Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
February 22, 2009 Sunday

Life on the outside;
For recovering addict on parole, staying straight is a daunting task

By Heather Haddon

Dressed in white, Eunice Booker crossed her arms as the deacons submerged her in a pool of cool water. It had taken her 20 years and seven criminal convictions to ask God for the strength to change.

No more selling drugs on Broadway, no sniffing heroin to forget abusive men. No more "jail mode" ? the attitude that made her next arrest just a matter of time.

Booker, 43, had shed her beige jumpsuit in April after nearly three years in prison for drug possession and distribution. With her September baptism, she vowed to stay clean, to comply with counseling and to regain the love of her family.

For years, Booker was what experts call a "functioning addict." On weekdays, she earned a living as a companion to an elderly Saddle River woman. In Paterson on weekends, she shoplifted and nursed her drug habit.

Upon her release from prison in April, she knew that to stay out of trouble, she would face daunting odds.

The revolving door
Booker was one of 1,300 state prison inmates released to Passaic County last year, and among 14,000 men and women released from prison statewide. About 65 percent of released convicts are re-arrested within five years, and more than half are returned to prison.

Lawmakers, worried about that recidivism rate, are allocating millions of dollars to rehabilitation programs for offenders. Prison is expensive, and ex-cons who don't get help finding jobs or kicking drugs are more likely to return to crime.

At least half of ex-cons don't have high school diplomas. Most, especially women, use drugs. One in 10 return to no permanent home, and it's tough finding an employer willing to hire a convict.

Then there are neighborhoods with old drug and crime buddies.

"These people come at you to bring you back in," said Khadeejah Brown, a counselor at the Kintock parole reporting center in Paterson. "That's one of the worst things about being placed back in your own environment."

On April 16, 2008, Booker returned to her sister's house on Paterson's East 31st Street after nearly a three-year absence.

"I want to do things the right way, the way I was brought up, and not go astray," Booker said on the spring day she left the correctional center, the sun brightening her face as she gazed at passing row houses and corner stores on a bus bound for Passaic.

'My habit was outrageous'
The oldest of three girls, Booker was a rebel. Her parents were strict Baptists, but at 15, she converted to Islam, grew dreadlocks and bundled them in turbans.

Booker started drinking during her freshman year at Paterson Catholic High School. Marijuana and cocaine use soon followed. She transferred to Eastside High School as a sophomore. Small and scrappy, Booker learned to hold her own. She got in fights over a boyfriend. She refused to apologize when teachers accused her of writing curse words on a wall. In 1982, she dropped out of school at age 17.

She worked as a waitress until her mother, a nursing aide, found her a job as a companion to an elderly woman in Saddle River. The job paid $450 a week, and it took Booker outside Paterson.

"It was beautiful ? all the houses and people being so far away from each other," she recalled.

In her five years of providing care, Booker and her client bonded tightly. But on weekends, she shoplifted clothes and eventually discovered heroin.
Female offenders with serious drug problems often have a history of domestic violence, said Brown, the Kintock counselor.

When she was 22, Booker's boyfriend punched her in the face while wearing a diamond ring, a gift she had bought him, Booker said. The gash still scars her right cheek.

Booker started selling drugs. She used the money for clothes, but also for repairs to her mother's house after her parents divorced, she said. Her spiral into crime deepened. In nearly a dozen arrests, Booker was charged with forgery, receiving stolen property, lying to police, drug distribution and two counts of possession in Passaic and Bergen counties, state records show, though none of her offenses were violent. She accumulated seven convictions and five aliases.

Booker said she regrets her bad choices, but back, she led a double life.

"I worked, but I also worked hard at selling drugs and supporting my drug habit," she said.

On the morning of Aug. 23, 2005, Booker sold two bags of heroin to a buyer on Graham Avenue. Soon after, she was stopped by a Paterson police officer. He frisked her and found 14 envelopes of heroin. Booker pleaded guilty to possession and distribution charges, and in October 2006, she was sentenced to five years at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

Steps to reform
Booker joined 1,100 female inmates there, most of whom shared two-person cells with bunk beds and a locker. She came with a Quran, some family photos and a "mouth like a trucker," recalled Robin Pugh, a prison counselor who worked with her.

In early 2007, Booker was placed in a special nine-month program for 60 seriously addicted women, where inmates attended daily counseling and partnered with peers in their recovery.

Pugh, the counselor, watched Booker open up about the emotions fueling her drug use, how trying to please others, she ended up feeling empty and alone. She was nurturing to her partner, a 43-year-old woman named Dawn from New Brunswick.

"They call us the 'mush twins,'" said Booker, standing with Dawn in the cottage hallway last April as her release date neared. "I've wet her shoulder, she's wet mine."

Booker took classes in anger management and started writing a memoir ? "For the Love of a Thug" ? about the men in her life: "I was truly in love," she wrote in tight cursive about a teenage romance. "Little did I know this was the very first in a line of thugs in my life."

In April, upon her release from prison, Booker spoke optimistically about staying clean.

"She has a good chance of success if she connects with support systems," said Pugh at that time, sitting in her office decorated with photos of inmates holding GEDs. "She's a little afraid, but sometimes that helps move you forward."

