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Model Students View The Flip Side

June 17, 2005
By STEPHANIE REITZ, Courant Staff Writer

Armando Jimenez is a three-sport athlete and an honor-roll student at Hartford High, and is so respected among his classmates that they've nicknamed him "The Mayor."

At 21, Larry Brown is only six years older than Armando and was once a popular, promising Hartford athlete, too. But after they met briefly Thursday, their paths went in very different directions: Armando returned to Hartford High with his friends, and Brown was escorted by guards back to his stark prison cell.

"It's easy to get derailed if you don't keep your focus, and then you make a bad choice and end up right here where we are," Brown told the Hartford High students, who visited Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Somers on a trip organized by Hartford neighborhood police Officer Jim Barrett.

Armando and his fellow students are not so-called "troubled" youths, nor are they teetering on the edge of crime and incarceration. That was the point: to bolster good teenagers who have thus far avoided the temptations around them, and whose successes could make them role models for other students.

Barrett, a former correction officer who is now a community service officer in the city's Asylum Hill section, emphasized to the students that they were not being subjected to a "scared straight" program. Rather, the idea was simple: to expose them to the reality of prison as told by people who live it every day.

The prisoners, who performed a four-part cautionary play as part of the facility's "Action Drama" program, emphasized that they are victims of their own bad choices and poor judgment.

"I used to be just like you all, going to school and thinking that it can't happen to me," prisoner Gary England told the students perched on plastic chairs in a common room in the minimum-security Cybulski facility. England is serving a five-year term on drug and gun charges.

England's stepfather died in prison, and his younger brother was killed while England was incarcerated: "He died following my footsteps because I was the older brother running the streets. That hurt me to my heart," he said.

The Hartford High teens who visited Cybulski acknowledged afterward that they had not been sure what to expect.

"I thought it was going to be more of the same thing we always hear, but it was really interesting," said Leonard Ramirez, 17, a junior. "They told it like it really is on the streets."

These are students who know the violence of the streets all too well.

One of their friends, Derek "D.J." Benford Jr., died earlier this month after he was punched by an assailant hours after attending his senior prom. Another schoolmate, freshman Eddie Limis, was shot three times on Franklin Avenue one day later but is recovering.

Johnny Vasquez, who served six years in prison on drug charges and now works for the Hartford Housing Authority, visited the students Thursday at the high school before their trip to Cybulski and told them he understands the pressures they face.

He faced the same pressures, and hopes they make better choices than he did.

"You can use this trip [to Cybulski] as an opportunity to get educated about how to make decisions that won't turn out like mine did," said Vasquez. He was invited by Hartford school officials to talk to the students when they learned of the police-sponsored trip to the prison.

The students said the day's activities made an impression.

"It was like a wake-up call," Armando said. "It makes you realize that even low-security is a hard place to be, so maximum [security] must be really hard."

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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