Catherine’s Center helps San Mateo County inmates transition back into society

By Christine Morente
San Mateo County Times
June 10, 2009

BURLINGAME – Tiffany Taylor didn’t know how to live before she stepped into Catherine’s Center, a transition house in San Mateo County.

In and out of the jail system since she was 12 years old, Taylor grew up in a dysfunctional home of drug addicts and alcoholics.

“I would sip leftover (alcoholic) drinks as a child, and I knew if I had enough of them it would feel good,” Taylor said.
Her addictions came in full force by the time she was 11, and throughout the years she was involved in crime and prostitution.

On Tuesday morning, she told her story during the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Mateo County’s Catherine’s Center Breakfast Hour at Kohl Mansion.

The annual event not only focused on Catherine Center, but the importance of restorative justice.

In the last decade, there has been a 500 percent increase of women in prisons nationwide, said Sister Suzanne Jabro, executive director for the Center for Restorative Justice Works based out of North Hollywood.

The 62-year-old has worked within the state prison system for the last 35 years. She founded the Women and Criminal Justice Network and, “Get on the Bus,” a statewide annual event that brings children from urban cities to visit their mothers at state prisons in remote rural areas.

Jabro said she doesn’t believe incarceration should be seen as the solution for social problems. Instead, it has contributed to financial and human costs, she added.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s 2008 quarterly report, the annual cost for each inmate in prison was $49,000.

“(Prisons) are the biggest waste of money,” said Jabro, who referred to inmates as the walking wounded.

And when people are released after years of confinement, they are forced to relearn everything once they are back in society.

“For many, it’s an awkward transition”, said Marty Schurr, the Roman Catholic chaplain at the county jail.

“Life moves so fast out here and we live it everyday,” he said. “They put you in a jail cell and everything stops. Time takes on a different meaning.”

A transition home like Catherine’s Center allows former female inmates to “softly land” back into society, Schurr said.

In 2003, Catherine’s Center” its location is being kept secret began with collaboration between the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo County and the Sisters of Mercy.

Women live in the safe house for 12 months and learn new coping skills, reconnect with family and understand the root causes of their incarceration.

Taylor learned about the center from Schurr. Both met a few years ago when Taylor was arrested.

Schurr said he saw potential in her.

“I see in people what they don’t see in themselves,” the 48-year-old said. “I can go in and look at someone and say, ‘You’re not your file.’”

Taylor is now an alumna of Catherine’s Center and is a weekend relief staff member. She said she experienced a “spiritual awakening” and, “found a connection to God” there.

“I realized I needed to do something and change my life,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t see my life outside the way it was.”

Jabro said Catherine’s Center is the only transition house in Northern California. There needs to be one in every city in the state. There’s a similar home called Crossroads in Claremont, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

“It is about accompaniment,” she said. “It is about family in the broad sense of the world. They can’t make it alone. Catherine’s Center is a light. It is restorative healing justice.”

Reach Christine Morente at 650-348-4333 or cmorente@bayareanewsgroup.com