"Alternative sentencing program focuses on reintegration

In a big boxy house on Indianapolis’s near Northside, a woman named Shondera is learning to know her baby boy. Having given birth to him while incarcerated, she was reunited with him when she recently transferred from prison to the John P. Craine House.

Shondera is one of nine women living at the facility. The residents are all nonviolent convicted offenders, and at Craine House they serve their time in the company of their preschool children. One of only six in the country, Craine House is the only such alternative sentencing option in the Midwest.

The chance to live in a domestic setting with their preschool children is an enormous boon to the women at Craine House. With mothers making up 80 percent of the roughly 400 incarcerated women in Marion County, there is always a waiting list for the nine rooms.

While she had regular visits with her 7-month-old son during her incarceration, here at Craine House, Shondera is able to mother him. Before now, he knew her only as an occasional lap. She has three other children who live with family members and visit her on weekends. She says, “One of the biggest things that I regret most of all about going to prison is to leave behind my children, because they are most important.”

Shondera and her son share a room at the facility. Shondera’s husband had been his primary parent for the first months of his life. “To be able to get to know him — because I didn’t know him,” Shondera says, “— is a good thing for me.”

Its homey atmosphere belies the fact that Craine House’s adult occupants are indeed inmates. Their only time off the premises is for work. They are allowed only 35 possessions. Room searches can occur at any time. Immediate family members and the children’s fathers are only allowed to visit for brief periods each week.

According to program director Sarah Nielsen, the usual charges are forgery, identity theft and prostitution. In 80 percent of cases, substance abuse is a precipitating factor. Nielsen notes that the common scenario involves a precarious triad: unhealthy relationship, money trouble, drug or alcohol problems.

A typical stay at Craine House lasts from a year to a year and a half. Nielsen surmises that the children are “blissfully unaware” of anything unusual about the arrangement. “We don’t ever want the children to feel like they are incarcerated.”

But their mothers have a strict set of rules to follow and expectations to fulfill. They must be employed or actively seeking employment. They must have day care and transportation lined up. They even pay residential fees.

Evenings are booked with required programming as well as nightly chores. In addition to taking classes on anger management, life skills and parenting, women are expected to get their GED during their stay.

The rigorous curriculum is less punitive than preparatory. Staff members often tell their charges, “If you can do this, you can do anything.” The goal is no less than full reintegration into the community. Regarding these expectations, Shondera says, “You can be very overwhelmed, absolutely. But life is overwhelming.”

She calls the work release program “a stepping stone into a new life,” and has found a front desk position at a downtown hotel. She plans to attend cosmetology school upon her release, and eventually open her own beauty parlor.

Craine House also has a day reporting program. Twenty-five women on home detention report to the facility for regular breathalyzer tests, and the same programming is available to them. It’s a combination that has a proven track record, with recidivism rates beating the national averages. Two out of every three people who go to prison or jail will return within three to five years. Among those completing the Craine House program, the number falls to one in five.

Many women go on to live lives they may have never dreamed possible. Some start college, or begin management training at their jobs. “We try to set them up with everything they need to be successful once they go,” Nielsen says, acknowledging that success means different things to different people.

Success might mean holding a job for the first time, or managing a home successfully, or staying drug- and alcohol-free. It might mean staying out of destructive relationships.

Success also might mean shattering stereotypes. Shondera says, “Everybody has a perception of what they think a convicted felon is, and you have to prove to them that not always is that the truth.”


Craine House currently needs tutors to support women in obtaining their GEDs, to help with academic assistance and to encourage the women throughout the process of pursuing higher education. There is also a need for child care during the classes, so that women can focus on their education. Call Sarah at 317-925-2833 if you’re interested in volunteering or go to www.crainehouse.org

By the numbers

300% - Percentage that female incarceration has grown in the last five years

75% - Percent of incarcerated women who are mothers

10 In millions, the number of children who have previously experienced or are currently living through often debilitating emotional, economic and social consequences stemming from arrest, detention and/or imprisonment of a parent

2/3 - Rate of people who go to prison or jail that will return in three to five years

1/5 - Rate of people who go to prison or jail that will return in three to five years after completing the Craine House program




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