Berman: Leaving prison at the front door

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Detroit 1964 was crackling with the spirit of change. Hemlines were rising. Jerry Cavanagh was mayor. The Beatles had just played Olympia. In the deep background, a handful of Catholic women decided to help women getting out of prison.

The well-meaning ladies impressed their priest, who found them a dingy, three-bedroom flat. With soap, water and the passion of women on a mission, they cleaned and furnished the residence, finding a few streetwalkers who seemed ready to retire and embark on more conventional lives.

"I never thought it would last at all," says Alberta Azmar, one of the co-founders of Heartline, a residence for women that celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend. "We didn't know anything about what we were doing. None of us was a social worker or a therapist. We had no experience talking to women coming out of prison."

But they had heart. They cared. And that spirit kept Heartline alive, through riots and renaissances and bankruptcy. Over the years, Heartline became an official halfway house, operating under Lutheran Social Services since 1987, and staffed with professional counselors and therapists, under the direction of Mary Ellen White.

In 1972, it moved from that original building to a former convent on the east side that can house up to 30 women.

It now offers everything from anger management and money management classes to transportation to job interviews, career counseling, and — really — anything that's needed to help residents begin their lives anew.

"When you have people cheerleading for you, it makes you want to do better," says Joyelle Bush, a resident since last May. "Everyone here's from a different walk of life but we stick together. We know so much about each other."

The house provides three meals a day, prepared in the kitchen by a staff member and served in a communal dining room.

"We don't know exactly what happens to most of the women who come here," says White, the director. "They don't usually want to have anything to do with anything about the criminal justice system after leaving."

But through the massive wooden door, all kinds of women have come and gone over the years, including doctors, lawyers and a few high-profile former government officials. "A lot of our ladies have gotten in with the wrong people ... love is a crazy thing," she says. "A few have been criminal masterminds."

She remembers one woman who had single-handedly run a financial scam who questioned the Heartline rules. "I told her, 'You masterminded a complex scheme and you don't understand our few simple rules? I'm not even going to go there.'"

But White views Heartline as a helping place, rather than an adjunct to the criminal justice system, and residents back her up.

Bush, who spent 117 days in jail and has no intention of ever returning, says White pushed her from the beginning. She wanted to go to college. "Ms. Mary Ellen asked me every week if I had registered for classes. She kept asking until I could finally show her the piece of paper that proved I had," she said. "She has a big heart and she's selfless.

The residence has given her a place to regroup and gain skills that will help her finish college and begin a new career. "I've gotten a second chance at life that many don't," she said.

You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? Sometimes — as in the case of the well-meaning women who started Heartline — they are just plain wrong.

Heartline is holding a free "dinner of gratitude" for supporters and well-wishers at the Barrister House in St. Clair Shores from 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, with a silent auction and donations accepted.