News 12 at 11 o'clock / Monday, April 30, 2012
MILNER, Ga. -- The Department of Justice estimates as many as 58 percent of women who are arrested will go back to jail within three years of their release.
It makes you wonder if our justice system is working. One woman who's been in and out of jail dozens of times believes it isn't, but she says the problem isn't what happens behind bars. Instead, she says it's what happens when you get out.
However, after years of arrests and rearrests, she says she's found the answer. It's called the Potter's House, and there's only one like it in the entire country.
"I don't have a clue who that is," laughed Lisa Hensley as she held up a mugshot of a person who looks nothing like her. The woman in the photo's dark eyes and emotionless expression are a sharp contrast to Hensley's energy and smile, but the woman in that picture is, in fact, Hensley.
Then again, the woman in that mugshot isn't Hensley at all. At least, it isn't who she is anymore.
"I never felt normal," she said. "I never felt like I had this banner off my head that said 'crack-headed prostitute, left your child, unclean, untouchable.'"
Hensley says her first banner came at the age of 5. The little girl who loved to ride horses had a terrible secret; she says she molested.
"Inside, I was already feeling dirty, scared, all the things that come with molestation and sexual abuse," she said.
The abuse lasted until she was 14.
She never told anyone.
"I got interested in drinking. Marijuana. Cocaine. Anything to numb. Anything to make me just not feel."
At just 16 years old, Hensley became a mom but couldn't give up the drugs.
"I had gotten my son out of his bed and put him in the back of a car to get a hit, and I remember thinking, 'What am I doing? What in the world am I doing?'"
She then drove to her mother's house and left her son.
"I don't know what my mother had to endure by stepping into my shoes. I don't know what she had to endure by her daughter not being there and just being the person I'd become. My sisters grew up without the baby," Hensley said as tears streamed down her face. "It's just crazy for us to think, 'Oh, I'm not hurting anybody.' You're killing everybody! Everybody's life stops to some degree."
But Hensley's life didn't stop -- it spun even more out of control. She says she landed in jail 32 times.
"A lot of those were just probation violations. I couldn't stay sober. I couldn't throw away my crack pipe. It was my best friend. It's what kept me numb."
She says her addiction forced her to sell her body for more drugs. She was a prostitute for years, and one night, a group of men forced her into their car.
"For four hours, they did some really horrific things, things that you think even if you do live through it, you won't live through it," she said.
Hensley managed to survive, and when she was able to run away, the first person she saw was a police officer who knew her from the streets.
"I thought, dear God. Thank you, God. I was running to him, and it's like I hit this cold wall. He looked at me like I was nothing, and he said, 'Lisa, there's no such thing as rape when it comes to a crack-headed prostitute.'"
Hensley was naked and bloody as she walked away and decided to give up.
"I'm dead. Nobody cares. Not one person cares."
Then, Hensley found a place that proved her wrong: the Potter's House for Women.
When she arrived five years ago, she couldn't even walk through the front door. She crawled.
"Within the first month, I told the Lord when I stepped on the front porch, I just felt it. I've been looking for this place my whole life," she said.
This is where Hensley's life was saved in more ways than one.
"Completely. God restored my whole family. They didn't come running, but they've opened their hearts, and God healed that."
Later, at an open house for the Potter's House, Hensley turned around, and there was her son.
"He just came to see the miracle. He wanted to see his mama," she said.
Part of that miracle wasn't just seeing life in his mother again. It was seeing what she was doing with that life. She said she asked God why he put her there, and she says he answered.
"You're here to help other women like you, and I'm like, 'Yeah, right,'" she said.
But she says God was right. Within three months of coming to the Potter's House, the woman who says she lost her soul was now giving direction to other women struggling with many of the same demons. Then, two years ago, she helped begin a ministry not far away for unwed teenage mothers.
As for her future plans?
"What God's got in store for me? Augusta? Wherever. I just want to help women," she said.
So, what is the Potter's House? It's a place about two and a half hours from Augusta that's been quietly helping women like Hensley for 12 years. Now, it has the attention of local leaders and even some judges who say we desperately need a place like this.
On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the Potter's House is opening its doors to a news crew, and we will take you along.