June 5, 2005
By DIANE STRUZZI, Courant Staff Writer
NIANTIC -- EAST LYME - The mission of the Charlene Perkins Center
at York Correctional Institution is voiced each weekday morning
by the 77 women who call the center home.
They gather in a meeting room on
the second floor and begin their day by reciting the center's
credo. The words underscore the work that lies ahead.
"We are here at the end of
our incarceration," the women say in unison. "Clearly
our release is inevitable but our continued freedom is up to
us. ... In order to become the daughters, sisters, spouses and
mothers our families and we deserve, we must acquire the information
and skills to develop a positive lifestyle."
They also catch up on news and weather
and share a thought for the day, as one inmate did in May. She
gave advice from a businessman who once told her, "You can
never go wrong on right street." If she had heeded those
words, she added, she wouldn't be in prison now.
The women are the first to take
part in what the state Department of Correction says is an innovative
program focusing on female inmates who are within 18 months of
release. Think of it as a prep course for returning to life on
If it works, Correction Commissioner
Theresa C. Lantz said, she may use it as a model for other prisons
beyond the state's facility for women.
Correction officials aren't the
only ones excited by the prospects of the center, which has been
open for about two months and will be dedicated Friday. Many
of the women living there praise its programs and say they believe
they can now make a real go of it once they're released.
The women have committed crimes
ranging from assault to dealing drugs. But they face something
that, for many, is more frightening and overwhelming than incarceration:
For Dominique Berube, 33, who is
due to be released in September after serving time for violating
her special parole, the chance to plan for the future has been
"This building and the programs
give me self-esteem," said Berube, who says she is trying
hard to beat drug addiction.
"I'm tired of running," she
said. "I think this will give me an outline of what I need
to do when I leave. ... I want to make it this time. I want to
take their suggestions this time and not be the know-it-all."
The center is in a formidable, two-story
brick building boarded by a 15-foot fence topped with razor wire.
A correction officer monitors who enters or leaves.
But inside, the building feels more
like a college dormitory where women walk about freely, some
cleaning or resting on their bunks while others leave to go to
school and work within the prison and some take part in programs
at the center.
Dana Colson, 38, who said she has
two months left on a third-degree assault conviction, believes
she is treated as a mature adult at the center and finds the
"It's better to get yourself
together now," she said. "If you can't do it here,
you're not going to make it out there."
Named in honor of the late Charlene
Perkins, a 17-year veteran of the department and a deputy warden,
the center focuses on the special needs of women making the transition
from inmate to citizen or, in many cases, mother. For instance,
how does someone juggle child care while also meeting a probation
or parole appointment?
Inmates eligible to join the center
come from the minimum-security section of York and must have
no pending charges or escape history. There are about 50 women
on a waiting list for the program, said Ellen Hurlburt, the counselor
supervisor who manages the center. The hope is to expand the
center to women in the maximum-security part of the prison.
Hurlburt, a nearly 20-year department
veteran, believes in the program so much that she has thought
about delaying her Oct. 1 retirement to continue her work at
the center. Allowing inmates to have a voice in the center's
operation makes it different, she said. For instance, one inmate
helped develop a program geared to women with an addiction to
"The most rewarding thing is,
it seems to me, these women are motivated to try not to come
back to prison," Hurlburt said. "There's hope. They
see hope for themselves and that gives me hope."
Some programs are still under development, such as a job center
that would allow the women to access a state Department of Labor
job bank rather than sift through outdated want ads. Programs at
the center include counseling on issues such as domestic violence
and transitional services that show women how to build a life outside
prison. They learn, for example, how to obtain a driver's license
and get mental health care.
When state officials were planning
the center, the correction agency had contracted with a private
company to provide the services. Unions protested the contract,
saying it was a way to privatize correction jobs and calling
it a "sweetheart deal" held over from former Gov. John
G. Rowland's administration. The agency later decided to run
it in-house, which meant a $6 million federal grant was redirected
to other needs, such as providing alternatives to incarceration
for mentally ill offenders. Bringing it in-house better fit the
new center's plan, according to correction agency spokesman Brian
Lantz said the center now embodies
what she has been trying to do since she became commissioner
in 2003 - bridge the gap between incarceration and release.
"I think the real success of
the program is, can she go through the program and walk into
the community with support systems in place so she doesn't have
to hunt them down?" Lantz said. "Being a good inmate
doesn't translate into being a good citizen. They're two different
Elsie Matos, 26, understands that
all too well. She has been a resident of the center for about
a month and is serving 18 months for probation violation and
other charges. Matos says she is trying to change - trying not
to swear, trying to become a different person by the time she's
released in September.
"I want to hang up the gloves," she
said. "This feels like a real program. It doesn't feel like
I'm in jail. ... I came here and I'm changing. I'm motivated."
A Push Of Necessity
The push for programs geared at
preparing prisoners for re-entry came from necessity.
National statistics show most prisoners
are released. Four times as many prisoners are returning to the
community now compared with 20 years ago, said Jeremy Travis,
president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York
and author of the book, "But They All Come Back," about
prisoners returning to the community.
The college is home to the Prisoner
Reentry Institute, which offers training and other opportunities
for those providing re-entry services. Its director, Debbie Mukamal,
said she believes re-entry programs will make a difference.
"I think that those of us in
the field, both researchers and practitioners, have a gut sense
that these kinds of programs, starting in places like Connecticut,
lead to better outcomes," Mukamal said, "because what
has been done is not working. We're releasing into a maze of
legal restriction ... and expecting them to not recidivate."
Mukamal said reaching out to inmates
up to 18 months before release, as the Charlene Perkins Center
does, gives enough time to prepare for release.
Travis also praised the idea of
"It's smart," he said. "It'll
ultimately save or reduce risks if it's done right. ... A thoughtful
approach to prisoner re-entry is productive both in terms of
crime reduction and in terms of reintegrating former prisoners
back into society."
Release On Horizon
In May, Latrice Neal and Deborah
Poirier talked of their release. Neal, 24, said she is set to
go in August after serving time for selling drugs. Poirier, 43,
was discharged May 27 after serving 120 days for drunken driving.
Both said the center was different from the minimum-security
side of York, providing more programming and less hubbub.
Poirier planned to stay with her
mother in Rhode Island after her release. She admitted she was
"It's a big change," she
said. But the center, she said, seemed like a natural move right
before release, offering more freedom within a firm structure.
"It's more healthy down here," she
Neal said the center has helped
her improve herself. During the nine months she spent in the
minimum-security side of the prison, she said, she just stayed
in her room and went to school. But at the center she is focused.
She sees a future. She wants to get her college degree in business
and become a computer technician.
"Now I'm changing, I'm growing," she
said. "There's no chaos here."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at