Booker was granted parole after 33 months in prison. Dawn made a cake of crushed chocolate cookies. Booker packed a cardboard box with a domestic violence book, her release papers and some toiletries. At 6 a.m., she said tearful goodbyes to her program peers and boarded a Department of Corrections passenger van.

First day's challenges
Last year, 730 inmates left Edna Mahan. Some went to halfway houses. Others went home. The women exited in "whites and blues" ? stiff collared shirts and cheap jeans the state provides upon release. Some commuters in Newark Penn Station recognized the uniform and offered encouragement; strangers became fast friends on the trip back.

"They are all sensitive about the clothing," said Mark Webb, a bus attendant at the Clinton Park & Ride, where Edna Mahan guards drop off the women. Upon Booker's release, Webb offered her a cigarette from a stash he kept for the women heading to points across New Jersey.

As is protocol, the state provided Booker with an NJ Transit pass and the contents of her commissary account, a wad of $50 she tucked into her bra. Trip directions, though, proved problematic: Booker repeatedly asked for help from passersby during her three-hour voyage to the parole office in Passaic, boarding a total of two buses and two trains.

At the Prospect Street parole office, Booker learned she had to quickly find a way to Paramus to answer to a shoplifting charge issued against her before she went to prison.

Her parole officer scheduled mandatory drug testing and counseling. He gave her an 8 p.m. curfew and ticked off hundreds of dollars in fines for offenses she committed before her drug conviction.

Then Booker walked home to her sister's house. Her family took her in, but there were no homecoming balloons or banners ? her big treat was a warm bath with Epsom salts. Booker rocked her new grandniece and ate leftover barbecue, but worried about the hurdles ahead, including the fines she owed the state for various convictions.

"I'm kind of scared," she said. "I owe so much money to the state. That's a major setup right there," she said.

Within two months of her release, a friend gave Booker work caring for his elderly father in Paterson. She appeared in court on a Bergen County shoplifting charge, and started paying off her fines. In the evenings, she went to counseling at Kintock, a private company funded to oversee parolees in a second-floor office on Ellison Street.

She joined a 12-step program at the YWCA on Carroll Street initiated by her sister, Dana Cureton, who had kicked her own drug habit a decade ago. Cureton also inspired her to convert to Christianity as an anchor for her recovery. She attended church each Sunday; in September, she asked her bishop to baptize her. It symbolized her new life with Christ.

"We've got to try to make it work with Eunice," said Cureton. "We're all she's got."

Without a car, Booker walked to work and meetings ? past the blocks on Broadway where she once sold dope, near the Park Avenue apartment where she holed up with heroin. She once walked those streets "like Moses," Booker said.

A relapse
Just before Labor Day, Booker called a heroin dealer, got high and sat on her stoop. Then she did it again.

It was a release, but the guilt came immediately. Booker told Brown about the relapse, and under her parole agreement, she was reprimanded and put on a 30-day watch in lieu of jail. Her failure was crushing, Booker said, and she resolved to keep drugs out her life.

"I lost focus for a minute," she said as she ate breakfast with her sister a few weeks after the relapse. "I got up and brushed myself off."

Most inmates leaving state prisons last year went on parole, which includes intensive supervision and access to community programs.

Studies find these programs reduce recidivism to 41 percent for violent offenders. Graduates of drug court ? a state program that requires participants to work, attend rehabilitation and submit to drug tests ? are even less likely to return to jail.

"The parole office is there to help, not to hurt you," said Pugh, the Edna Mahan counselor. "The concept of prison is hard to leave. You have to get back into the habit of making decisions for yourself."

In the fall, Booker began skipping counseling. She went to Kintock at off times and avoided Brown. At home, Cureton, her sister, noticed she acted distant since the relapse.

One November evening, Booker came to Kintock and failed her drug test. She had spent the weekend alone, sniffing heroin after problems with her family flared up. Booker agreed to go to an in-patient drug treatment program at Delaney Hall, a gated building in the shadow of the Essex County Correctional Facility. Living on her own, she feared relapse.

Booker was released from Delaney on Wednesday to an uncertain future. Her counselors barred her from resuming her caretaking job; she might be tempted to relapse on the Paterson streets, they thought. She's now looking for work elsewhere with her counselors' help, and found a room with a family friend on East 18th Street.

She feels overwhelmed, but determined to set herself straight and help counsel other women with drug addictions. The philosophy behind recovery, Booker said, is something she knows well.

"I don't want to die an addict," she said in January at Delaney Hall. "That's not something I want them to say in my eulogy."

By the numbers
$1.1 billion
Budget for the state Department of Corrections.
Number of inmates released last year.
Number of inmates released to Passaic County.
Total parolees under supervision in Passaic County.
65 percent
Former inmates who are rearrested in five years.
55 percent
Former inmates who return to state prison or county jail within five years.
15 percent
Graduates of drug court who are rearrested.
6 percent
Graduates of drug court who are convicted of another crime.
11 percent
Graduates of an intensive parole supervision program who are convicted of another indictable offense.
Average cost per year to house an inmate in state prison.
Average cost per year to house an inmate in county jail.
Average cost per year for an inmate to enroll in drug court.
Average cost per year for parole.

Source: New Jersey Department of Corrections, state Administrative Office of the Courts, Fiscal Year 2009 Budget, New Jersey Parole Board, "A Strategy for Safe Streets and Communities"