Pictures of kids are passed around as the women wait for class to start. Laughter and talk of the latest happenings fill the room — but this isn’t a typical social gathering.
These women wear jumpsuits striped with black and gray. The words “Sullivan County Jail” are emblazoned on the back in a deeper shade of red than the carpet. The five pews they are sitting on are bolted to the wall on the right side, directly below caged windows that let in no sunlight.
In front of the pews stand two more women. Free women.
“Let me tell you a little bit about me before we get started,” said one of the teachers of the class, Judy Clark. “My background is a teacher, for years, but I had a heart for women and started volunteering and that turned into full-time work. So, I have a heart for children and women and families and just really want to support them in any way, and this allows me to do that. OK, who wants to go first.”
A blond woman sitting in the last pew raises her hand to start.
She says her name is Heather and she is charged with the initiation of the manufacture of methamphetamine and reckless burning.
She had been doing drugs and was on the run from the law with her husband when her house burned down.
“Somebody was making meth at our house and burned it down,” she said. “They caught up with us and tried to charge us with it. I never made meth a day in my life.”
She went to jail over a year ago. While in jail, she gave birth to a little girl. She spent two days with her before she had to give up custody and return to jail. Her daughter is now 7 months old.
The Department of Children’s Services got involved and officials recommended she take a class in jail to help her with parenting.
She signed up for a class offered by Families Free. After telling everyone her daughter turned 7 months old the day before, she went quiet.
Families Free is a nonprofit faith-based organization serving the Tri-Cities. The group focuses mostly on women, with the only exception being Hawkins County, where they focus on both men and women.
They offer classes in four jails around the region, Blountville, Washington County, Johnson City and Hawkins County. The 16-week program tackles what life will be like once these women leave jail.
Families Free currently has 100 females enrolled in classes at all four jails. Hundreds of female inmates have participated in the program since the organization was founded in 2007, and 68 female inmates have graduated from the program.
For an expanded version of this article, please see Sunday’s print edition or our expanded electronic edition.