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
"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
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