Today two women will head to the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia for a potentially life-changing event.
They are the first graduates of a program that's seeing success in its first year.
34 year old Carissa Jamison had an addiction. "My drug of choice was crack cocaine, heroin," said Jamison. "Each time I got locked up it was for being out there trying to make money for one more. While in sobriety I'm faithful to my husband, I'm faithful to my family, and my program. But yes, it was a struggle."
Jamison's one of almost 30 Project Dawn Court members--and one of two who's been clean a year, ready to graduate.
She's living in a small house near Kensington and Allegheny Avenues; amid crime, boarded-up houses, and trash littered streets; with her stepfather, husband, and three daughters. The space is tiny - but it's home for now.
When her mother died a few months ago, Jamison says she thought about using her grieving as an excuse to get high--but she didn't. She says she's been struggling with the habit on and off since around the time she was 19. Around the same time, she started making money as a prostitute to support her habit.
"Project Dawn is a terrific program," Jamison said. "They work with you. They give you opportunity to try and make things better. So they're not the kind of program that's willing to give up on you as easy as other programs will. They make you feel like somebody and not just a prisoner."
Jamison says the day she joined the program, was probably the best day of her life - without it, she'd still be out there.
Participants in Project Dawn Court get counseling for past sexual abuse, and for drug and alcohol addictions as needed. Participants who make it through a year clean, graduate. If they stay clean another year, they will have the chance to get prostitution convictions expunged. For people with a lengthy criminal record, that's a big deal.
Dawn Court participants must visit the Judge once a month. For repeat offenders, Jamison says visiting a judge usually isn't something to look forward to.
"I have to realize that I'm not going to court--I'm just going to update my status with the judge--to let her see how good and how well I'm still doing in this program and that I'm following the program standards and like I said, always great words of encouragement," said Jamison. "A lot of months I look forward to seeing judge kirkland. Because if I'm down, she has a way to make you feel up."
Project Dawn Court tries to avoid putting participants behind bars--because for many of the women prison time isn't new and it isn't solving their underlying problems. City prosecutors, defenders, courts, prison, and health officials have been collaborating on it for a year. If a woman misses an appointment for therapy or drug treatment, she might get a sanction or have to write an essay. Project Dawn Court also emphasizes rewarding the women for achievements.
Sitting in her chambers high up in the Criminal Justice Center, near Broad and Market Streets, overlooking the city, Judge Lydia Kirkland is surprised by the success of the women.
"A lot of these women come with really some unspeakable and unthinkable issues that are probably best corrected to avoid recidivism--that's the goal," said Kirkland. "These women, they're recidivists but they're not violent people. They are women who have deep-seated really messed up issues that probably are rooted in their childhood."
Judge Kirkland is compassionate, but she's no push over.
"One of them in particular--she was just in front of me last month and honestly I'm not sure what I'm going to do with her because I think she has a blatant disregard for the judicial system and I think she may be trying to make an effort at overcoming her situation, but she engages in some activity that I don't think is satisfactory even for the Dawn's Project."
Another Project Dawn Court participant, Joan Davis, says she started working as a prostitute in 2005, to make money to support her crack habit.
"I felt like I was only hurting me," said Davis. "I wasn't hurting anybody else. I'm not the type that can rob and steal. That's just not my character. But this for me was just easy. All I had to do was close my eyes and just...[laughs]...Wait for cash. So it was very degrading. But when you're caught up in addiction, like that comes second. It's just about using. So I mean I regret all them things today you know but that's done and over and I don't have to live like that anymore."
Davis grew up in foster care and says she suffered verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Now she's just over halfway through the program, is re-connecting with her children, and planning on being around to watch her daughter's new baby, grow up.
It's not just the women in Project Dawn Court who are learning new things. Assistant District Attorney Shea Rhodes says Project Dawn Court has been eye-opening for her.
"It's a different way to handle cases - with a treatment court," said Rhodes. "We're not looking for conviction but we're looking for someone to turn their life around and to succeed and deal with the issues and after 8 years of prosecuting shootings and being involved with violent cases, We call it the Feel Good Court. But the women that do well, you're just so proud of them."
Rhodes says it's tough when the women stumble, but says it illustrates the struggles they face.
Mary deFusco agrees.
"I was shocked to see that any of our women completed the program in 365 days. I mean, I guaranteed all these women that they weren't going to be done in a year. And I wrong!"
deFusco is the Director of Training and Recruitment at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. She helped create Project Dawn Court. She says she was surprised because other problem-solving courts, such as drug treatment court, often target offenders with short or no prior records.
"We actually target the person with a lot of recidivism," said deFusco. "Because those are the ones that are using the services at the prison. And we're able to do that because we're not talking about people who are dangerous to the public, but whose harm is really to themselves. So as a result of that, we expect them to take longer to move through the system, and take longer to complete the phases of the program."
deFusco says for Carissa Jamison and the other graduate to stay clean for a year right off the bat, shows they wanted to change - and just needed a little help.
"Once they've entered this field and they view themselves as almost sub-human, to have other people put their arm around them, give them a hug, applaud them, tell them how proud they are of them, that is a huge incentive for them to say maybe I can do this," deFusco said.
deFusco says there's no funding to keep the one year old program running--the partners are chipping in and donating time to keep it going while searching for money.
To hear from Project Dawn participant Joan Davis, view the video below. (Video produced by Lindsay Lazarski)