After 7 months in jail, Amy McKeown struggles to navigate life at home as she fights the pull of addiction
“Mom, I’m getting released… like now. I’m dressed and everything. Can you come get me? It’s cold outside.”
Amy McKeown sets the telephone at the Warren County Jail back on its cradle and gathers her small bundle of personal belongings. Wearing the thin t-shirt she when she was detained 7 months ago, Amy walks outside and instantly feels the chill of the November wind against her exposed skin.
She has waited in this parking lot before.
For the better part of two decades, Amy has been in and out of jail as she struggled with addictions to alcohol and methamphetamines. This time during her incarceration she felt many loses. Her father passed away and she felt her relationship with her mother Susan and sons Dallas and Jaxson grow more strained. Since her sons were small, they have been raised by Susan and other relatives while Amy was incarcerated or otherwise unable to care for them.
As she was waiting for Susan, Amy expressed excitement as well as a hope that things could be different this time. For one, she was granted an early release through her participation in a group therapy program at the jail and she had taken other classes in parenting and reentry.
“She’s letting me come home when I get out this time,” Amy explained through tears. “That just shows me that she hasn’t given up on me, so I just want to take this opportunity to not mess up.”
When Susan arrives in the parking lot across the street, Amy runs to embrace her. Both feel the possibility of a different kind of a relationship and a different kind of life.
Together, they make the drive to Jaxson’s elementary school. Amy positions herself behind a pillar and waits to surprise her son, who is unaware of her early release.
At 11-years-old, Jackson McKeown is goofy and fun loving, albeit slow to trust. Sitting on the couch with his grandma a few weeks before Amy’s release, he expressed concern for the way their life would change when his mother moved back home. He stated practical concerns—like the need to buy more food—as well as deeper anxieties—that she would use again. He remembers a time earlier in his life when he witnessed his mother’s arrest across the street from his school while he and his friends looked on from the playground. Though his love for her is apparent, it is not without a learned caution.
Jaxson’s restraint dissipates as Amy pops out of her hiding spot, grabbing him in a tight hug as he inevitably breaks down in her arms. It is the first time they have felt each other’s touch in months.
They hug for a long time at first before breaking into a succession of small, loving pats as the three of them make their way to Susan’s jeep.
Susan, Jaxson, and Amy have all given much thought as to how this day would go. In preparation, Susan and Jaxson composed a list of rules for Amy. They wanted to know where she was most of the time, for her to spend every night at home, and, above all else, for her not to use. Relapse is a fear they all share, looming over any other decision or plan.
For the first time in months, Amy steps through the door of her mother’s home with her son on her heels. Quickly, he pulls her into his room to show off his new video games and then asks for help with his homework.
The three of them try to find a new harmony in this old house—as though Spring had not turned to Winter since Amy was last home and as if Jaxson had not begun a new grade.
For the first time in years, Amy retires to a room she hasn’t slept in since she was a teen.
“I feel like I am taking a hundred steps back,” Amy said.
Besides living at home, Amy must rely on others for rides due to the suspension of her license. Looking for a job is difficult, as is getting to the weekly DUI classes she must attend to get her license back.
A week after her release, Amy struggles to find ways to occupy her time. She wakes up to send Jaxson to school and spends the remainder of her day confined to the house, usually watching television until Susan and Jaxson get back. At night, she has trouble sleeping.
“The evenings are the worst. I want to be settled down, but right now I always feel this itch to get up and do something.”
Two weeks later, she spends most nights away from home, breaking the initial rules set by Susan and Jaxson. Sometimes, they have trouble contacting her don’t and speak with her for days. Within six months, Amy has moved out of Susan and Jaxson’s home and works at a barber shop in town.
“It’s hard to hear the pain that you’ve caused somebody,” Amy said. “And for 20 twenty years, that’s why I’ve used. When I use, I hurt people I love and then if I ever try to get clean it hurts to bad to see it and so I want to get high to cover that up. That ends up being my pattern.”
For families across the United States, the uncertainty of addiction looms each decision and plan. For those who are incarcerated, 76% of are rearrested within five years of their release.
Amy and her family hope that this is her last time.
On the corner of Kentucky Street and East Main Avenue, the Warren County Regional Jail stands central to the downtown area of Bowling Green, Kentucky. In a town of about 70,000, the red brick facility houses roughly 700 inmates at a time.
“The people who come into our facility are members of a community—whether it’s Bowling Green or somewhere else in Kentucky,” said Doug Miles, Program Services Director at the jail. “If we’re not doing all we can to help those incarcerated become productive citizens, we are only hurting ourselves.”
