Women Inmates Seeking A New Lease On Life Can Find 'Clean Slate' In Mountains

Jun 5, 2017

For many female inmates, having stability, or even just a place to call home upon their release, is not a sure thing. But one Western North Carolina group is working to change that—one woman at a time.  

The relationship between homelessness and incarceration is complex, as both issues are risk factors to one another according to a study by National Health Care for the Homeless Council.  It found up to 50 percent of the nation’s homeless have a history of incarceration.

No statistic comes as a surprise to Marsha Crites, co-founder of Jackson County’s Clean Slate program—a sort of half-way home for women interested in rebuilding their lives on the outside.

“We will take women from anywhere on the planet," says Crites, laughing. "We are one of the few programs like this in Western North Carolina that offers the kind of service that we do. We’re still earning a reputation. I would say the majority of the women are not from Jackson County, but are from Western North Carolina. But we’ve had women from Florida, from Wisconsin.”

Crites co-founded the program in 2010, following years of work as a chaplain in the jails and prisons of Western North Carolina.

“I noticed that the women were coming back again and again, and we finally realized that they didn’t have a safe place to go.”

Many women don’t have a family to return to, says Crites, or they come from abusive or impoverished homes. Others have histories of addiction or depression, but one thing they all have found is a revolving door to places like jail, rehabs or mental health facilities. To combat this, Crites secured a house in Jackson County which can house up to six women at a time, and implemented within it a steady regimen of activities. The women of Clean Slate stay busy, often holding down a job, volunteering their time, staying active in the community, or attending programs like Narcotics Anonymous.

“If you’re a person who has left incarceration, or another difficult situation, it’s very difficult to get a job. As soon as you get here, you have a job. When you finish, you have some job skills, and maybe a reference to go to the next job.”

To date, Clean Slate has served thirty five women between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five. Crites says they are carefully screened and chosen based on how committed they are to changing their lives, and how safe they can be either to themselves or others. While the program aims for a year’s stay, some women stay for longer, if need-be.

“Sometimes we have to work to get them on disability, or find housing for them, as a way to move back into the community.”

BPR was able to speak with one Clean Slate alumni, who asked to remain anonymous. The woman, who is now 39, stayed in the program for nearly two years, and said in a written statement that she had never encountered a program as caring or patient with her as Clean Slate was, and that there “needs to be more programs like this.”

Again, Marsha Crites: “What we know is that if you are considering how much it costs to keep a wom in prison, it’s like $45 thousand a year, we can keep six women here for about $17 thousand. It’s a really good deal for taxpayers, and it’s a really good deal for the women who are trying to reunite with their families--and we really encourage that.”

Of the more than 37,000 people currently incarcerated throughout North Carolina, just over 2,900 of them are female, according to the state Department of Public Safety.