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Doing Their Time in the Working World

Justice: Restitution center is for women who stole. They repay debts, avoid prison.

April 15, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gina Faison takes the bus every morning to the downtown Los Angeles law office where she works.

She cannot leave the building for lunch with colleagues. She cannot stop at the mall after work. Nor can she go home to her husband and three young sons at night.

Faison, a paralegal and convicted thief, is serving an unusual three-year sentence at California's only restitution center for women.

"I don't know if I could have made it over the wall," said Faison, a 38-year-old first offender, referring to state prison.

She is one of 43 women now living at the minimum-security facility in Pico-Union, where inmates wear whatever they like, sleep two to six in a bedroom and sip their morning coffee outside under bright blue awnings.

The program is designed to move nonviolent inmates from prison into the work force to repay their victims, said Doris Mahlum, district administrator for the state Department of Corrections.

Participants have paid $250,000 in court-ordered restitution in the last two years, she said.

Despite increased prosecution of white-collar criminals and the popularity of alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders, the restitution center has operated in relative obscurity since 1971.

It serves inmates from throughout California, but rarely, if ever, have all 100 beds been occupied at once. Ten are now empty.

To qualify, inmates must be nonviolent, must have been ordered to pay restitution and sentenced to three years or less. They are required to get a job and turn over two-thirds of their salary to their victims and the state to defray the costs of incarceration.

The women are housed in a beige one-story structure built in 1910 as the Chase Sanatorium in a residential area on West 18th Street near Union Avenue. A 50-bed men's center is in a renovated motel in an industrial section of South La Cienega Boulevard.

Unlike the general prison population, most of the inmates are educated and have marketable job skills, said Cheryl Atterbury-Brooks, the parole officer assigned to the women's center.

"We have doctors, lawyers, nurses," she said.

A few earn more than the staff that supervises them. Program manager Ernest Green recalled a geologist convicted of fraud who was paid $30 an hour.

Most of the women work in offices and restaurants. Banks are strictly off-limits.

They are banned from working "too close to where they dirtied their hands before," Mahlum said. "I don't want them to get sticky fingers."

Employers are told they are hiring inmates who have defrauded or embezzled money, often from a previous employer.

A few of Encino attorney I. Mark Bledstein's clients, including Armen Oganesyan, have been sentenced to a restitution center.

Last week, Oganesyan, 26, was ordered to spend 16 months there and pay $50,000 in restitution for hacking into his former employer's computer. He is a first-time offender with a wife with two young children.

"It's a great benefit to this guy ... and the victim gets the money," Bledstein said.

Toni Medina, 41, was lucky. She got the first job she applied for.

The former suburban San Diego housewife has been a waitress at a Denny's restaurant in Mid-Wilshire for more than a year. Now she's the restaurant's top waitress and a candidate for management training.

Life is so good that some days Medina said she forgets she's a prisoner. She recently turned down a police officer who asked for her telephone number, and jokingly offered to give him her "W" or prison number.

But Medina said she would never break the center's rules, for fear of being sent back to prison.

Serious violations, including escapes, can add up to 36 months to an inmate's sentence. Lesser offenses can get an inmate transferred back to prison.

"When they do go back, it's horrible," Medina said. "They scream, kick and cry."

In the evenings, the women eat dinner together, watch television, use pay telephones in the hallway. They wash their own clothes and, if they like, can order pizza.

The dorm-style rooms each have a small bathroom with a toilet and sink. Communal showers are located in each wing.

Family visitation is from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

After 14 months at the center, Medina has bittersweet feelings about returning home this week.

She feels a strong bond with the other women. And she's proud of her professional accomplishments.

"You actually start a life, and all of a sudden you are paroled and you have to go back to your county and start a life," she said.

Medina, who divorced in prison, plans to return to San Diego to live with her three children. A secret addiction to crystal methamphetamine led to her arrest in a check and credit card fraud ring.

She suspects prison would have hardened her--and destroyed the little self-esteem she had left.

Medina said she is grateful for the safe and nurturing alternative to prison.

"I'm walking out as a productive member of society," she said. "I can guarantee you, I will never be back."

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