Leo Chesney, a minimum security women’s prison in Live Oak, is a place with lush green lawns and flower beds everywhere, trees blossoming and the laughter of women as they go about their chores. This place is a far cry from images of tortured women locked in dark cells.. The only clue of the penal nature of the place is the chain-linked fence that surrounds the facility. Most of the women that are housed at Chesney are serving sentences for drug felonies or drug-related crimes, like credit card fraud that can be linked to drugs. They are as young as 18 and as old as 70. Most fall in the range of 25-40. The average stay is four to six months. Leo Chesney, which is named after a local Live Oak councilman, is home to approximately 205 residents and has been based in Live Oak for about ten years, according to Richard Mikesell, program administrator and liaison for classes through Yuba College. “This is called a community correctional facility. It is minimum security. An individual cannot have more than eighteen months on their sentences when they arrive here. We generally get someone that has four to six mouths left,” Mikesell explained. “They’re usually facing their parole and getting ready to re-enter society. What we try to do here is give them options.” Mikesell added that when women arrive, they are given a diagnostic test in basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Inmates who score below a sixth grade level must attend classes. These adult basic education and G.E.D. preparation classes are taken through Yuba College. “We try to expose them to what’s out there. I have a library with different community college catalogues. We try to show them a different reality. We try to break the cycle, and education is the key,” said Mikesell. Currently, there are 97 women taking different classes from Yuba College. “Roughly half the population are involved in one class or another,” said Mikesell. A woman we will call Marie— since she did not want us to use her real name— is one of the inmates at Leo Chesney. She has been incarcerated since July and arrived at Leo Chesney in September 2000. Marie has four months left on her sentence. She is also a student, taking classes that are offered by Yuba College at the Live Oak facility and through distance education. Marie, who is Cherokee and Kiowa, grew up in Oklahoma in a well-to-do family. Her father is a respected businessman and her mother a psychologist. When she was younger she wanted to be an artist. She has never forgotten that dream. One day she hopes to own her own production company, making films on women who are strong and not victims. “That’s why women end of up in here (prison)— because women believe men need to help them,” said Marie. “I had no idea before about the legal system. It didn’t effect me, and I didn’t know anyone in prison. And for someone like me to get caught up in something like this, it opened my eyes. I was naive. I believed the system would work for me. It worked against me.” Marie paused to catch her breath. “I’ve never been in trouble— and to go straight to prison!” Marie’s eyes widened. “I tried to fight, but after a while I got tired and I wanted to come home, so I plea bargained. I have two twin daughters at home who are four years old.” Marie has not seen her family for a long time. She says she prefers it that way. “I don’t want them to remember me here. They send me pictures.” Of her experiences at Leo Chesney, Marie sees somewhat of a silver lining. “It was a blessing to come here. The original place I went, I couldn’t even deal with that. I went to Chowcilla. It was horrible; it was a real prison. They warehouse women there. Lifers are there. It is atrocious how women are treated in this country.” According to Marie, Leo Chesney has been a blessing from God. “This is what you pray for. You hear this is a good place to come. All the inmates keep the place up. We even plant flowers from seedlings,” she said. Marie is proud of taking classes through Yuba College. Currently, she is enrolled in an entrepreneur class. “I just felt I needed to work on myself. I also want to run my own business when I get out. I’m also taking a class on Shakespeare to stimulate my mind, something to enjoy,” she said smiling. Rhonda Denbae, a woman, with a friendly, open manner, is another Leo Chesney resident. “I came from a broken home. My father was disabled, so my mom had to work all the time. It was hard. I had to take care of my siblings. I started drinking when I was in high school and smoking pot. In eleventh grade I had to go to continuation school. I was absent all the time,” said Denbae. She also cites a lack of encouragement in her early years as affecting her deeply. “Only one teacher, my typing teacher, taught me a lot. She always asked me how I was. My mom loved us, but she was very busy working. Then when I was 24, I was in a relationship with a heroin addict. When we would drink together, it would help to keep peace. He used to beat me. I started using heroine and was in prison at 25,” said Denbae. Denbae says that she spent the next few years in different prisons, but like Marie, her stay at Chowchilla was the worst experience. There she endured for three years a nightmarish existence with 4,000 other women “where you had to watch your back, especially at night,” said Denbae. Finally, she was transferred to Leo Chesney, which she had heard good things about. The positive atmosphere of Center prompted Denbae to want to better herself, and that’s why she is currently taking classes through Yuba College. Currently, She is taking “pre-release” classes that are offered through Yuba College such as self-awareness, addiction and domestic violence and will take stress management in April. “This place has a lot to offer if you’re serious about changing your life. I have about 131 days left on my sentence and can’t wait to be with my family, and eating pork chops again,” Denbae said laughing. Penny Fredell, who is a Yuba College professor of consumer studies, early child education and art, has been teaching at Leo Chesney for seven years. Over the years she has found the inmates at Chesney very receptive and enthusiastic. “There is a real need in the prison systems for education. Yuba College should be proud of being the only community college in the state that has a program at a state prison,” said Fredell. The Yuba College instructor is currently teaching life management skills as part of the pre-release program at the center. The students receive one unit of college credit. In her course, she covers various issues such as self-esteem, goal setting and decision making. Fredell argues that society should not stereotype women prisoners, adding that education levels are not indicators of a criminal propensity. Fredell, who retires in May from Yuba College, will continue to teach at Chesney. “I feel what I do is important to the women at Chesney. Also, I have learned as much from our students as they have from me” said Fredell. “Several students have told me also that I’ve helped them make a huge change in their lives. It makes me feel good,” said the Yuba College instructor.