For Ava,* Unit 54 at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center feels a lot like home with its eat-in kitchen, oversized room with a television and her own wooden desk inches from her bed.
She can leave her room without permission, exercise on a treadmill or play Wii video games. Ava, 17, even enjoys doing chores, which include vacuuming and washing her own clothes and bedding.
“It’s like being at home. You have to step up and do things like wash the dishes. Being here helped me learn how to clean up after myself,” said Ava, 17, a participant in the Female Transition/Work Education Release Program (WERP).
Started in August 2010 with grants administered by the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), the program serves up to 10 female residents who are within six months of their release date or eligible for WERP. The program allows residents time to adjust to moving about without permission and deal with their upcoming freedom.
“I think the environment is very conducive to help them emotionally and mentally prepare themselves for the transition back into the community,” said Catherine Sykes, a therapist with the Behavioral Services Unit who helped to write the original grant for the program.
She credited the various weekly therapy and group sessions for helping the residents hone skills and learn strategies to become more independent. Treatment activities include individual therapy and family therapy. Group sessions examine life skills, coping skills, substance abuse and self-image and tackle issues such as dating, sexuality and self-esteem.
“We try to tailor the treatment group to the issues the residents are having at that time,” Sykes said. “We look at the whole person and try to help them navigate [numerous issues] and go back out there and contribute in a positive way to the community.”
Residents agreed that in addition to more freedom, the treatment activities are another highlight.
“At home I wasn’t talking to my family,” said Denise.* “Through group therapy, I’m learning I have some responsibilities so I know what to expect when I go home.”
Ava said she enjoys the life skills group. “They teach us table manners and how to write checks. I never did that before. It’s helping us get ready to go back home and be more responsible.”
The residents eat most meals together family-style, learning unscripted lessons on etiquette and portion control. The modified unit reminds Denise, 18, of her home, one she seldom stayed in. “I was busy running the streets and doing drugs and alcohol,” she said.
Now she no longer wants that lifestyle. The program has strengthened her resolve to make a better life for herself and her two-year-old daughter, she said.
“They give you resources to occupy your time. You have to figure out things for yourself, set goals. It’s cool being here,” she said. “It’s a stepping stone, a way to rethink, to regroup, to redo everything.”
*Fictitious names were used in this article by the DJJ Public Information Officer