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New chapters
Why a new nonprofit is helping former female inmates

01/07/16
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 When Jack and Julie McCarthy ventured out to start the Dismas Home in Manchester, the original plan was to serve men getting released from the state prison system who were at risk of re-offending. The idea was to try to give them a low-cost chance to become self-sufficient and re-acquainted with life on the outside. But partway through the planning process, the McCarthys realized that it’s women being released from prison who have an even more pressing need for support.

 
Revolving door
The key problem the McCarthys, a retired couple from North Sutton, are trying to solve is recidivism — the tendency for inmates released from prison to return soon after.
“They get out with little or no money, no real ID, no driver’s license, no car, and because they have their record of being a felon, getting a job is a very, very difficult task,” Jack McCarthy said. “So, the rate of recidivism was almost 60 percent.”
Besides a peak to about 56 percent among women in the early 2000s, overall recidivism rates have been hovering around 40 to 45 percent.
According to the Department of Corrections, the newest report is being finalized now. Preliminary numbers show that inmates from the 2010 release cohort had a 41.4 percent recidivism rate over the course of 2010, 2011 and 2012. That’s a slight decrease from the three-year period prior. 
Among those who were released from prison in 2010, the recidivism rate for men was 42.2 percent and 34.1 percent for women.
McCarthy says the deck is stacked against these individuals. 
“When they get out, they have to pay a parole fee, they have to pay for the bracelet they’re wearing that the Department of Corrections keeps track of them with. They have to pay child support if they have children, and many of the women that get out are single mothers. They have to pay restitution, and they have to pay rent and feed themselves,” McCarthy said.
That’s all while likely working a minimum wage job.
“That, frankly, forces many of them to just throw the towel in and quit and go back to doing what they were doing in the streets,” McCarthy said.
 
Why women
McCarthy and his wife are no strangers to the inmate population of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. For years, they’ve ministered to them through faith-based programs such as Kairos, which is an ecumenical men’s retreat, and AIM: Assistance for Incarcerated Marriages. 
The idea to start Dismas Home struck them when Julie was reading the Valley News and came across an article about Vermont’s fourth such house opening. 
Dismas houses are independent faith-based halfway houses for paroled inmates. Named after the penitent thief Christ was crucified beside in the Bible, the first such house was started in Tennessee, according to McCarthy. Vermont now has four while Massachusetts has two houses and one farm that uses this model.
Other Dismas houses have used college interns as staff, so the McCarthys met with officials from Saint Anselm College. But when they talked to Dan Forbes, the director of the Meelia Center for Community Engagement, and Elaine Rizzo, a criminal justice professor, they got more than they bargained for.
“During that process, they kept talking about women inmates, and we kept talking about men. And I said, ‘Wait a minute, guys. We’re doing this for the men,’” McCarthy said.
The Saint Anselm folks said they would be willing to help with either group, but having intimate knowledge of the women’s prison population and its struggles, they invited the McCarthys to learn more. 
Rizzo, it turned out, was on the Citizens Advisory Board of the women’s prison and Forbes was the coach of its softball team.
They gave the McCarthys a tour of the women’s prison and brought them to an advisory board meeting. 
What they learned, they said, was that women had inordinately fewer supports than men had upon getting cast back into the outside world.
“When a woman goes into prison, family or the husband disappears. When men go into prison, there are a lot of women that stick by him. So they have more support when they come out,” Julie McCarthy said.
As McCarthy tells it, Forbes, Rizzo and the advisory board didn’t make a hard sell, but it was hard to say no after all they had learned.
“They didn’t make the case. They opened the door for us to discover the issues that are faced by the women. The decision to do it for the women was a unanimous vote on the part of our board. We could have gone either way,” McCarthy said.
The McCarthys are hoping to someday open a similar home for men but would also like to expand the capacity for women. It’s too early to say which will happen first, since they still need to raise $150,000 to launch their first home, which will have eight beds. Women will double up in a total of four bedrooms, which are now being renovated.
The house, located at 102 4th St. in Manchester, was made available with the help of  Catholic Charities of New Hampshire and is slated to open in early 2016.  





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