Rhonda Chiodo and Stacie Butaud have spent the last seven months in parish prison together talking about getting out, envisioning walking out together arm-in-arm.
Thursday, what had been a fantasy became a reality as they became the first two participants in a program to free pre-trial detainees in Baton Rouge who are stuck behind bars due to a lack of funds.
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Proponents of the new community bail fund program say they hope it will be the start of many more non-violent offenders having an opportunity to await resolution of their cases at home rather than stuck in jail.
As they fantasized about getting out of jail at the same time, Chiodo and Butaud worried about barriers to integrating back into society like transportation, housing and jobs. They hoped they would be able to stay clean, and wondered if they could mend family relationships strained by drug use.
From the day they met, they joked there was something so close and familiar about each other that they would be released on the same day. And then Thursday, fighting back tears and with smiles that couldn’t be dimmed, there they were heading out the prison's gates.
“She was pretty stressed out, both of us were, about where we were going to go when we got out, how it was going to be… and it’s like, your chances of survival are like 2 percent that way, you know what I mean? It’s just like now there’s no doubt, we can make it,” Chiodo said, standing at the prison gate.
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The community bail fund program, spearheaded by the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge, is part of a nationwide movement toward bail reform that aims to provide an alternative to the high local jail incarceration rate that often leaves facilities underfunded and overcrowded.
The model works on donations that help to post bond for non-violent, misdemeanor inmates so they can continue working, paying rent and keeping up family relationships while awaiting adjudication or acquittal in their cases. Once their case has been resolved, their bond money goes back into the pot to be used for others in the same situation.
YWCA CEO Dianna Payton said funding came in from private donors about three months ago, and since then her team has been working with the prison to identify and screen potential program participants. The movement gained traction with support from some big agencies in the area, including the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
“The goal of the program is justice,” Payton said. “Non-violent, unconvicted citizens of Baton Rouge are being held in jail because they do not have the resources to pay several hundred dollars to bond out. The community bail fund is not a place to subvert justice, but to allow individuals to continue their lives until they have been arraigned and judged guilty or not guilty.”
Tonja Myles, a pastor with the Love Alive Church and a peer support specialist in the prison, said she hopes with the right ongoing support, Butaud, Chiodo and the future participants won’t be back in custody.
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“We didn’t want them just walking out the gate, we wanted them walking in to the help that they needed,” she said. “We’re making sure they’re getting the treatment they need, the supportive housing they need, the life skills they need.”
For Chiodo, a cycle of crystal meth and heroin developed from the loneliness of moving to a new city four years ago. She thought she was hiding her addiction from her daughter until Mother’s Day of this year, when the daughter couldn’t find her mom and tracked her down in prison.
Chiodo had been arrested on a count of criminal trespass for squatting in an empty house.
“The barrier in my life was my mind, that’s basically all it was… I just got to a point in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted so I figured I’d just have nothing and I just fell off, I can’t explain why,” she said.
It was when she was booked into prison in May that she found Butaud, who had been there about five months on misdemeanor theft and drug paraphernalia possession charges. Butaud spiraled into drug use when she moved to Baton Rouge from Texas to escape an abusive boyfriend.
Chiodo and Butaud had bond amounts set at $5,000 and $500, respectively, but couldn’t make the payments.
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Their former situations are a far cry from how they felt walking out of the prison Thursday, something Chiodo related to winning the showcase on “The Price is Right.”
Now, through the program, the women are in a drug rehabilitation program and will meet with case workers to ensure they’re going to court appearances, have transportation and housing and have the tools they need to hold down a job.
They carried orange tote bags filled with items the program directors thought they might need. A sweatshirt. A journal. A pair of shoes. A membership to YWCA where they can take classes and build skills.
“Walking out and knowing I have people behind me who are going to help me every step of the way, they have my best interest at heart and just want to see me succeed because of their kindness and generosity, is amazing,” Butaud said. “How could I let them down? It’s just not an option.”
In addition to Weston Broome, EBRSO and YWCA, the program was supported by the Law Office of the Public Defender, EBRSO, the Baton Rouge Alcohol and Drug Center, Love Alive Church, Young Adult Re-Entry Social Services, Winifred and Kevin Reilly, Jr., Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation, Foundation For Louisiana, and SAMHSA ReCAST.