Sitting at a large, gray-surfaced round table, 31-year-old Jodi McGinnis clasped her hands firmly in her lap, candidly recounting a recent experience she had while working a shift at a Williamsburg-area restaurant.
McGinnis was waiting tables, working the overnight 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, when a group of people “clearly geeked out” — high — came in and sat down at a booth.
Her shift, part of her work release from the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, had been fine so far. She carefully side-stepped the triggers, but when the group left, she came face-to-face with a demon; a little baggie with white residue lay in the crease of the booth.
“It messed with me,” said McGinnis, who is serving a one-year, nine-month sentence on a larceny conviction related to her drug use. “It made me feel like, how many times I had sat in this person’s same position… I have a desire this time to stay clean.”
This time, when she is released from the VPRJ in less than 18 months, things will be different, McGinnis said — and taking that small bag and throwing it into the trash at the restaurant proves it.
McGinnis is one of a handful of VPRJ inmates participating in a pilot group for the “We Are In This Together” (WAITT) program. After 12 years of addiction involving cocaine and crack, McGinnis said the WAITT program has finally “touched” her addiction in a way other programs have not.
WAITT is the first intensive addiction program at the jail, and it is currently only offered to seven women while in its pilot phase. The first group of women started the program March 4 and will graduate May 28.
“Substance abuse is taking over,” said Allison Bellamy, another inmate in the program who is serving one-and-a-half-year sentence for assault on a law enforcement officer. “It’s dominating the jails.”
From Chesterfield to here
The WAITT program is led by inmate Cara Heathe, 31.
Heathe has struggled with addiction since she was a preteen — spiraling from smoking marijuana to eventually diving into heroin.
Heathe was pregnant, homeless and addicted to heroin when she robbed a convenience store in Henrico County in March 2016. She is serving a nine-year and seven-month sentence.
Now, she is a leader in the fight against addiction amongst her fellow inmates; she has successfully helped start two addiction and rehabilitation programs, including WAITT.
“You can’t have recovery until you want it,” Heathe said. “I want life now.”
Superintendent Tony Pham said he decided to jumpstart the program after working in the Richmond City Jail and seeing Sarah Scarbrough run the REAL (Recovery from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles) addiction program.
“I saw her program changed how they made choices,” Pham said. “I saw it firsthand, and it began to change my mind.”
Scarbrough’s program managed to reduce recidivism rates by more than 20 percent for inmates who were in the program at least 90 days, according to a study published by a University of Richmond professor.
Pham “borrowed” Heathe from Chesterfield’s Heroin Addition Recovery Program (HARP), bringing her to the VPRJ where she had no history.
“We’re a long way from being able to claim victory,” Pham said. “But we’re putting processes in place to help.”
Support and accountability
In groups, which are organized by the women and feature female empowerment courses, health information, re-entry assistance, counseling and adult education services, women must face their triggers and histories head-on.
It’s not easy to open up and share, but it helps each woman feel understood and a part of the group, Heathe said.
During a conversation Monday, the three women told some of their stories. At one point, Heathe brought up a new observation.
“We’ve all had a baby in jail,” she said, looking at both McGinnis and Bellamy.
“I want to be home with my children” Bellamy later said. “I am a stranger to my three children.”
Part of rehabilitation requires the women to notice their behaviors and hold themselves and others accountable: For example, McGinnis was filling out her presentence report recently ahead of her sentencing in February and “noticed a pattern” in her past behavior.
“Within days, I would get high again,” she said. “That very last day before I was released, I’d know I’m getting high.”
Kicking those habits and patterns of thinking are key to starting out on a new foot, McGinnis said.
And, Heathe and Bellamy added, having a job in place upon release is also crucial.
Upon her release, Heathe will be a certified peer support specialist. She plans to reframe her own experiences to help others.
“I rely on the other women at the end of the day,” Heathe said.
Bellamy plans for follow the same route as Heathe.
“It really does boil down to desire — you have to want it,” Bellamy said. “I can make a career out of these mistakes.”
Bellamy’s release date is still unknown as she waits to be sentenced on a pending charge in York County. Heathe is still serving her sentence dating back to 2016.
McGinnis has 18 months left of her sentence.