STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This week, we're reporting on a program where former prostitutes can start a new life. It's in Nashville, Tennessee, and it's called the Magdalene Program. NPR's Jackie Lyden spent weeks in Tennessee with the women of Magdalene and today, she has the stories of two women, close friends, who have been through that program. As you'll hear, only one story has a happy ending. And a word of warning here: This story lasts about six and a half minutes, and it contains graphic content.
JACKIE LYDEN: We're in a jack-o-lantern neighborhood - a light in the darkness here, maybe another there; all hulking shadows and abandonment.
Ms. SHEILA SIMPKINS: This is the Bottoms of South Nashville.
LYDEN: Sheila Simpkins and Tara Adcock are in a car, driving photographer Stephen Alvarez and me where they used to walk as prostitutes - bad girls, close as sisters.
Ms. TARA ADCOCK: This is where all the roughnecks are.
LYDEN: Well, it's warehouse after warehouse, and empty...
Ms. ADCOCK: This is a pretty rough area.
LYDEN: Tara, 37, is a ponytailed blond. Sheila, 41, also petite, has an intense manner.
Ms. SIMPKINS: And I walked around I walked around here at like, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning like I belonged, OK?
LYDEN: Sheila, who lived with a boyfriend she called her dope man, often gave Tara, the wilder one, shelter - a place to change her clothes, or take a shower.
Ms. ADCOCK: Could you imagine walking alone out here - by yourself - and getting in a car with a stranger that you don't even know, and having sex with him? I think about that stuff now and I'm like, I was crazy.
LYDEN: Tara says the crack they were all hooked on made her feel 60 feet high.
Ms. ADCOCK: This is where I would work - in apartments.
LYDEN: What do you mean? You would just like, knock on the doors?
Ms. ADCOCK: Knock on the door.
Ms. ADCOCK: And there'd be like five or six, and I'd hit every one of them.
LYDEN: What would you say?
Ms. ADCOCK: Pinocha, dinero.
LYDEN: Sometimes she'd rob, steal a car, carry an unloaded weapon.
Ms. ADCOCK: Can you imagine me with a pistol?
LYDEN: Can you imagine you with a pistol?
Ms. ADCOCK: Not now.
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Ms. ADCOCK: Not today.
Ms. SIMPKINS: Not today, yeah. Now, when I think about it - God, man.
Ms. ADCOCK: We destroyed a lot, a lot of lives, OK? All in the name of trying to get high.
LYDEN: And then one day, Sheila's drug dealer boyfriend was home when the cops broke the door down and arrested him. It came as a relief. Sheila says she was truly tired. That was seven years ago.
Ms. SIMPKINS: I really thought that one of these days, I'm going to get my life together and we're going to get married, and we're just going to have this happy old family, you know what I mean? And it's just going to be like that. But I don't think he seen it.
LYDEN: She and her boyfriend went straight, made a sound marriage with steady lives and thriving toddlers. Sheila, a college student, says she's a real good mama. She's the housing director for Magdalene now. She told Tara, who was in prison, about how Magdalene changed her life. Tara took it seriously.
Ms. ADCOCK: I had seen how good she was doing. And so I wrote Ms. Donna Greer(ph) at Magdalene, and Sheila, and asked them if I could come to the program. And so my best friend picked me up when I got out of prison.
LYDEN: Magdalene was founded in Nashville 14 years ago when Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, followed her calling to serve prostitutes and abused women.
Ms. BECCA STEVENS (Episcopal Priest, Founder, Magdalene Program): I don't care if prostitution is the oldest form of sexual abuse in the history of mankind, or the oldest work - or whatever anybody says. I don't think people have to stay in it forever. I think people have a choice, also, to say: I want to live differently now, and I want to see my children, and I want to know what it means to forgive people that abused me when I was a kid. I want to know what that feels like, and what that looks like.
LYDEN: Magdalene is about work - not miracles, not fairy tales. Three-quarters of its graduates make it. That means a quarter don't. There have been a couple of stunning relapses. Two women Becca Stevens counseled left the program, went back to the streets, and were murdered.
Sheila tells of another prostitute who'd worked the program, but left when she hooked up with the wrong guy. He ended up shooting her during a sexual encounter down a ravine.
Ms. SIMPKINS: He leaves her there to die, OK. Now, God had to of helped her up that hill so that someone could see her to get her some help. Now, if that ain't her bottom, that's scary, isn't it? And she's out there doing the same stuff again.
LYDEN: Relapse is the powerful undertow, always lurking just below the surface for many at Magdalene. This past January, after four years clean, a drinking bout began for Tara. It was New Year's Eve. Then came the crack. Then she vanished from Magdalene.
Ms. ADCOCK: I lost a lot. I lost my car. I pawned everything in my house. It was more - I lost, probably, my pride and my you know, I was so embarrassed to come around anybody, you know what I mean? And I'm just now, you know, getting that back. You know, because I was doing so good. I got my own house, had my own car. I'm just getting loans and just - I'm very humiliated right now.
LYDEN: Sheila calls crack the devil dressed in white, and she wasn't going to let Tara fight that devil without her.
Ms. SIMPKINS: I've been with her this whole two months, OK? I've kind of been the cushion, OK? Im not saying that relapse is mandatory, but guess what? It happens. It does, it happens. It happens all the time, OK, and it's not about falling. It's about picking yourself up.
LYDEN: During the time that I spent with Sheila and Tara in February and March, I couldn't help but feel the fragility and the hope in them. When I mentioned we'd been on a drug and prostitution sting with the vice squad, they recognized the name of the detective. Really? You were out with him? He used to bust us. Give him a message, said a glowing, vibrant Tara.
Ms. ADCOCK: Look, if ya'll see him again, tell him that Tara Adcock and Sheila McClain(ph) Simpkins love him, and we're doing good.
Ms. SIMPKINS: Yeah, tell him Brandy because he knows me as Brandy.
LYDEN: But she wasn't doing well. It was hard to hear it when the news came. Just weeks after we spoke, Tara Adcock was arrested in connection with a murder and carjacking. Sheila, who hadn't heard from her in a while, was devastated.
Ms. SIMPKINS: To be honest, it's like I'm grieving a death when it comes to Tara at this moment. I didn't believe it - or let me say that I didn't want to believe that, OK. I didn't want to believe that.
LYDEN: So she prays. She prays for the family of the shooting victim, and she prays for Tara, her spiritual sister. She doesn't want the details.
Ms. SIMPKINS: Right now, I want to continue to love her, so I don't want to know. And she will always be my sister for life, OK. I can love her from a distance, OK, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to love her from a distance.
LYDEN: Tara Adcock remains in jail, facing criminal homicide charges and a grand jury hearing. Her friends at Magdalene are remembering her as they reckon with their own struggles, their own recoveries.
Jackie Lyden, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: You can see a video about the women of Magdalene by going to our website, npr.org. Jackie's series, "Nashville: Up From Prostitution" concludes tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with a look at the challenges of staying off the streets.
Unidentified Woman: What I do is, when I think about situations like that, I play the tape out. If I walk away, leave where I'm at, where is it going to take me to? Back under that bridge? No, I don't want to go back.
INSKEEP: That's tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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