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Montville - For state Rep. Bruce V. Morris of Norwalk, a visit Friday to Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center with a group of teenagers whom he hoped to show the negative side of a life of crime turned personal when he met a childhood friend - serving a life sentence.
"I was astounded,'' said Morris, a Democrat, who brought 14 teens from his district to the Montville prison as part of a new "Dose of Reality" program.
"I remember when our paths went separate ways,'' he said following a program in which inmates with life sentences talked to kids and their parents about the choices they made that led to prison.
The two friends were training to become electricians, Morris said, and were in an apprenticeship program together. They used to carpool to class. But his friend decided to live in the fast lane, he said.
"I made a faith decision and walked away from that life,'' said Morris, a former electrical contractor who is now a minister. He's been serving in the General Assembly since 2007.
It's a lesson that Morris and state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London - who came up with the idea for "Dose of Reality" - hope was relayed to the students, who spent more than three hours Friday inside the prison talking to 13 inmates.
"If we saved one of those kids today, we've done our job,'' said Hewett.
After the arrest of six New London teens following the 2010 stabbing death of Matthew Chew, Hewett decided he had to do something to help kids in the city who may be heading toward a life of crime.
After meeting with the Department of Correction, Hewett proposed the "Dose of Reality" program. His idea was based on the Scared Straight model, in which inmates yell and belittle youths in an effort to get them to straighten out their lives.
But Hewett, who was worried there were youths in New London who seemed to be spinning out of control, wanted a more civilized approach. His idea was to have inmates sit face-to-face with teens and their parents and explain how they ended up behind bars.
Hewett admitted Friday that the program was more emotional than he anticipated and that it took a toll on the kids, parents, inmates and himself. "If there was anyone in the group who wasn't crying, I'd be worried about them,'' he said.
Reporters were not allowed inside the prison, but some students, parents and other adults who participated talked about their experience on the walkway outside Corrigan.
"It was more than I expected,'' said Lisa Rivera, who brought her 12-year-old son. "It was somewhat life-changing - for us, for the children, for the inmates."
What stood out for Rivera was the story of a 25-year-old inmate who had been in trouble as a teen but had started to turn his life around when he made a decision that resulted in an 85-year sentence.
"My emotions are all over the place,'' she said.
Her son, who did not want to talk, is not a bad boy, Rivera said, but is temperamental and has a mind of his own.
Kazie Jones, a 12-year-old middle schooler from Norwalk who was at the prison with his mother, Salihah Gonsalves, said he didn't want to attend a program where his uncle has been incarcerated "a few times.'' But he admitted afterward that it was interesting.
"You see what they have to go through every day,'' Kazie said. "You see what they did. You see how the choices they make every day affect them."
His mother said the convicts were from every walk of life, and each had a story about how they landed behind bars. Kids from all backgrounds could benefit, she said, from the inmates who "were sharing their stories."
The inmates who participated are part of Men of Charity, a group that wants to do some good for the community.
"They all made bad decisions,'' said Warden Scott Erfee. "And they asked the kids, 'Which path do you want to go down?'"
Department of Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone, who also attended the program, said he hoped to have more like it. "This went beyond our expectations,'' he said. "It was different from any program we've done. It was a conversation. … It was the story of people's lives."