From all appearances, Sheena Devontenno leads a fairly normal life.
She lives in a modest but tidy Homestead apartment, which she shares with her son and nephew. She has a steady job working the phones at a customer service company and she is pursuing an associate's degree at Community College of Allegheny County.
Presented with this picture, it's hard to imagine that just five years ago Ms. Devontenno was incarcerated, in the process of completing an eight-year sentence.
Ms. Devontenno, 47, credits her turnaround in part to the time she spent at Renewal Inc., a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps offenders transition to a successful life after incarceration. She was one of three alumni of the program who spoke at a Renewal banquet earlier this summer.
Though she's been in Pennsylvania for more than a decade, Ms. Devontenno grew up in Cleveland, where she became involved in crime in her early teens, serving several short terms in jail over the following decades. Over the years, Ms. Devontenno found herself in violent domestic relationships with men she struggled to leave. She points to one eye, damaged and clouded -- a reminder of former abuse.
It was one of these men whom she followed to Erie in 2004, leaving her two children -- Lovanous and Briana, now 19 and 20 -- as well as her nephew Donovan, now 23, in the care of their grandmother. She was arrested in November on numerous felony charges involving credit card theft. She pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of a credit card and receiving stolen property and was sentenced to eight years in prison, which she would serve most of in State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs.
"My focus in jail, doing all that time, was, 'I can't raise no kids from letters and phone calls,' " Ms. Devontenno said.
When she was given the opportunity to do a six-month pre-release program in a community corrections center, with the possibility of parole upon completion, she jumped at it, transferring to Renewal in April 2008. She stayed for nine months.
Renewal Inc. is a halfway house with a variety of programs designed to help inmates transition to life outside prison. Among them are drug and alcohol rehabilitation, employment programs, and career, family and life-skills training.
"If you have a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, then you're letting a person out of prison that's not prepared for society," said Renewal vice president Stephen Devlin. "You're setting them up to fail."
Renewal was established in 1976 with two 25-bed facilities for male prisoners out on work-release from the Allegheny County Jail.
It now has two residential facilities, one on the Boulevard of the Allies and the other on Second Avenue, providing proximity to the courts and public transit. The two buildings, which accommodate both women and men, have a combined capacity of about 600.
Renewal also has added drug and alcohol treatment services and a formal employment program called GETPAID or Gaining Employment Through Planning Advocacy Initiative & Dedication.
In addition to in-patient residential services, Mr. Devlin estimated Renewal has 5,200 individuals participating in its outpatient services at any time.
Judge David R. Cashman, one of the officials responsible for assigning county jail prisoners to alternative housing facilities like Renewal, sees value in community corrections.
"It's an important alternative," he said. "There are some people that deserve to be incarcerated and you've got to remove them, get them off the street. [But] there are other people who commit crimes that can be rehabilitated."
At Renewal, residents must live according to a strict set of rules and obligations. In addition to basic behavior guidelines, they are required to meet regularly with a case manager, who serves as their counselor during their time at Renewal.
Case managers provide personal and psychological support to residents, as well as information and resources to help them prepare for their life after prison. They help residents find employment during their stay and encourage them to participate in classes and programs -- either at Renewal or through a recommended organization -- to teach them career and life skills.
Ms. Devontenno's case manager, Ngina Wharton, helped her secure a job at a Downtown McDonald's that was willing to hire people with criminal records. She also referred her to the Pennsylvania Organization for Women in Early Recovery to attend group drug and alcohol treatment meetings, as well as classes at Renewal to learn job interview strategies.
Some bad apples, too
Despite their advantages, halfway houses like Renewal have not been entirely free from criticism.
In February, the Post-Gazette reported that the Allegheny County Jail had sent inmates to alternative housing who had criminal histories involving violence and gun crimes.
These included a man who walked out of Renewal on Dec. 24, 2011, escaping to Beaver County, where the following October he was charged with killing a pregnant teenage girl.
In late May, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning issued an order making Allegheny County judges, rather than jail administrators, responsible for assigning county jail prisoners to alternative housing. Renewal does not have a direct hand in selecting candidates for transfer to their facilities, but officials can reject an individual whom they feel would be ill-suited for their program.
"We really don't have anything to do with that," Mr. Devlin said. "And, I mean, we're going to take them if they're eligible regardless of who refers them -- the court or the jail. That's our mission: to serve that population."
Ms. Devontenno eventually left Renewal in January 2009, moving to Homestead, where she has lived ever since. She received custody of her two children and, while Briana returned to Cleveland when she turned 18, Lovanous still lives with her. He just graduated from Steel Valley Senior High School and plans to attend CCAC in the fall. In late June, Donovan moved to Pittsburgh to live with his aunt, as well.
July 19 marked a full year since Ms. Devontenno started her job at the Robinson branch of IBEX Global, a customer service contractor. It was the support and resources that were provided to her at Renewal that made this successful transition possible, she said.
But her time at Renewal didn't only help Ms. Devontenno get her life back on track; it also inspired her to give back to others in the same situation.
She is now enrolled at CCAC in an associate's program for social work. After she receives her degree, she hopes to transfer to Carlow University to get a bachelor's in social work.
In the meantime, she plans to look for a job as a counselor or case manager at a substance treatment institute or similar setting. She feels that, given her own experiences, she would be specially positioned to help at such an institution.
"[I] lost my kids, gave my kids to my mother when I was out on the streets. Men problems, domestic problems, drug problems, crime problems. So, I'm an example of, 'there's no excuse,' " she said. "No education; then went to school, got a GED in jail. Furthered myself, went and got a college degree. And it wasn't easy. I went through plenty of nights crying, barely could pay my bills, working jobs to make it. But I'm the example of 'no excuse.' "neigh_south
Lee Purvey: email@example.com or 412-263-1999.