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Old 06-06-2005, 08:00 AM
DeniseJJ DeniseJJ is offline
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Thumbs up From prison to mansion: Ex-inmates get fresh start

The van climbed a steep driveway past a tree-covered hillside, and the house came into view. An imposing, 7,000 square feet in bricks the color of buttermilk.

Sharon Curry, fresh from prison, craned to look for some sort of lesser dwelling as she approached her latest parole arrangement.

"I thought it was behind the house, that's where I'm really fixing to stay," Curry recalled.

But no. Last October, the 47-year-old Mobile woman with a diversified rap sheet was among the first of 40 ex-prisoners to move to the 9-acre Roebuck Springs estate owned by Brenda Spahn, a Birmingham real estate developer inspired by her own run-in with the law.

They showed her the pool, and Curry was still scowling. "I thought this lady wanted something from us. Why would you put all of us in this here mansion and just say, `Live?'"

Spahn owns property in Gulf Shores and Excell Mortgage in Birmingham, among her and husband Jeff's financial interests. She refers to the Roebuck house like other people might refer to a spare sofa. She didn't need it anymore.

Now it's called The Lovelady House, after Spahn's maiden name. People try to call it a halfway house. Spahn insists it's a "whole-way" house. "Nothing we do is halfway," she said.

The Lovelady House accepts women convicted of drug crimes, writing bad checks, theft, murder - you name it. Some, like Curry, have spent 20 years in and out of prison while battling drugs. Others were behind bars six months.

Opinionated and driven, Spahn grew up in poverty. Now in her 50s, she is channeling the passions that made her wealthy into this quixotic project.

"Instead of everybody trying to look down on these people and judging them, what we need is a more forgiving society, to lend a hand to these people instead of pushing them down," Spahn said.
She almost confronted that situation firsthand. Spahn pleaded guilty in 2004 to aiding to file a false tax return. Prosecutors said she entered erroneous information to create inflated refunds for four clients. She faced 12 years in prison. A plea deal spared her, and she sold the tax practice.

"Some of these women have gotten such raw deals ... Most people living have done something that they could be in this situation for; they just didn't get caught," she said. "I realized only by the grace of God I was not one of them."

The atmosphere at Lovelady House is a little like a college dorm. Some days, like a reality show.
This is where the parolees live, eat, wash clothes, watch movies, pray and argue over whose turn it is to clean the 6½ bathrooms. Common areas feature leather furniture, plush rugs and paintings. There is a spring water dispenser in the kitchen.

Seven sunstruck bedrooms are filled with rows of twin beds. Women decorate with Wal-Mart knickknacks, family photos, stuffed animals.

Lots of the women have been in other rehabilitation situations. This one is different.

"They don't just say, `You're using dope. You're not following instructions. Go, go somewhere else.' No, they don't do that. They say, `Let's look at the problem. We think it's medical. Why don't we just make sure. Let's send her over here; we've got the resources. Why don't we just send her over to the hospital, the psychiatrist' ... They do that here. They don't do that any other place," said parolee Annette Hansen, 44.

Spahn runs the house with Kate Richardson, 61, a one-time inmate who previously worked at Montgomery's Aid to Inmate Mothers helping women earn parole. Spahn's daughter Melinda MaGehee oversees the later stages of the women's release program. After four months at Lovelady House, when they're ready for more independence, the women move to two smaller houses nearby.

It has taken a few months for the neighbors to get used to the idea of former prisoners living in their midst. Spahn and Richardson have held neighborhood meetings and, after a little education, some of the neighbors donated clothes to help.

So far, none of the residents has been sent back to prison.

"She will take a person, no matter what they've done and transform them into a butterfly," said Hansen, a recovering addict sent to prison by an arrest at a Gardendale meth lab.

Faith and fear

From her days at Tutwiler Prison, Richardson already knew, and Spahn has learned fast: The baggage that female prisoners carry is heavy.
Betty Shipp, a 23-year-old resident who spends much of her time hiding behind the music from her headphones, was locked in prison from the age of 14. She served nine years of a 20-year sentence for her role in a Montgomery murder.

But before all that, Shipp was shuffled through foster homes, some where she was abused. She's not sure why she spent so much time in foster care. "When my eyes opened, I was in prison, 14, and I was still pretty much a child. I never got a chance to ask those questions," she said.

One day, Spahn took Shipp to Chuck E. Cheese. The young woman returned home with plastic rings on her fingers that she'd won at the games.

The program is a faith-based nonprofit and receives no government funding. Each woman with a job pays $110 a week. Spahn, who is married with four adult children and an adopted 5-year-old son, said she'll soon need help paying the bills and may apply for grants.

A recent Wednesday night devotional began with the praise report, a chance for the women to pass along bits of good news.

One woman had gotten a job at a Waffle House. Another was getting married.

