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Helping Women Parolees Succeed : Dorothy Hoffman, 90, Is Proud of Halfway House’s Work

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It was 20 years ago, while leading a Bible study class for women at the federal prison on Terminal Island, that Dorothy Hoffman became involved with convicted criminals and their problems.

From a student in her class, she learned that some of the women had no place to go upon release from prison. Troubled by this information, she set out to find housing for them.

Through her efforts and those of “a lot of other people,” said Hoffman, Friendship House for women parolees was established 15 years ago at 940 Dawson Ave. in Long Beach. It was the first halfway house of its kind in Southern California and the sixth in the country.

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A decade ago the facility, today known as Hoffman House, opened its doors to women prisoners not yet eligible for parole, said the 90-year-old Hoffman, who lives in San Pedro and sits on the board of directors of Hoffman House. It became both a temporary home for parolees and an open-door prison for women released as much as four months before the end of their sentences under work-furlough programs.

Time and Training

Since its founding, nearly 500 women from both federal and state prisons have lived in the house, which serves 12 residents at a time, giving them the time and training needed to find jobs and prepare for re-entry into society.

“Many of them don’t know where to begin to start a new life outside prison,” said Eleanor Holland, who oversees house operations for the nonprofit organization that owns the facility. “Often they have no job skills. We teach them how to fill out a job application. We teach them to budget and to pay rent. We help them to be reunited with their children. We provide family counseling. We help them start bank accounts. We encourage them to get into substance-abuse programs, if they need it. We show a woman there are other ways of doing things than those she has known. We give her a chance.”

Each resident is required to search for a job or train to find one. The professional house staff, headed by 33-year-old Bernice Armould, provides some of this job-related information and refers the women to other agencies for additional assistance.

A resident also is required to spend one hour each week discussing her situation with one of four professional counselors on the staff. When she receives a paycheck, a resident must make out a budget, allotting half her pay to a personal savings account and $4.15 or more per day to the state or federal prison agency, which pays Hoffman House for her room and board.

Mostly State Funded

In earlier years, financial support for Hoffman House came from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, supplemented by contributions from the Long Beach Council of Churches and other organizations and individuals. Today, house expenses are largely paid by the state, which provides 10 of the residents from the California Institute for Women at Frontera, paying $39.75 a day for each.

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The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for the other two residents, pays $39.47 a day per prisoner. This payment approximates the cost of maintaining a prison inmate, but the money returned to state and federal agencies by halfway house residents with jobs reduces the cost of their support.

Though there is a family atmosphere at Hoffman House, the time and whereabouts of residents are closely monitored. After her first three days, a resident is allowed to leave the house but she must check in and out with the staff. The women are responsible for their own breakfasts and lunches; dinner is prepared by a staff cook.

Once employed, a resident may be eligible for a 36-hour weekend pass. Paychecks are used to verify that the women reported for work, and a dated program or ticket stub is requested of those who attend church or a movie. Women with a history of drug or alcohol abuse are subject to frequent urinalyses.

Willingness to Help

“Some people have problems here because they don’t like to deal with authority,” said one resident. “But I think we all think it’s a worthwhile program. The staff is always willing to help. They not only help you get a job but help you deal with your problems and frustrations while you’re here. They even help you deal with your family. You don’t have to handle everything in your life at once.”

She said staff members helped her get into the Job Search Assistance program at Cal State Long Beach and arranged to have the usual fee waived. A week of training in job hunting and interviewing techniques gave her the self-confidence to handle telling a prospective employer of her prison status, she said, noting that she quickly found a computer data-entry job that utilized the experience she had acquired before imprisonment.

Not many of the women at Hoffman House match her level of job skills or succeed so quickly. About 80% are high school dropouts and many have been mothers at 16 or 17, according to staff director Armould.

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Strong Motivation

“The women here want to get their lives together. They want to work. They want to earn pass time. They want to save money or buy their kids shoes,” said Armould. At least 80% of the women finish the program successfully, she added, and almost all have jobs and a place to live when they leave.

A few residents who finish the program are rearrested during parole, usually for minor offenses, noted Holland. “But we know that a lot of them have done well.”

Armould said an expanded program is needed to prepare the women for re-entry to society, one that would provide more vocational training while the women are still in prison. Most of the women go into entry-level jobs, often at a wage of $3.35 an hour, and most have children they will be expected to support when they leave Hoffman House, she said.

But even with the program’s current maximum stay of four months, there is not sufficient halfway house space for women prisoners, according to Ed Collins of the state Department of Corrections, the parole officer who oversees the women at Hoffman House.

In the last few years women prisoners have been accepted at two other halfway houses in Los Angeles County that also house men. One is run by Eclectic Communications Inc. in Inglewood; the other is the state-run Central Community Correction Center in Los Angeles. There are also a few beds for women in halfway houses in Costa Mesa and Rubidoux and a few more in San Diego.

But a need for more persists, those in the corrections field say. State officials recently asked the board of directors of Hoffman House to expand its capacity to 15 women. The board in turn has voted to establish a building fund to finance such expansion.

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