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The New York Times

For Released Inmates, Someone to Talk To


November 16, 2003
Copyright ©2003
New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

ONE might think that being released from prison is a joyous experience and that an inmate would be giddy with the anticipated freedom that lays ahead. But the reality is often more complicated than that.

For Yolanda Crespo, who was released last month from the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla, thinking about the day she would walk out of the prison doors brought a mix of emotions. Certainly, she felt relief, but equally powerful, she felt fear.

''I became homeless in prison,'' Ms. Crespo said. ''My family was separated. My Mom was in Puerto Rico. My daughter was in college. I was going to be all alone and I didn't know where I was going.''

But Ms. Crespo, of Yonkers, is not quite as isolated as she feared, because she is one of the first participants in a new program introduced last month that links inmates from the women's unit in the jail with volunteer mentors from the community. She met with her mentor, Jane Dixon, two weeks before she was released, and now the two meet weekly to discuss Ms. Crespo's concerns, goals and progress in readjusting to life outside prison walls.

''Yolanda was so anxious because the date was coming,'' said Ms. Dixon, a special education teacher from White Plains. ''Sometimes coming out can be frightening. Inside is protective, as awful as it is. Everything that brings you here in the first place is waiting for you outside.''

The issues Ms. Crespo faces are multiple. She needs to move into permanent housing from her temporary shelter. She needs continuing treatment for substance abuse problems. And she very much wants to reconnect with her daughter. Any one of these things can be daunting for a self-confident person with a great deal of support; for women leaving prison these problems can be overwhelming.

Over the last few years, county prison officials have been paying greater attention to helping inmates ease the passage from prison back to the community. ''We recognize that transitional planning should begin the minute you're sentenced,'' said Nory Padilla, the program administrator for transitional services at the prison. ''You should start working on your plan immediately and not wait until two weeks before you're discharged.''

Ms. Padilla said that each inmate goes before the Program Board, made up of prison staff members who assess various facets of the woman's history -- criminal, mental health, drug or alcohol abuse. Inmates are referred to programs within the prison, like substance abuse treatment, life skills that teaches how to make responsible decisions, a general equivalency degree program or family education, which includes parenting skills and a discussion on the effect of the prison term on an inmate's family.

The mentoring program, called Fresh Start, is financed by a $20,000 grant from the county Department of Social Services. So far, nine volunteers have been trained as mentors. The training includes a video of women in jail talking about their lives, which alludes to the poverty and violence that often dominated their upbringing. The training also outlines what a mentor is and what she is not, and makes a point of the need to maintain boundaries.

''Mentors are not mothers, sisters, guardian angels or probation officers,'' Ms. Padilla said. Rather, she said, the mentors are meant to encourage the women to develop their own decision-making skills, and to be supportive.

County prison administrators have little time to try to rehabilitate the prisoners at the jail. The maximum sentence to the county prison is one year. The average stay for an inmate is between four and six months, said Bridget Gladwin, first deputy commissioner at the prison. County inmates serve sentences for misdemeanor crimes like low-level drug charges, criminal mischief, criminal trespassing and petty larceny.

Because county prisoners are incarcerated for a relatively short time, compared with state prisoners, rehabilitation is viewed differently. For instance, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a state prison, long-term programs allow inmates to get college degrees or certificates in other vocational programs. But at the county level, the focus is on identifying prisoners' problems and then connecting them with help once they are back in the community.

''Your most critical piece here is a good evaluation and assessment,'' Ms. Gladwin said. ''What happened? What brought you here? What is lacking? And then you have to quickly mobilize your resources and identify a plan.''

The prison began a prerelease support group for women a little more than a year ago, which is run by the Westchester Jewish Community Services. Lenore Rosenbaum, who leads the series of eight workshops, tries to persuade inmates to examine how the decisions they made may have landed them in jail and to focus on developing problem-solving skills.

''I would say that you are obviously here because you made some decisions that weren't good choices,'' Ms. Rosenbaum said. ''Maybe you decided impulsively. You went back to your old apartment and your old friend came around and said, 'Oh, come on, get high,' so you got high. We discuss how to weigh and measure the consequences.''

Ms. Rosenbaum said that many women in the program say that they never again want to see the color orange -- the color of the women's prison jumpsuits. But despite their good intentions, she added, they often don't know where to turn for help once they are released, and become frustrated and discouraged. The new mentor program, which will be introduced into the pre-release support group, is meant to help ease women through the difficult transition.

Martha Byer, of New Rochelle, is due to be released this month. This was not her first time in jail. This time, she said, ''I don't want to go back to the street. When they see you get out, you're back with your old crowd, with the same people at the same places. I'm tired of coming to jail. I'm ready for a change.''

Ms. Byer has been assigned her mentor, Vicki Girven, an account manager for Summerfield Suites in White Plains who also leads a ministry in the prison. She is already familiar with the challenges many women face.

Ms. Girven said the first step in her relationship with Ms. Byer was simply to show compassion. ''When you show someone that you really care about them, you begin to show them their self-worth,'' she said. ''It begins to give them a different aspect on life. So many times, people beat them down with their past and they get discouraged and give up. We're going to make a plan and then talk about how to make it work.''

Mentors agree to meet with the released prisoner once a week for 10 months. (To volunteer as a mentor, the number to call is 914-949-7699, extension 319.)

Rocco A. Pozzi, the county's corrections commissioner, said of the new program, which officials hope will reduce recidivism, ''By matching them with a mentor, we hope to provide them with the moral support and the resources they need to break the cycle that has kept them addicted to drugs, kept them committing crimes and returning to jail.''

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