POCATELLO, Idaho – Just in time for Christmas, Jody Brayton is going home a free woman with a steady job.
With four days to spare, the former drug dealer and methamphetamine addict is getting a seventh chance.
This time, she says, it will be different.
Between Bannock, Bear Lake and Caribou counties, Brayton, 51, has been incarcerated for drug-related convictions six times in the past two decades. She started smoking marijuana as a teenager but moved on to heavier drugs around the time she divorced her first husband at 19, she said. She remembers being introduced to meth soon after by her second husband.
This Dec. 21, Brayton is set to be released on parole from Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center, where she is finishing a four-year sentence for possessing and delivering controlled substances, in addition to burglary. She has spent most of those years in the prison’s pre-parole Community Custody Unit, an on-site house for women considered low-risk – generally nonviolent offenders who have shown good behavior while otherwise incarcerated.
When Brayton gets out, she’s expecting one or two of her three adult children, and maybe even some grandchildren, to pick her up.
They have tentative plans: “Chinese food.”
All 48 beds in the CCU are full, and a half-dozen more women are on the waiting list.
That capacity has doubled since it opened with the rest of the women’s prison in April 1994.
In the house, eight women live in each of six bedrooms. They all share common spaces, including the dining and multipurpose rooms. They have ground rules, visitation schedules and mandatory shared chores. They wear pale gray scrubs, not orange jumpsuits.
The CCU dining room is covered in gray carpet, checkered with both round and square off-white tables and plastic red chairs. It has an expansive view of the Portneuf Valley and sliding glass doors that open to a covered patio with outdoor furniture. On a Friday in early December it is empty, only snow sitting in the dark metal chairs and clothing the matching tables, but inmates say they like to relax outside on warmer days. Next to the patio is a multicolored playset, complete with a slide, for visiting children. That’s covered in snow, too.
The multipurpose room is lined with hundreds of books and filled with ways to self-entertain, including an upright piano, television, exercise balls and board games.
The main prison is brimming with 302 inmates at assorted custody levels and has been for some time, although that number fluctuates especially on transport days, said Mathel Castleton, the prison’s work center manager. That’s 13 more than the operating capacity of 289 listed on the state department of corrections website.
Working toward sobriety
Inmates in the CCU must participate in a vocational work program, tackling special projects for local government agencies under the direct supervision of corrections officers before they qualify for work release. Through the latter program, inmates can leave prison to work regular jobs, typically but not exclusively in the service industry. Other CCU inmates drive the work-release van, which the released workers help pay for, $4 each per round trip. About one-third of employee wages (35 percent) go back into the program to alleviate the cost of case managers and other living expenses. The rest are deposited in savings accounts workers can dip into for approved expenditures and fully access once they finish their sentences, Brayton said.
Administration directs inmates who qualify for work release to the department of labor, where they can search, apply and interview for jobs just like ordinary applicants, again hitching rides from the work-release van. Sometimes, nearby businesses will also check in to see if any inmates need work. In Pocatello, these include Clarion Hotel, Golden Corral Buffet, Firehouse Subs, Uncle Jims and The Dollar Tree, Castleton said.
That helps, because many inmates lack strong employment histories and struggle to get calls back, let alone interviews. Some employers have policies against hiring convicted felons.
“I don’t think they get turned down,” Castleton said. “They don’t get interviewed.”
Troy Call, who manages Pocatello’s Golden Corral, makes an effort to hire work-release inmates because they’re reliable. They show up on time and seem like good people, he said. The buffet has steadily employed two or three inmates at a time since before he started working there a decade ago.
In October 2014, frustrated by waiting to hear back from potential employers, Brayton made her supervisors a plea, “Just let me go to the Golden Corral.”
She took the work-release van to the buffet, asked for the manager and submitted her resume.
Days later, she had an interview. Soon after, she had a job.
Since that October, Brayton has worked 25 to 40 hours each week at Golden Corral through the work-release program, which she credits with giving her the confidence to believe she can stay clean and hold a job moving forward. She started out working the line and has since been promoted to server.
On a recent Thursday, Brayton wore a white shirt and a black apron and smiled as she talked with patrons, brought them food and cleared their plates.
Upon her imminent release, Brayton plans to move in with a co-worker and continue working at the buffet, where she’ll make enough to pay her share of rent and afford other basic needs.
“I’ve got people at work who are very supportive,” Brayton said. “It’s helped me get my feet back into society … as a positive community member, not feeling like I have no other choice but to do what I’ve always done.”
Fellow inmate Stephanie Cogswell, doing time for drug possession, also works at Golden Corral and has children she hopes to reunite with after her release, projected for next July.
Before the Corral, Cogswell, 37, was working at a donut shop that closed. She remembers feeling afraid, on her first few days, that customers would somehow recognize her, know her past and treat her differently. But that didn’t happen, and she now feels like a productive member of society again, she said.
Cogswell and Brayton have another life-altering experience in common.
Their moms both died of cancer.
For Cogswell, the diagnosis led to a post-rehab relapse.
