Each day Sophia Dugwyler goes to work at Magdalene Serenity House is different from the last. But whether she is negotiating with court representatives, coordinating counseling sessions or just listening with an open mind, she spends all her time helping the formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives.
Dugwyler, who was arrested four times and incarcerated at several jails and prisons around Arkansas between 2010 and 2017, now helps other women recover from the financial and mental strains of being behind bars.
In a state with the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country — according to Bureau of Justice statistics — detainees are released with little infrastructure in place to help them reenter society and prevent recidivism.
Some of these Arkansans find sanctuary at the Fayetteville nonprofit Magdalene Serenity House. The residential program, which can serve eight individuals, provides two years of cost-free housing and support to women released from local jails and prisons.
Dugwyler, 33, of Siloam Springs, graduated from the program in 2019. She completed it six months early to allow her son — now a “14-year-old man child” — to move in with her the summer before a new school year began, she said.
Convicted of three felony drug charges at 21, Dugwyler was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released on parole after 11 months. She spent the next seven years in a cycle of relapse-induced parole violations and reincarceration.
Incarceration often costs inmates their jobs and housing. The issue is compounded for those struggling with trauma and addiction, usually convicted on drug possession or trafficking charges and later released from jail or prison without counseling or tools to help prevent relapse, Dugwyler said.
“If I knew how to figure out how to stay sober and be successful, then I would have done that a long time ago,” Dugwyler said. “But I had no idea how to do that. I needed some guidance and support.”
The high number of ex-inmates who reoffend and return to jail is a key contributor to overcrowding at the Washington County Detention Center, which is part of a larger national problem. The jail’s recidivism rate between 2015 and 2019 was 72%, according to a National Center for State Courts study published in 2020.
County officials are moving to expand the detention center using $20 million of federal pandemic relief funds. The project would add 230 beds to the 710-bed facility, with construction expected to conclude in 2025.
But even some local pro-prison-expansion politicians agree more needs to be done to keep people from jail in the first place. One Washington County official, Justice of the Peace Sean Simons, said the jail expansion addresses a community need, but will not solve the overcrowding problem on its own.
“We shouldn’t just build a bigger facility,” Simons said. “We should build a bigger facility while we’re working on pretrial services and diversionary tactics.”
The expansion push coincides with the Arkansas legislature’s decision to fund a 498-bed expansion to the North Central Unit, a medium-security state prison in Calico Rock. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced his support for the plan in early February, citing projected inmate population growth over the next decade.
“This need for a new facility is not a reflection of a change in incarceration policy,” Hutchinson said during his State of the State address Feb. 14. “It is simply the fact that we have a growing state.”
Criminal justice reform advocates argue that expanding the jail is an irresponsible use of COVID-19 relief funds, and that expansion will simply lead to more incarceration. They are pushing for alternatives such as home monitoring and lower bond amounts.
April Bachrodt, who gave up a tenure-track social work faculty position at the UofA to serve as executive director of Magdalene Serenity House, dreads the thought of Washington County getting more than 200 new jail beds.
More inmates inevitably means more folks with few support systems to turn to once released, she said.
“When people get held in county jail and they’re sitting there for three months, you lose everything in that process,” Bachrodt said. “You’re not paying rent, you’re not paying fines and fees. You’re not able to provide for your family. You’re just sitting there because you can’t make bail.”
Finding sufficient employment is a common issue for people with criminal records, UA sociology professor Michael David Niño said.
“Folks with a criminal conviction are less likely to get interviewed and less likely to obtain a job,” Niño said.
Dugwyler taught art and social skills classes at nearby nonprofit Life Styles while living at Magdalene, but later had to work more than 60 hours a week to afford housing and bills as a single mother, she said.
When a position opened up, Dugwyler joined the Magdalene staff as a peer recovery specialist in 2020, connecting with residents in the same situation she once was.
Having someone around who knows firsthand the struggles they face is a great benefit to Magdalene residents, Dugwyler said. Her average work day consists of resolving outstanding fines and fees, helping residents make court appointments and meeting a variety of other needs.
“Today, I’m taking a resident to take her driver’s license test,” Dugwyler said March 4. “I just help them with whatever it is that they need to do in that moment.”
Magdalene’s staff works to avoid punitive measures and provide an environment that encourages rehabilitation instead of the relapse and recidivism that can lead to bloated jail rosters, Bachrodt said.
The nonprofit takes a holistic, non-restrictive approach to recovery and reintegration, Bachrodt said. Available resources include healthcare, counseling and employment assistance, and residents are free to participate or abstain as they see fit.
“They can walk out that door at any time,” Bachrodt said. “That’s up to them. I want them to choose to be here each and every day.”