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Gwendolyn Blevins knew that when she was freed from her three-year stint in prison that the drugs would be there, but her daughter might not.

When Blevins left Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville in early June, she went back to the dilapidated neighborhood near 24th Street and Broadway Road where she had been surrounded by drugs and addicts she counted as friends and family.

The decision to return to the toxic environment that contributed to her addiction could backfire, but the neighborhood was all that Blevins had outside of prison.

Her father and grandmother, both role models to her, were dead.

Her daughter, 11, was growing up in the high-poverty neighborhood without her. The choice was obvious: Go back to be a better mother and get a job.

Temptation has threatened to envelop Blevins.

She said her old drug friends have called her frequently. She has tried to ignore the incessant ringing of their calls. Cravings for PCP and other drugs have gnawed at her.

After living three years without a mother, her daughter seems to hate her.

Blevins, 37, is chipping away at the wall that her daughter built from resentment.

"She doesn't listen to me. She doesn't respect me," Blevins said, gasping as if she were coming up for air, an exhaustive fight to reach the surface.

With drugs, she could float away, numb to the realities of a post-prison life. She is hanging onto the hand of Detra Auzenne, 42, for help.

Auzenne is a success story at Arizona Women's Education and Employment, a downtown Phoenix-based organization that, through mentorship and counseling, supported her efforts to find work, a home and prevent her substance abuse.

Now, it's her turn to be a mentor for Blevins.

"Because of where I'm at today and the support I've gotten from AWEE - it pretty much has made me want to help somebody else," Auzenne said.

With AWEE, Auzenne has a job at a technology business and is repairing her relationship with her children - a life that was previously unfamiliar to her, considering her past.

A cocaine addict and a victim of abuse, Auzenne in her teens spun into a cycle of self-sabotage and self-medication.

She went to prison several times, including three drug-related convictions in the past 10 years, Maricopa County Superior Court records showed. Auzenne's three oldest children, 13 to 24 years old, have been growing up without her help, under her mother's watch.

For months after her release in July 2009, they reminded her of this. Auzenne was not a mother, and certainly was not their mother. Where had she been?

Remembering their anger, Auzenne grabbed Blevins' hand.

"It hurts going through it," Auzenne said.

Mentorship program

Last fall, AWEE received a two-year, $300,000 federal grant to begin working with women before they left prison.

It had a mentorship program before, but this new one is different, said Lisa Armijo Zorita, an AWEE community developer who oversees the program.

Instead of waiting to see the women after their release, "we match people with mentors while they are incarcerated," Armijo said.

Armijo said the pairings are made somewhat intuitively. When she met Blevins, Armijo had a feeling that Auzenne would be the best mentor. The pair exchanged messages before Blevins left prison, and later, they realized they knew each other from their south Phoenix neighborhood.

"You will make it," Auzenne has told her. "You aren't half as bad as I was."

AWEE and three partners involved in the mentorship program - Valle del Sol, the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Catholic Charities - have been meeting every few weeks with women in Perryville prison in Goodyear to prepare them for life after their release.

On a Wednesday afternoon late last month, Armijo introduced herself to a group of 24 women prisoners at Perryville. Each of them was within a few months of her release.

As Armijo talked to them about the AWEE mentorship and counseling programs, the women began to share their anxieties about post-prison life. What about housing? What about credit?

Armijo discussed the steps they will take with AWEE before they leave prison. They can participate in the mentorship program. They'll be paired with a woman who, like them, has been in prison but started to turn her life around.

AWEE also offers guidance on financial issues.

Many of the women have never had a bank account. AWEE can provide counseling, offer tips on jobs or help them get their high-school diploma, Armijo said.

"What if we're afraid to leave?" asked Pamela Gillmore, 43, of Tucson.

Gillmore has been in prison for over two years after she was convicted of selling drugs, Arizona Department of Corrections records show. Gillmore said she had promised to get drugs for a man she later learned was an undercover officer.

Before prison, her marriage had collapsed. She became homeless, an alcoholic and hooked on crack cocaine.

She fears that could happen again with her release in May but has hope that the mentorship program will help her stay sober. She wants to see her daughter and help raise her two grandchildren.

"It's going to be scary. It's going to be different," Gillmore said. "I pray that I'm strong enough to do it."

Threat of return

The risk of recidivism looms.

Researchers found 24.5 percent of 60,754 Arizona inmates released from July 2001 to June 2007 were back in prison within three years on a new felony conviction, according to a study for the Arizona Department of Corrections. Further research on those same former inmates revealed that 42.6 percent of them returned within eight years with a new felony conviction.

Armijo's surveys of the women AWEE has assisted show many have suffered emotional and physical violence, rape, sexual abuse and homelessness. Several had eating disorders, were diagnosed with mental illness and suffered a serious injury or a disease. Many never completed high school, and several have children.

Melissa Lowy was 16 when she was taken to jail on Father's Day 1988. She had no idea when she burglarized her mother's Phoenix home with her boyfriend that she was about to give more than 13 years of her life to a state prison.

"He said we needed to get out of town," Lowy recalled. "We go down to Tucson and he ended up pulling a gun. . . . We ended up in a high-speed chase."

He fired at police, who fired back. "It felt like a dream, a nightmare at the time," she said.

Lowy expects to be released next Feb. 13, the day before her 30th birthday. In her years at Perryville, Lowy has been mending her relationship with her mother and plans to move in with her after her release.

"It's getting harder and harder to see her leave after the visits," Lowy said. "I believed that my mom was going to get me out of this - just like when a kid gets in trouble at school and their parents come by and are like, 'OK. We can get you out of this.' "

She said prison has forced her to become more independent. She has been taking college courses through a program offered by Rio Salado College but is anxious for the imminent job hunt after her release. "We leave here and we already have one strike against us," she said.

"I'm hoping that the AWEE program is going to give me a step-by-step what to expect," Lowy said. "It's something I've been thinking about - only on the level of I want to get out of here. It's overwhelming."

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