MILWAUKEE (AP) -- In the face of every female prisoner in Wisconsin, Alice Pauser sees her daughter: A woman who committed a crime, yes, but who nonetheless deserves love, compassion and the chance to make something of her life.
Pauser's daughter, Genevieve, was just 19 when she was convicted of three felonies -- including being party to the crime of first-degree intentional homicide -- in 2002. Sentenced to life in prison, Genevieve will not be eligible for supervised release until 2025.
Instead of giving in to despair, Pauser channeled it into action. The result was The Demeter Foundation. Named for a Greek goddess who searched the underworld for her lost daughter, the foundation assists incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in Wisconsin. For prisoners, the foundation advocates for humane treatment and civil rights. After release, the foundation provides workshops on education, job readiness and self-esteem.
Pauser, who works full-time at Access to Independence, a disability rights organization in Madison, runs the foundation before and after work and on weekends. It is supported entirely through donations.
Through the foundation, Pauser, 56, of Fitchburg, has helped dozens of women. She successfully lobbied for a state law that makes it illegal for prison guards to have sex with inmates. And she has forged a closer bond with her daughter than either of them ever thought possible.
``We would not have done this if Genevieve had not been arrested,'' said Pauser, who started the foundation with Genevieve's father more than a decade ago. ``How would we have ever known about this if we hadn't personally experienced it as a family? Even though this has been such a long 10 years and such a hard 10 years, there have been positive changes.''
Genevieve was one of four teenagers convicted in the death of Kyle Hachmeister, 18, of Madison. Evidence at her trial showed the four planned to rob Hachmeister because he sold marijuana and carried cash. Two men broke into the house while Genevieve and another woman waited in the car. One of the men stabbed Hachmeister seven times. Under Wisconsin law, Genevieve was legally responsible for his death because she helped plan the armed robbery.
Genevieve and her mother had become estranged long before then.
``I tried to find every excuse in the book of why this was happening,'' Pauser said. ``I ignored my own issues. I just did not cope with it well at all.''
Around the time of Genevieve's sentencing, a woman approached Pauser in a grocery store.
``What did you do wrong?'' the woman asked. ``Your kid went to prison.''
Pauser was incredulous.
``Who are you?'' she asked. ``Have you ever had someone incarcerated in prison or jail?''
``No,'' the woman answered.
``Well then you just don't know what you're talking about,'' Pauser retorted, walking away.
But inside, she struggled to answer the woman's question. Helplessness -- which had been a daily companion since her only daughter turned to substance abuse as an eighth-grader -- threatened to overwhelm her.
Pauser tried to take control through educating herself about the criminal justice system, prison and the lives of incarcerated women. It started out with learning the little things, like how to get on her daughter's visitors' list at Taycheedah Correctional Institution. As she made those visits, she realized many of the women there had no visitors, no families, nothing to go back to after they had served their time.
She began to realize helping her own daughter wasn't enough.
One of the foundation's early successes came in August 2003, when then-Gov. Jim Doyle signed a bill that made it a crime for Wisconsin prison guards to have sex with inmates. The Demeter Foundation worked with Disability Rights Wisconsin, Amnesty International and others to lobby for the passage of the bill, which was written after four inmates at Taycheedah were placed in solitary confinement for accusing guards of sexual misconduct. One of the women, Jackie Noyes, was pregnant with a guard's baby when she finished her sentence.
Pauser took her in.
``She was by my side when (I was) having my daughter,'' Noyes said. ``I didn't have nowhere to go. Couldn't get help nowhere. I would have probably ended up in a shelter somewhere with my daughter. I don't even know what I would have done.''
Pauser ultimately helped Noyes enroll in the W-2 program and find a place to live.
Despite that success, Pauser's relationship with her daughter grew more strained. Her marriage fell apart as well. When she was offered a job in New Mexico in 2004, she took it.
But she still wasn't free.
``The families go to prison with their loved ones that are there,'' Pauser said. ``We're there every day.''
After the move, Pauser's guilt, anger and inability to cope with the situation came to the surface. One day, she passed out on a downtown street. After six days in a mental hospital, she was diagnosed with major clinical depression. She realized she had probably been suffering from the condition -- which is characterized by anxiety, headaches and an inability to control one's moods -- since Genevieve was about 5 years old. With treatment and medication, Pauser got back on her feet.
In 2007, she returned to Wisconsin to help her sister, who was suffering from cancer.
And she began to work on building a relationship with her daughter.
Pauser's diagnosis was a turning point for them, Genevieve said.
``It was like night and day. She was so different,'' Genevieve said.
Before Genevieve went to prison, Pauser had been so unpredictable -- praising her daughter one minute and locking her out of the house the next. With the diagnosis, Genevieve finally understood why her mother did such things, and why Pauser had taken off for New Mexico.
``I had so much anger and resentment because she wasn't who I wanted her to be, but I realized that wasn't fair to her,'' Genevieve said.
For her part, Genevieve had grown up a lot since going to prison. She finally admitted to her mother that she had been molested by her foster brother as a child, and she finally got therapy to help her deal with the trauma. She took responsibility for her crime and started thinking about how she could work to break the cycle of violence from inside the prison.
Genevieve lets her mother know when women are nearing their release dates. Before they leave prison, Genevieve gives them information about the foundation and her mother's telephone number.
That number was a lifeline for Bonnie Richardson, 50, who was released from Taycheedah in April after serving time for her sixth drunken driving conviction.
``When I called, she was right there that day,'' Richardson said of Pauser. ``She started helping me out right away with bus tickets and resources.''
Initially, Richardson was living with her adult daughter in her old neighborhood, surrounded by the temptations of alcohol and drugs.
Pauser worked with Richardson's probation and parole agent to help secure alcohol- and drug-free housing for her through Porchlight, a Dane County housing program that also provides support services. From her new home, Richardson can take the bus to her job as a motel maid.
The foundation, Genevieve said, gives her fellow inmates hope.
``When you have the slightest bit of hope, that's when you have the ability to be brave enough to think, `I can change,' `` she said.