Across the United States, prisons and jails operate under a patchwork of regulations that vary across state and local jurisdictions. Depending on where they are housed, people incarcerated in the U.S. have varied access to resources and vastly different experiences depending on their mandated facility. In the state of Kentucky, more than one third of people incarcerated are housed in city or county jails.
The national narrative of incarceration is one of distance—the prisons of television and movies are grey structures with thick walls miles away from well-behaving society. Local jails, on the other hand, often operate within their communities. The Warren County jail is less than a mile away from downtown Bowling Green, including a park, some bars, and the town’s only coffee shop. Most of the people incarcerated at the facility are from Bowling Green or one of the surrounding counties.
“Most people incarcerated here return to the community,” said Kerry Mears, head of the Southern Kentucky Reentry Council. “We have to figure out the best way to help them come back—both for the people incarcerated and the community as a whole.”
For this reason, the faculty at Warren County have focused on bringing programs to the facility that aid reentry and reduce recidivism.
“We want to remove as many barriers to success as possible,” Miles said.
In many jails, the resources and programs inmates have access to are volunteer-based, meaning that they are sourced by outside members of the community. This includes programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, who send in volunteers to work with those inside the jail. These programs are not funded or staffed by local or state governments and rely fully on outside support.
As Program Services Director, Miles works with these outside groups as well as the administration of programs inside of the prison. Besides partnering with local colleges, businesses, and church groups, Miles and other members of the staff teach a variety of classes for self-improvement, like personal finance, parenting, and anger management. Besides the content of the classes themselves, Miles says that the engagement they provide between inmates and staff facilitates a better environment.
“Getting the staff involved in the education part has shown the inmates that we are more than a housing facility,” Miles said. “We want to give them the skills they need to become productive citizens.”
INSIDE THE WARREN COUNTY REGIONAL JAIL: A look at programs that aim to address recidivism and reentry
Besides programs administered by outside groups, the Warren County Jail has been working to provide those in the facility access to other programs and classes. Below is a look into some the initiatives aimed towards rehabilitation.
Moral Recognation Therapy is a class reinstated by the Warren County Jail this year to curb its recidivism rate. The class, designed to improve moral reasoning, is practiced in facilities across the country and is comparable to group therapy. Warren County inmates are incentivized to attend with time off their sentences. Miles pushed to reinstate the class when he was made aware of its past success in the facility. Those who teach the class first take it for themselves and go through training.
In Warren County, the twelve-step program is available to both men and women, who are provided workbooks and encouraged to share personal experiences with the group in weekly meetings. Many members of the facility have been trained in the class’s administration.
“It is too soon to tell if the program itself is effecting our overall recidivism rate, but I can definitely see the difference made on an individual level with those who have completed the program,” Miles said.
The Backpack Program is a practice through the Southern Kentucky Reentry Council that provides backpacks to inmates on the day of their release. The bags contain basic hygiene and other essential items as well as brochures for programs intended to help with reentry.
Most inmates are released at 12:01 AM on their release date and struggle to find a ride or place to stay. When Mears witnessed this, she started collecting items to make backpacks so formerly incarcerated people were not leaving the jail empty-handed. The backpacks provided are intended to increase preparedness and help former inmates ease back into society.
State-issued identification cards for many inmates are made by the Reentry Council so that former inmates will be able to navigate their world more easily after their release. Identification allows people to open a bank account or apply for a job, among many things.
“Lack of identification is one barrier we are trying to overcome for the people here,” said Miles. “Our job is about removing as many barriers as we can.”
Those who are incarcerated and the facilities that house them are up against a myriad of barriers across the United States. In Warren County jail, where drug-related crimes are the most common offense, addiction is a barrier they have not yet figured out how to overcome. Though Warren County has implemented many classes for personal growth and preparedness, the complicated nature of addiction is not something they have the resources to tackle in its entirety.
“As a society, we are making incarceration out of something that is an addiction,” said Mears. “At the jail, we’re doing as much as we can to help that. I just hope it is enough.”
For many reasons, Amy Mckeown’s most recent time at the the Warren County Jail did feel different than others. She took part Moral Recognation Therapy, parenting classes, and the pre-release class, programs that were not available during the other times she was incarcerated. She said that these classes helped her get a new mindset, work through her problems, and prompted her to look toward life on the outside. On her way out the door, she grabbed one of the drawstring backpacks, sifting through its contents later at the beginning of a new chapter. Amy cites MRT as the most formative experience she’s had in the jail, where she made an action plan for her life.
“There are a lot of things I want to do—to grow up, to have a career, to be a good mother and daughter. I would really like to travel to Montana. More than anything, though, I don’t what to lose what Mom and Jaxson are giving me. That’s worth more than anything.”