For Brayton, it was the first time she quit. The only other time, except for those previous stints in jail or prison, where tight security kept loose powders at bay.
Coping and quitting
Brayton had been using meth for six years when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Brayton’s boyfriend at the time had been begging her to quit for what she thought was two months. It was actually eight.
“That’s when you know you’ve got a problem,” Brayton said. “When it’s taken that much of your life and you don’t even know it’s taken that much.”
Brayton’s then-boyfriend told her dying mother, who made her drug-addled daughter a deal – stay away from your drugs, or I won’t take mine.
Brayton put her addiction before a lot of things, but her mom’s health wasn’t one of them.
She quit. She suddenly stopped using for six months.
Then, with her mother’s health deteriorating, Brayton yielded to her coping compulsion.
“My mom got sicker and I just wanted to shut off that emotion,” Brayton said. “I didn’t want to feel that hurt.”
She hid her habit this time, but the other kind of drugs couldn’t keep her mom alive.
Cogswell, on the other hand, had been clean for five years when she found out in 2011 that her mother had lung cancer.
Cogswell had her first run-in with the law in 2005. She was caught with a bag of marijuana, and got the mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days in county jail.
The next year, she was caught with meth and sent to a Drug Court program. She graduated in 2009 and was still regularly calling her sponsor, going to AA meetings and taking other precautions to stay away from temptations.
“[Drug Court] was a good program.” Cogswell said. “It consisted of a lot of structure and classes. It gave me the stability that I needed and the routine that I needed to stay sober, and I did for a long time.”
For five years.
But when her mom got sick, her mind drifted.
“It was me and my dad trying to take care of her,” Cogswell said. “I just started paying attention to other things.”
She quit calling her sponsor. She quit going to meetings. She quit her job managing a Subway in Caldwell. It was easy for her to find drugs again, and she did.
She told herself it would be okay, that she’d just use once, and it would help her get through things. But drugs don’t work like that, at least not for her.
“From there, it all just went downhill,” she said.
She kept sliding until 2013, when found guilty of multiple charges including possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or distribute. Now she’s on the tail end of a three-year determinate prison sentence that could have her out on parole by next July. Like Brayton, Caldwell has spent most of that time in the CCU.
Small towns, big addictions
The majority of female felony offenders in Idaho come through PWCC, Castleton said. In addition to the on-site CCU, some women who are from the Boise area end up at a similar program there. The closer an inmate works to where her family lives, the more likely she is to keep that job or move on to another after getting out.
“We want to release them close to where they’re living,” Castleton said. “That’s the whole purpose of the program.”
For those fighting addiction, that proximity can also be a challenge. If Brayton were released back into the same environment with the same connections that made it so easy for her to buy, use and sell drugs, she thinks it would be harder to stay clean. So she’s staying in Pocatello when she gets out.
Dozens of studies and articles over the last decade have examined increasing drug use in American small towns contrasted with a usage decline in bigger cities.
When Brayton was in the thick of her addiction and out of prison, she lived in Montpelier and Soda Springs, buying wholesale meth from the guy who cooked it, selling to dozens of customers, and using a quarter to a full gram every day. Always high, she remembers.
“I had at least 30 people buying from me all the time in just the small town that I lived in,” she said. “I was making enough to keep my addiction alive.”
Many of the women who end up in the CCU are drug offenders, often serving mandatory minimum sentences, Castleton said.
At least 38 of the current 48 women are sentenced for possessing, delivering or trafficking controlled substances, according to an official PWCC roster. Of those, 10 – including Brayton – are also being punished for at least one property crime such as burglary, forgery, theft or fraud.
“It may not be a drug crime, but drugs led them to it,” Castleton said.
The 10 women without listed drug convictions are imprisoned for property crimes, driving under the influence, and eluding an officer.
CCU inmates occasionally intermingle with those from the main facility at special events, Castleton said. All medical services are based inside the main prison, so CCU inmates are escorted in for their health care needs and appointments.
State DOC researchers don’t keep statistics for recidivism in work release programs, spokesperson Teresa Jones said in an email.
In more than seven years working at the CCU, Castleton said she hasn’t seen a lot of women coming back who have completed the work-release program.
She does know of three who left within the last year-and-a-half and are now managers at their workplaces.
Besides physically living in an environment where they can’t get drugs, addicted inmates also get drug and alcohol counseling before they are released. But the prison doesn’t detox or provide many other rehabilitation services.
“It’s not really rehab,” Castleton said. “It’s prison.”
For Brayton, holding a steady job during her longest sentence is what made the difference this time around. She’s been in and out of the system so many times, they’ve all melted together.
“It’s like the whole drug world kind of just blended in,” she said. “I would make it a couple of years out of prison, and then I would get caught and go back in for a year, year and a half. It’s like a big blur, patches here and there.”
Despite rockiness over the years, Brayton’s family has been largely supportive, she said. A few visits ago, she remembers her grandson asking, “Grandma, why did you do drugs?”
She didn’t know how to answer. She doesn’t plan to do them ever again. Nor does she want to go back to prison. But she has instructed people close to her to call the police if they even suspect a relapse.