Woman changing lives with rehab home for non-violent offenders

- The numbers are staggering. Women in jail are the fastest growing incarcerated population. 

One woman who has worked in the corrections system is doing everything she can to change that. Her passion is now giving female inmates hope.    

"A lot of people get into law enforcement because they want to help people," says Shawna Reynolds. "And when you get into it, you find it is a lot harder to help people than you expect."

Shawna knew at an early age she wanted to protect and serve. She started in the reserve program as a cadet when she was just 14.

Working as a deputy in the corrections system for 17 years, her mission would begin to evolve.

"Just sitting there, listening to their stories, what their backgrounds were," she says. "Why they were there and why they kept coming back."

The numbers are staggering. Women held in local jails are the fastest growing incarcerated population. The rate has nearly tripled in recent decades and is rising.

About 2.7 million children under the age of 18 has a parent in jail.

"I actually watched moms come in, their daughters come in, their aunties," Reynolds says. "My passion was how to stop that."

It took seven years’ education, her faith, and all the money she could scrape up that would allow Shawna to create About Face Course Correction.

"The idea is you only do a half-turn because if you do a full circle you are right there where you started," she said.

A house in Dearborn Heights is home to her one-year program, focusing on the specific needs of female non-violent offenders - like 20-year-old Jennifer Douglas.

"I have lost a lot of friends because of it," Jennifer says. "Way too many to count at this point." She says her wakeup call was jail.

Jennifer was with her best friend when she died of a drug overdose. Instead of getting clean, Jennifer dropped out of school, became addicted to heroin and spent the next few years in and out jail - a vicious cycle she could not escape. 

"I have been trying since I was 17 to be sober," she says. "I was doing stuff I never would have thought I would do in my whole life. Like tricking, ways to get my drugs, you know?"

Impersonal bureaucratic programs and short stints in rehab never worked. Just like for Karen Ridge, who found herself 60 years old and living on the streets.

"I moved back here to live with a boyfriend and he was very abusive, physically, mentally," she says.

FOX 2: "So you turned to drugs and alcohol?"

"Yeah, (to) ease the pain," Karen says, adding that she ended up in jail.

FOX 2: "What's been the toughest part for you?"

"Being homeless with family here," she says.

FOX 2: "They disowned you?"

"Yes."

It was depression and a medical issue that led Nequisha Sims into a life of addiction.

"My low point was one day I couldn't find any alcohol," she says. "So I went to medicine cabinet and drank a little bit of rubbing alcohol and apparently had a seizure. My son was there; he had to be traumatized. He was the one who found me."

Patty Blackburn's darkest moment was living in vacant garages, breaking the law but unable to break her addiction.

"I have an aggravated trafficking charge, I did a year in prison for that," Patty says. "Some retail fraud and drug paraphernalia, possession of narcotics. In and out of jail.

"I have been fighting addiction for 32 years."

These women are among the first to enter About Face Course Correction.

FOX 2: "How do you reprogram someone who has been in and out of jail for most of their lives?"

"You sit down, you figure out where they are at," Shawna says. "There is not a cookie cutter set here."

Shawna has watched women stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Sometimes, it's simply because they can't pay their probation fees or complete their community service. Often they fall back into their old lives because they have no place to go.

In this program, the women are allowed to live here for free for a year. Reynolds provides classes for the women to complete their education, help to get a job, and by partnering with other non-profits, the women are able to complete their community service requirements.

"When I started here, I was very resistant to change," says Nequisha. "But now, first of all, I have a job. My kids are forgiving of me now and I have a lot of hope, I have a lot of faith."

"You can't expect people who have been behind bars to stay behind bars," Shawna says. "If you don't allow them to be restored into the community and society. You want them to be productive citizens but if you are not going to help them, it's not going to happen."

"All the women (are) there for each other," Karen says. "Plus our classes are great. I am going for my diploma now, high school diploma."

FOX 2 followed Karen, the other women and their progress over the last few months. Karen, who in her darkest time received food and shelter through the Blessed Hope Christian Church, is now working there to help provide for others.

"It feels really good," she says. "I actually got on SSI. I had no money coming in. Now I can move out at the end of the program, I hope."

After breaking her foot, Patty had to start over. She lost her job but not her drive to stay on this path.

"Not wanting to go back, honestly not wanting to go back," she says. "I struggle some days, I have my ups and my downs. A lot of praying to be honest with you. 

"I didn't care before; I didn't care if I succeeded. I actually do today it's a good feeling."

Jennifer, who came straight from jail to the program, still wears a tether - but she is making huge strides. She has almost completed her GED and her community service.

"Everyone is starting to trust me again and be proud of me and what I'm doing," she says. "It's helped me a lot. It has kept me on the right track for sure with staying sober. I am definitely going to successfully complete my probation and all of that."

To break the cycle, it takes time, each day presenting a new challenge.

"The biggest struggle for me is to keep in my sobriety," Nequisha says. "I just want to make sure I don't go back to the place I was in. There is always temptation."

So far, Nequisha has been able to overcome her demons, taking classes to council others and plans to go back to culinary school. Her motivation is never wanting her children to see her like that again.

"Waking up in hospital room seeing my whole family around me like that," she says. "I don't want them to ever see me like that again. So that's my no matter what, I am sticking to. And so far it is doing me good. Next month I'll be nine months clean."

For Shawna, it's a labor of love. She's now dedicated her life to helping these women regain theirs.

"If I get one person out of this who succeeds, then that is what I am supposed to do," she says. "Everyone likes to look at numbers and to look at statistics but this is life. We are dealing with lives."

Shawna Reynolds is using her own money and donations to pay for the house and this program. If you would like to donate, you can do so via their GoFundMe account here

To learn more about About Face, click here

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