This article was originally published on TimesFreePress.com.
Prison is gray concrete and no privacy.
Women entering for the first time strip naked, squat and cough. Then it's two to a cell with a shared toilet.
"You always had to courtesy flush," notes Donna Stephenson, who served time for stealing items worth more than $500 in 2008 — a felony in Tennessee. She stole to pay off drug dealers, to feed her addiction to painkillers.
In prison, she was a number.
"343682," she rattles off now. "Occasionally they'd say 'Stephenson!' But never 'Donna.' Never like I was a human."
She served seven months in 2008, then was released on parole. On her way out, officials gave her $30.
"The very day I got home, I'm ashamed to say I took it and went and got a pill," Stephenson said.
Stephenson, 49, lived as a self-described "hard-core, active addict" for years — taking hydrocodone, oxycodone, heroin, crack, crack cocaine — and stealing from anyone she could to pay for the drugs. She initially got hooked on painkillers after she was injured in a serious car accident at age 23.
By 2010 she was back in jail for violating her probation. With four months left on her sentence in 2011, officials sent her to Chattanooga — to a new correctional release facility, the only one in the state — where the staff promised to prepare her for the free world with intensive, one-on-one therapy and training.
She entered The Next Door, Chattanooga's facility on Moccasin Bend, with mixed emotions, leery of the program.
But she hasn't touched drugs since. On Oct. 18, she'll mark five years clean.
"They taught me to respect myself, to respect others," Stephenson said Thursday. "I got a lot of hope back."
Since The Next Door Chattanooga started in 2011, 329 women have completed the program. Only 7 percent are sent back to jail within three years. And just 18 percent — about 59 women — who have been out for longer than three years have gone back to jail. Those rates are remarkably low when compared to state and national rates.
In Tennessee, 42 percent of women released from prison between 2001 and 2007 landed back in jail within three years, according to a 2010 study by the Tennessee Department of Correction, the latest data available.
And nationally, 59 percent of women released from prisons in 30 states between 2005 and 2010 were rearrested within three years. That jumps to 68 percent at the five-year mark, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Next Door Chattanooga, a faith-based nonprofit, uses a mix of individual therapy, group therapy, classes, job training and activities to help female felons prepare for life outside of prison — and the approach works, said Rebekah Bohannon, Next Door's regional assistant director for East Tennessee.
"Why are we releasing [women] and expecting them to figure out on their own — with no money at this point, it's very difficult to find a job when you're a felon — and we expect them not to do what they've always done? Without providing an intervention? So, we provide the intervention. And the numbers prove that it works."
Tucked in a squat, brown building deep in the woods on a far corner of the Moccasin Bend peninsula, The Next Door Chattanooga is intentionally unprisonlike.
As many as 42 women live in three dorm-style wings, sharing a room with at least one and as many as three other women. The windows have curtains, not bars. The beds are draped in purple and blue and polka-dot comforters, the walls decorated with paintings and pictures.
The staff knock before they enter a room.
And women are called by their first names.
"We're treated as normal individuals, and we're respected," said Dorothy, who entered Next Door Chattanooga in July after eight and a half years in state prison. She is identified by her first name in this report to protect her privacy.
Dorothy was originally sentenced to 50 years for dealing drugs. After serving nine years, she was released on parole and immediately went to her then-husband — a drug dealer himself.
"I went right back into that world," she said. "It didn't take long at all."
After six years free, she was sent back to prison for another eight years. When she arrived at The Next Door, she marveled at the wooded grounds.
"We're allowed to walk outside," she said Wednesday. "The deers come out and practically eat out of your hands. And how many years had it been since I'd seen even a raccoon or a squirrel?"
Daily life at The Next Door is carefully structured. Some women are in classes from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., while others work at local businesses and restaurants. Women re-learn how to use a computer, how to fill out an online job application, how to use a smartphone. Once a month, women can go through the facility's clothing closet and pick out new outfits. The facility has an in-house shop where women can use good behavior credits to purchase snacks and supplies.
Occasionally, outside groups host dinners in the cafeteria.
"What I have found is when you set the expectation on a woman to be more than an inmate, nine times out of 10 she will be more than an inmate," Bohannon said. "If you call her by her name and say, 'I expect you to be a woman of integrity and these are the rules in place,' she will meet and exceed those expectations. When you just slap a number on her and call her 'Inmate' all the time, that is what she is going to act like."
Typically, women spend between four and six months living at The Next Door, although some women stay as long as a year. Prisoners must have less than a year left on their sentences to qualify for The Next Door, and must have a record of good behavior while in prison.
The only felons The Next Door Chattanooga does not accept are women convicted of sex offenses, because residents' children and family members visit the facility.
The warden at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville makes the final call on whether a prisoner is a good fit for The Next Door Chattanooga. Of the women who do enter the program, 87 percent finish it, Bohannon said. Four percent drop out because of technical issues like health problems or pending court dates. Nine percent are sent back to the prison because of disciplinary reasons, Bohannon said.
"What that means in my mind is if she had been released straight from prison, she would have re-offended," Bohannon said. "She would have created victims. But instead she came here, we see it didn't work, she was in a safe environment and we safely got her back to the prison."
Staff at The Next Door Chattanooga focus heavily on addiction services because most of the crimes they see are connected in some way to drugs, Bohannon added. The center also focuses treatment on relationships. Staff stay in touch with women well after they walk out the doors for the final time, in part through weekly "lifetime recovery management" therapy sessions for former residents.
The Next Door, founded in 2002, also has facilities in Nashville and Knoxville, but Chattanooga is the only location where women who are still incarcerated can live. The nonprofit recieves about a third of its funding from government grants and contracts, financial records show.
As she approaches five years without drugs, Stephenson spends most days caring for her 86-year-old father in Chattanooga, grocery shopping and keeping the house clean. She opted to stay in Chattanooga as a fresh start, instead of returning to her roots near Maryville, Tenn.
She's making up for lost time.
She still cringes when she remembers the time her mother hid her purse when Stephenson walked in the room, to keep Stephenson from stealing money. Her mother died about 18 months ago, but before she died, she stopped hiding her purse.
"I earned that trust back," Stephenson said.
She was terrified that she'd relapse as she mourned for her mom, but she didn't.
"I didn't have to," she said.
For Dorothy, what happens when she's free is still unknown.
But she has plans this time. She'll go home to Nashville, to her new husband, new friends. She's working at McDonald's now, and can see herself keeping that job.
Her sentence ends in December, on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, by her count.
She's spent a third of her life in prison. But this time will be different, she vows.
"I have so much more to look forward to," she said.