over three years after release. The Department of Corrections considers that period adequate time to determine an offender’s willingness to obey laws and comply with conditions of their release.
The reasons women are sent back to prison are numerous, said program coordinator Tracy Crabtree.
Some fall quickly back into substance abuse or come out broke and turn to the familiar criminal enterprise when they can’t find work, she said.
“Without education, job skills and healthy relationships, offenders are likely to re-offend,” Crabtree said. “It’s important that we create a safety net for these women, so if they start to fall, they won’t fall all the way back into the system.”
Another component of the program is helping inmates gain self-esteem, she said.
“A lot of the issues stem from never having anyone believe in them,” Crabtree said. “They learn self-sabotage and distrust.”
Crabtree tells the group of women during their fourth meeting that “now is the only moment that counts.” She explained that being in the present helps them move ahead.
Tonya Winger, 37, of Eureka, has been in and out of the women’s prison for the past 16 years. She is one of five inmates participating in the mentoring project.
After serving six years of a 20-year sentence, Winger was transferred in 2003 into Alpha House, at that time a coed prerelease center in Billings, where she was scheduled to spend one year as an inmate worker before being released on probation.
Instead, Winger walked away from the center and was convicted of felony escape.
She will meet with a screening committee on Jan. 10 and ask to be approved for the Passages prerelease program in 2013 in lieu of serving the remainder of her sentence in prison. If the committee rejects her request, Winger’s next opportunity for release will be in March 2014 when she is up for parole, she said.
“This is my third time here,” Winger told the mentoring group. “I’m here because I know I’ll need a better support system this time around when I get out.”
After previous releases, Winger said, she was surrounded by negative influences that accentuated her anger, fear and drug addiction that were behind her decades of trouble.
The majority of women are serving time in the prison for nonviolent offenses. Among the most common crimes for female offenders are theft, embezzlement and drug possession, according to the Corrections Department.
Leah Brooks, 31, was sentenced to 36 months in September 2011 for violating parole after a drug possession conviction.
“I can’t go home when I’m released,” Brooks said. “My family, they’re not bad people, but they’re not sober.”
Brooks said the mentoring program will be an important fixture in her life.
“I have values and morals,” she said, “but I also have an addictive personality. I have to learn to stay away from things and people that will hurt me.”
She said she doesn’t need people to do things for her, but she needs the support system that the project provides.
“I want to rectify my life, learn how to do this functionally,” Brooks said. “The women here — they help us to believe in ourselves and remind us that we can make it right.”
Bell said the re-entry programs are important not only to the women involved but also to the community and the state.
On Dec. 26, it cost taxpayers about $19,450 to house the prison’s 187 inmates at the average rate of $104 per inmate per day, according to the Corrections Department. Annually, that amounts to more than $7 million. The average length of stay for a female inmate is 17.5 months.
By comparison, the daily cost to supervise a woman in a prerelease center is $64 and only $4.62 to supervise a woman on probation or parole.
The prison’s population nearly tripled between 2002 and 2006 before community corrections programs and treatment were options. Over the past four years, there has been a nearly 25 percent decrease in the prison population.
Ninety-seven percent of offenders will be released. But the steep climb out of prison often brings a life hemmed in by the stigma of inmates' pasts, Hammond said.
“When I got out of prison, a big challenge was feeling like I had a black cloud of labels floating over my head,” she said.
"There is a common core of beliefs that all the inmates share, that I once shared. And that is the belief that we're not good enough, not smart enough and that no matter what, we are going to fail. In the beginning, it's just easiest to believe these lies.
"But we're here to show these women that the work starts here, and the miracle happens outside these four walls."