Member Spotlight: Cindy Dawson of The Next Door Helps Give Female Inmates a New Start

Posted by Erin Wooddell

Cindy Dawson poses in front of The Next Door’s logo, created and painted by a former resident of the program.

At first glance, the rooms at The Next Door don’t appear different from a typical college dorm. There are twin beds, shower caddies and a cafeteria down the hall. But this isn’t a dorm and these women aren’t college students. They are federal inmates of the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

Founded in 2011, The Next Door Chattanooga became the first women’s correctional release center in eastern Tennessee. Inmates come to The Next Door as part of a transitional pre-release program, nearing the end of their sentence.

One inmate who’s been at The Next Door for eight years explained that through the program she has learned to “deal” when tough situations arise. When she lost her brother awhile back, her answer was to get high. Recently, she lost her grandfather and she said while she’s thought about getting high, she can’t—and wouldn’t. “That’s not who I want to be anymore,” she says. “Being here, I’ve discovered new ways to cope. Now I know I need to feel the feelings.”

While residing at The Next Door, inmates are accounted for and have various duties, and always report to their case managers. Focusing on building relationships, The Next Door approaches inmates with gender-specific care.

“Care is offered in a Christ-centered, compassionate environment,” explains CWLI member, Cindy Dawson, coordinator for development and volunteer partnerships at The Next Door. “We create a home environment. We understand that women are relational and they respond to an atmosphere that is safe and secure.”

Programs offered at The Next Door range from individual and group therapy to physical fitness and cooking classes, as well as workforce development that re-instills the basics of job searching and professionalism.

“They have to relearn expectations,” Dawson explains. “Some say it’s hard to get back into the mindset of responsibility.” By making them responsible and providing them with a safe environment to make decisions, Dawson says they will rejoin their families more prepared to be present and accountable.

How do women arrive at The Next Door?
The Tennessee Department of Corrections looks for women who are low security risks, approaching release with no record of trouble. Inmates can be recommended or forced by the courts to attend. Some inmates may even petition the courts if they believe they would benefit from the program.

From the onset, inmates spend time with their case managers, who help determine their goals while staying at The Next Door. Before inmates can leave, a “home plan” has to be approved by the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

“We need to know where they’re going—what they’ll be doing when they leave,” Dawson says.

Once the home plan has been decided, inmates work toward rejoining the workforce through local businesses in partnership with The Next Door. Positions are typically at local food establishments and hotels. Dawson hopes to foster partnerships with other businesses to increase the job possibilities available to these women.

The odds of inmates reentering prison after experiencing these opportunities at The Next Door are significantly lowered, Dawson explains. She credits the inmates’ likelihood of evading original circles of influence to the gender-specific nurturing and trauma-informed care provided at The Next Door. “We have hope that we can inflict change, and judging by our program’s low rate of recidivism at 16 percent compared to the national average around 68 percent, we’re seeing that happen.”

The staff regularly receives correspondence from former residents, informing them of anniversaries and milestones, always ending the note with an expression of thanks.

Pictured above is the clothes closet, supplied by donations. Inmates can “shop” for a few items upon arrival and for clothes appropriate for interviews and jobs.

“At The Next Door, one message we try to send to our residents is [they should surround themselves] with the type of people they want to be like,” Dawson says. “I want to be a strong, confident female leader using my voice, my heart, and my efforts to make a positive impact on my family, our community and our world.”

As a newcomer to the Chattanooga area, Dawson heard that CWLI was an organization where she could similarly surround herself with those kind of women. She says she was encouraged by the genuine interest and support shown by the 37 members who attended this month’s event at The Next Door. Members gifted pants and shoes for the workforce development program, $315 in gift cards and $310 in financial donations.

Dawson recently worked as Executive Director of the nonprofit, Global Women, housed in Alabama. Their mission was to assist women in developing countries as they worked to become leaders. She would travel to meet these women, help promote their efforts and provide funding support.

“I met some of the most amazing women and learned how to do a lot with little resources.”

Her work at Global Women prepared her for her position at The Next Door. Inspired by the Chattanooga program’s initiative to help women move beyond their past, she works to identify sources of funding. The Next Door headquarters, located in Nashville, annually defines the Chattanooga program’s annual operations budget. While The Next Door Chattanooga has relied on the Nashville location for funding support in the past, Dawson’s new role and the creation of a local Advisory Council will work to make The Next Door self sufficient through grants and development.

This year, the budget was set at $875,000. To complete that annual total, Dawson and the council need to raise $215,000. They will look to individuals, foundations, corporations and congregations. Support has already been provided by groups like The Maclellan Foundation, who has committed a matching grant of $50,000 for this fiscal year. “At this point, we’re only $9,000 short.”

Dawson works toward the large fundraising goal with the women of The Next Door in mind. “They have a chance to make a new start, and we’re helping them with that.”


Besides funding, the team at The Next Door has identified other needs in the program, including:
  – Clothing donations for inmates as they embark on job interviews and begin their new positions
– Volunteers to help with workforce development and job skills training

Any members wishing to become involved can contact Cindy Dawson at or check out The Next Door’s website for further information.