Prison unit helps inmates prepare for freedom
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Every morning, Amelia Stem wakes up, pulls her clothes from the closet and gets ready for work.
She’s on the road by 7:30 a.m. and works until around 5:30 p.m. Back at home, she does laundry and gets a bite to eat. She might chip away at an assignment for her Lipscomb University night class before heading to bed.
It’s a typical routine for many, except for one thing: Stem, 38, comes home to the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she is serving a second-degree murder sentence handed down in 1998, when she was 17.
Stem will be eligible for release next year, after more than two decades behind bars. As excited as she is, she acknowledges there is more than a little anxiety that comes with getting out.
When she was first locked up, she said, she “didn’t even know what a budget was.”
“I’ve been incarcerated for quite some time. Over two decades,” Stem said. “It was a very big concern for me of my ability to take care of myself.”
So she began preparing for her impending freedom by moving into a specialized unit in the prison annex where inmates begin to ease into life on the outside, learning how to manage a budget, hold down a job and pick “free-world clothes” for work.
It’s the same place Cyntoia Brown, 31, will call home before she is set for release in August. Brown, who received a life sentence for a murder she committed at 16, received clemency from former Gov. Bill Haslam in January.
Haslam said Brown had to go through “transition and re-entry programming” before she could be released. Stem said moving to the transition center would be important for Brown.
“With the girls coming over here, including Cyntoia — I’ve talked to her about it — it is a much, much needed step,” Stem said.
Prison officials say every aspect in the 143-bed transition center is designed to prepare inmates to succeed once they leave the rigidity of prison life. Even the lavender colors of the walls in their living quarters are meant to evoke a calming bedroom rather than a prison cell.
Instead of a wake-up time set by prison protocol, inmates set their own schedule and are responsible for setting and making appointments for the doctor or program offerings.
Their prison uniform changes from blue scrubs and jeans to polos and khakis.
They have more freedom to move around, with less restricted access to the library, where there are books on applying for jobs and personal finance.
And once they have completed classes and therapy sessions tailored to their needs, they are eligible to change into blouses and slacks and go out to jobs in the local community, like Stem does.
The transition center started in its current form in 2017, spurred by the 2016 Public Safety Act. The law required Tennessee Department of Correction officials to determine how to best prepare every individual inmate not to re-offend upon release.
At the Tennessee Prison for Women, every inmate approaching release gets assessed. If they choose to go through the transition center, their programming there is modeled around the needs identified in that assessment.
State data released in 2018 showed 47 percent of felons ended up back behind bars within three years of their release.
Officials said it was too soon to calculate a recidivism rate for inmates who were released from the women’s transition center, but they said the programs there were designed to address many typical stumbling blocks for inmates like substance abuse, problem-solving and money management.
“We want to see change. Inside and outside, that keeps everybody safe,” said Vicki Freeman, director of women’s services at the Tennessee Department of Correction. “The impact just goes out in ripples.”