Trish Bellamy sat in a chilly metal chair, hands folded around a baby dozing in a carrier on her chest, as a television played a daytime soap opera from a high perch on a nearby concrete wall.
Around her, the room rumbled with the quiet chatter of other visitors at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail on Tuesday, many of whom traveled through 95-degree weather for a similar reason.
That afternoon, Trish Bellamy’s 31-year-old stepdaughter, Allison Bellamy, was set to graduate; not with a GED, nor a diploma, but with a certificate recognizing her completion of an intensive jail program centered around addiction.
And to sweeten the already-special moment, Trish Bellamy — Allison’s “mother who stepped up,” as she says — was bringing Allison’s 4-month-old baby, Brantley, to witness his mother walk across the jail gymnasium.
“This is what I’m working for,” Allison Bellamy said after the graduation ceremony, holding her baby in her arms and sporting a wide grin.
The VPRJ graduated six women Tuesday from a new program called “We Are In This Together,” or WAITT. The group of women is the first to complete the 12-week program focused around peer support — “sisterhood,” several women said — and tackling tough feelings.
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“Recovery is something we fight for every day, and we will continue to fight for the rest of our lives,” said inmate Cara Heathe, 31, in a speech.
Heathe — the class “valedictorian,” Allison Bellamy suggested — launched a series of graduation speeches from the women, thanking jail Superintendent Tony Pham for giving the program a chance.
“This program has taught me to realize that I am worthy,” said Melinda Lowery, another woman who graduated the program.
Here’s the first graduating class:
- Cara Heathe
- Allison Bellamy
- Melinda Lowery
- Angela Lynch
- Jodi McGinnis
- Kayla McManus
Many of the women had family attend the ceremony. Jodi McGinnis, who spoke to WYDaily in April about the program, was able to see her 6-year-old son Aiden for the first time in about a year during the ceremony.
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran attended and spoke at the graduation.
Moran has served as secretary under Virginia governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam.
He outlined several ways the governors have worked to decrease recidivism rates and make reentry into the community a smoother transition after incarceration, including restoring voting rights for those convicted of felonies, raising the threshold for grand larceny from $200 to $500 and ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs.
Moran was also joined by Pham, York-Poquoson Sheriff J.D. Danny Diggs, Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard and former Richmond City Justice Center Director of Internal Programs Sarah Scarbrough.
Leonard is the sheriff who allowed Heathe to transfer to the VPRJ to launch WAITT. When he arrived at the graduation ceremony, he greeted Heathe with a hug.
The next step
Heathe was brought to the VPRJ from Chesterfield to help launch WAITT, and said she will return to Chesterfield “any day now” to continue working in that jail’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program.
Heathe has one more year to serve of a five-year sentence stemming from a convenience store robbery. She’s pushing to get transferred into a transitional program outside the jail walls to continue her recovery.
She has not yet heard whether a judge will grant that wish, she said after the graduation ceremony, but plans to become a certified peer support specialist once she is released.
Allison Bellamy plans to join the next WAITT group while she finishes her sentence. The next class will include her sister Elizabeth, who is also incarcerated at the VPRJ.
Upon release, Allison Bellamy hopes to become a life coach.
McGinnis has less than 18 months left on her sentence and plans to continue working on changing behaviors that have led her to addiction.
“I never got to graduate from high school like this with my family here,” she said. “It’s really special to have them here.”