"I finally got to go to the dentist," Shana Daniel, 27, said, showing off a sparkly set of teeth. She's there for drug possession.
Spahn has spent thousands on teeth. Drug use and prison dentistry, where extraction is the rule, have ravaged mouths. She's praying for dental charity.

After the testimonials, Spahn, also an ordained minister, shared a spiritual lesson. "What every single one of us is dealing with right now is a lost battle, not a war. We're walking through the consequences right now, but it has nothing to do with our salvation. Man doesn't forgive like God does," she told them.

For comic relief, she told a story, starring Curry, about the night an alarm went off. Curry called Spahn, who was out of town, and Spahn told her to go lock the basement door. Curry was scared. She covered the phone and yelled to her housemates, "She says one of y'all have to go down there and lock the basement door."
It was decided that everyone would go. They proceeded in a daisy chain, holding hands for safety in case of a burglar. A couple of the women grabbed kitchen knives.

"These are the hardened criminals I have in this house," Spahn said.

Prison scars

Spahn first began her ministry at the Birmingham Work Release Center, where everyone she met, she wanted to save. Before taking women into Lovelady House, she held an open house for state officials and prison workers. She met Richardson and hired her away from AIM. "We have a bond," Spahn said. "Kate is like the sister I never had."

Where Spahn is a gregarious redhead, the upbeat cheerleader, Richardson is the realist, a calm, sympathetic listener.

Richardson spent eight years in the 1990s in prison for forgery to get a loan. She has since gotten a full pardon from the state. Wise and bespectacled, she is trusted by wardens and prisoners alike.

"The only reason I came is I thought I'd done all I could to help ladies get out of prison," Richardson said. "My main concern is to work with the ladies after they get out of prison and help them stay out. Brenda has the same vision

The women in charge say what they do more aggressively than traditional halfway houses is prepare people for the rigors of life as responsible citizens. They insist everyone obtain a driver license, insurance and, in time, a job. They give the women rides to their parolee obligations: drug tests, job interviews, parole officer meetings. It's violations like failing to meet with POs that get parolees in trouble and send thousands of them back to prison every year.

Because it's hard for felons to get jobs with decent pay, Spahn hires many of the women as secretaries, loan officers and landscapers at her companies.

Barbara Pelzer, 50, who served eight years for robbery, already has business cards.

"Who would think that a person who has been incarcerated would be fortunate or blessed enough to come live in a mansion, and be fortunate and blessed enough to get a job, an office job?" Pelzer said in an interview at her desk. Once in the U.S. Army at Fort Rucker, Pelzer is an administrative assistant at Spahn's Debt Relief Counseling Services.

Ex-prisoners can have a knack for helping people with disastrous finances. "When they come in here, they're kind of like, `I done messed up, messed my bills up.' No, everyone makes mistakes. That's the first thing they need to know, and it can be fixed," Pelzer said.

Pelzer has more than memories about prison, she has a four-inch scar.

When Tutwiler seethed with triple its designed population, a mentally ill inmate slashed Pelzer's neck with a razor. Pelzer would not press charges. "I wanted her to know that I was praying for her, and I forgave her," she said.

'Ms. Shay's' miracle

As it turned out, the attitude-laden Sharon Curry so flourished at Lovelady House that Spahn offered her a leadership job, with duties to keep things running smoothly.

Curry's right eyebrow shot up when she heard the offer, and she questioned God and Spahn. "Me? Am I cut out to help women? Did drugs all my life, and hadn't been a good mother, and I'm supposed to help other people? ... I was like, maybe you see something I don't see but I sure do appreciate it," Curry said.

She got a driver license for the first time in her life, and "Ms. Shay" took charge of cooking, driving the women to jobs. She makes sure when someone says they're out to get a prescription filled, that's where they really are. After 15 years of heroin use, no addict fools her.

"It's been hard for me, but I'm learning how to be part of the ministry team and part of the girls. I guess I used to be a hooker, so that prepared me," she says, breaking into a deep chuckle over the background behind her people skills.

Jokes about prostitution aside, Curry is a nurturer. She's just never had much of an opportunity. She calls bad drivers "sweetie" or "baby." She waves to white-haired ladies in the neighborhood. "They allowed us into this community, so I don't want to be rude."
While she talks, Curry takes a hair iron to resident Debra Holiday's ponytail, making smooth curls. In prison, she did hair for $3 in food per head. It's Holiday's 38th birthday, so Curry is helping her get dolled up for free.

Later, Curry takes off on an errand, returning with a sheet cake with pink roses and "Happy Birthday Debra" on the fluffy frosting. Holiday, once a drug seller, comes in from the porch. She hasn't had a birthday cake for more than two decades. A candle is flickering.

"Y'all aren't right. Y'all aren't right," she says, tough behind her tears, as she looks at the roses. It's a Friday, so most of the girls are off on weekend passes.

A handful remain. And they are singing "Happy Birthday."
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