When the Department of Correction van arrives to discharge another load of inmates in the courthouse parking garage in Hartford, the final words a prisoner sometimes hears before freedom are: "We'll see you soon."
That's been the prevailing attitude for the past few decades when it comes to prison. Build jails, lock them up and don't worry. If there's a problem, we'll toss them in again.
If ever a former inmate was destined to return, Rowana Grady was one. A career drug abuser and high school dropout, she'd been in and out of state prisons six times since she was 19.
A gaunt, ghostlike presence on city streets through her teens and 20s, Grady was lost in a drug-saturated fog, a trail of petty felonies littering her young life.
"The drive to get your life back is kind of, like, dormant," Grady told me. You "feel like the outcast. You've got a criminal history. And then your appearance holds you back."
But here's where the old story abruptly changes. Grady is now closing in on a degree from Capital Community College, with plans to pursue bachelor's and master's degrees in social work. She's holding down a couple of jobs and has plans for a counseling career.
What changes a life after 20 hazy years of drugs and joblessness, of being the unkempt addict on the sidewalk that the world steers clear of?
We sat quietly in her Farmington Avenue apartment and we talked of years, decades, that slipped by.
"I had nothing on my plate," she explained, when she got out of Niantic the last time, back in 2004, when she was 35 years old and ready to try something else.
"Your world is isolated from what is socially accepted," Grady said. "I needed somebody to hold my hand, show me how to walk. It's like being a newborn."
It was a drug treatment program, a safe place to live and counseling from Community Partners in Action - along with her deep religious faith - that brought a lost woman back.
The surprising thing isn't just the inspirational story of a woman like Row Grady. What's unexpected is to hear that an entire philosophy may be shifting.
"We have to do something with these individuals when they are discharged. It's just not about locking people up," said Department of Correction Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz, a woman who may be just as interesting as Grady.
We spent $1 billion on new prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, Lantz told me. It costs $100,000 to build a prison bed. It's another $30,000 a year to keep an inmate in jail.
Since Lantz, a former jailhouse warden, took over in 2003, the department has nearly doubled spending on programs working with former inmates re-entering society, to $31 million annually.
Among Connecticut inmates released into a halfway house with counseling, the recidivism rate drops from 47 percent to 24 percent, a recent study showed.
"Locking people up who may not necessarily need to be locked up is extremely expensive." The "just desserts" model, Lantz explained, is a waste of money and lives.
That's pretty much what they told me at Capital Community when I called to inquire about Grady.
"This woman said `I have a brain. I'm going to use this brain to get me where I want to be,'" said Clement Williams, one of Grady's teachers at Capital.
I asked Grady how life is different now and why she won't just end up back in that prison van.
"I find myself reading books," she replied. "Now that the semester is over, I can't wait for the next one."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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