Women in alternative custody share apartments on a residential street. (Julie Small/KQED)
She married the wrong person, started doing drugs with him, and by the time they broke up, she’d lost her job. In order to buy drugs, she wrote bad checks and got caught. That’s how Christina Contreras ended up in prison.
Seven years into her sentence, Contreras felt ready to leave -- and start a new life.
“I didn’t think that I was going to have any problems and I would just go back to life as normal.” Contreras said. “But as soon as I got out I started having anxiety, and it’s just hard to get grounded again.”
Contreras got counseling to deal with that anxiety in the Alternative Custody Program she’s been in since April. It’s a live-in program with roughly 40 women on Treasure Island, halfway across the bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland. The former navy base is close enough to school, jobs and medical care -- but far enough away from the hustle of the city. A parole officer supervises the women -- and they have to wear GPS ankle monitors at all times.
Contreras says any comparison to prison ends there.
“This is more like real life. And it’s easier to work on myself and my goals and my issues by being around people that care. In prison it doesn’t feel like anybody cares about you.”
Contreras says she was surprised to find a room waiting for her that looked nothing like a prison cell. She and other women share apartments on a residential street. Each unit has a kitchen, private bathrooms, a couple of bedrooms to share and a backyard. The women get to pick out their own furniture from a big warehouse of donated goods.
Two of the houses allow women to live with their children.
Sarah Schoenberger, who oversees parenting classes, says family reunions can be rough.
“The children in many cases have acting-out behaviors because they don’t understand why their momma hasn’t been with this all this time.” She says. “The women don’t understand how to deal with those behaviors. They’re thinking, ‘I haven’t seen you in so long. Can’t we all just be happy and be a family?’ ”
By all accounts, alternative custody provides women with time and resources to tackle these types of challenges, so it’s surprising so few prisoners get into the program. When it started three years ago, prison officials anticipated that thousands of female inmates would take part. But just 425 women have made it through.
“Going back out can be daunting,” explains Jill Brown. She helped create the alternative custody program -- and she’s still working to improve it.
Brown says one big obstacle is that the women have to volunteer -- and though it may sound counterintuitive, many won’t. “Especially if you’ve been in custody more than once, and the last time you went out it didn’t really work and you ended up back in custody.”
Another obstacle is the application process. It’s complex and time-consuming. It takes the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation anywhere from six months to a year to make a decision. Christina Contreras said she waited 15 months to get into the program.
“I just cringed when I heard her say that,” says Brown, who recently streamlined the process to eventually get it down to four months. “That’s just not acceptable for us. It should never take that long.”
There’s a new reason to make alternative custody work better. This year a federal court ordered California to expand the program as a way to reduce prison overcrowding. To comply, prison officials recently opened a facility in San Diego just like the one on Treasure Island.
There’s also a push to expand the program to men. Inmate William Sassman is suing the state for rejecting his application for alternative custody. His attorney, Gay Grunfeld, says Sassman needs to connect to his two kids as much as any female prisoner would.
“He could support himself and his family," Grunfeld said. "He would earn a lot more out in the community than he could possibly earn in prison, and he could see his children much more easily.”
A federal judge will hear Sassman’s case next year.
Christina Contreras says alternative custody has given her a running start. She found a job as a prep cook. She’s saving her pay for the day she can return home to Red Bluff (Tehama County) to be near her daughter and grandchildren. And that’s another huge change. During the seven years Contreras was imprisoned her family never visited, but recently her daughter was able to bring a grandchild to Treasure Island.
“Peaceful” is how Christina Contreras imagines her life after release will be. “All that bad stuff’s behind me. I’m just going to move forward. I’m finally happy now, for the first time ever, I think.”
Contreras will be released the day after Christmas.