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Prepping For Freedom

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 the outside.

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: freedom.

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 valuable.

"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."

Inside, Freedom

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 programs inspiring.

"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 stealing.

"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 Garnett.

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 worlds."

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 the center.

"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 scared.

"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 said.

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 http://www.courant.com/archives.
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