The State of Alabama has decided Charla Smith is ready to leave Tutwiler prison. Smith is not sure, the Birmingham News reports. “I’ve been on drugs since I was 13. I’ve never held a job, never balanced a checkbook,” she said at Tutwiler, where she has spent 8½ years. “I’ve been here so long, I’m afraid I won’t know how to interact in society.”
Four days later, Smith, 30, walked through the clanging iron gates, one of hundreds of women paroled under the state’s plan to comply with a court order to ease Tutwiler’s dangerously crowded dorms. The state cut Smith a $10 check, gave her a bus ticket back to Birmingham where she’d committed her crimes — forging checks to buy drugs — and provided a 10-day supply of the pills she needs for bipolar disorder.
Parolees like Smith are arriving in Alabama neighborhoods in greater numbers than ever. Halfway houses and drug rehabilitation centers are scrambling to find space, especially for women. These programs provide drug treatment and life skills to the newly free. They provide a place to live but usually charge rent. They help felons find jobs. But there is little funding, and the agencies are overwhelmed. Some people who work in the field fear that without more services, jobless parolees will wind up relapsing or stealing to survive.
“We’re very committed to do it. But it’s like a flood, opening a floodgate. The system hasn’t been built to respond to this need,” said Chris Retan, director of Aletheia House, a Birmingham drug rehab agency that houses parolees and others. Speedy dockets for nonviolent prisoners have resulted in 576 parolees since April. Of those, 297 are women. The state parole board received $1 million to hire more officers. But no state money was set aside for halfway houses.