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East Lyme — Author Wally Lamb quoted Michelangelo, who once said he could see the angel inside each block of marble he carved — until he set her free.
“Take chisel and hammer in hand and free the graceful angel you are from this graceless gray cement that encompasses you,” Lamb told the high school and vocational graduates of York Correctional Institution at Thursday's “celebration of achievement.”
Bonnie Foreshaw, 59, is one of Lamb's angels. For the eight years Lamb has taught a weekly writing workshop at York, Foreshaw has been carving words from a violent history of both sexual and physical abuse. Her story was one of several anthologized in Lamb's book “Couldn't Keep It to Myself.” In September, some of her happier memories of growing up in Miami will be featured in Lamb's second installment, “I'll Fly Away.”
Foreshaw — sentenced to 45 years for killing a pregnant woman during a dispute with a stalker — hopes it will be her last story from inside York as she attempts to persuade a parole board to modify her sentence in this, her 21st year in prison.
“He's giving us a voice,” Foreshaw said. “We trust him. We talk about things we never verbalized about. They're buried so deep. ... He cries right along with us. He speaks for us when we don't have a voice to speak.”
Thursday's commencement was, for many, a celebration of the voice they'd found through education.
The whoops and hollers resounded from the rafters as 22 graduates in blue caps and gowns received their high school diplomas. Listed in the program were 26 others who have since left York, where they'd passed their GED tests. Inmates dressed in the standard maroon T-shirts required at York received certificates in writing, culinary arts, computer science, commercial cleaning and computer repair.
“You've got to take it one day at a time,” said Latasha Dixon, 26, as she stood in cap and gown among her aunts and nieces following the graduation. “Try to stay focused. There's more to life than these walls.”
Dixon's 2-year-old niece, Armanee, wearing a bright green dress, stood tippy-toed on her aunt's lap to watch Dixon receive her diploma.
Before coming to York three years ago for a shooting in Hartford, Dixon was helping to raise her 15-year-old niece, said her aunt, Janet Rice. Dixon, whose sentence runs through 2011, was angry, Rice said, but education and religion humbled her. Rice said life has been difficult with Dixon in prison.
“I can't wait until she comes home,” Rice said. “I miss her. I miss her so much.”
The Department of Correction's Unified School District awarded 682 diplomas last year at its 18 correctional facilities. This year, says Director of External Affairs Brian Garnett, Commissioner Theresa Lantz has challenged the department to reach 1,000.
“Multiple studies have shown that education is extremely beneficial in redirecting a person's life,” Garnett said.
Lamb said the department has come a long way since the DOC sued the inmates whose stories were featured in “Couldn't Keep It to Myself” for the cost of their incarceration. The department nearly shut down the writing program, and Lamb and the DOC had a public dispute over the inmates' royalties.
“There's been a sort of shift in the wind here, and we feel that the DOC has shifted toward rehabilitation,” Lamb said.
Careen Jennings and Susan Cole, who volunteer to teach the workshop with Lamb, said the writing program is a way to teach the inmates how to communicate and solve problems. There's a code of confidentiality in the group, they said, and all stories are to be treated as if they were fiction.
“It's a way of reaching back into their past and understanding themselves,” Jennings said.
Jessica Dancy, 21, student speaker at the graduation, said her family was the only positive thing in her life before she came to York. She is scheduled for release in 2010, she said, and hopes to open her own restaurant now that she's earned her culinary arts certificate.
“She can focus all her energies and talents,” said Culinary Arts Instructor Tom Prince-Warinsky. “She'll be fine. I feel that she will not be part of the recidivism rate.”
According to DOC statistics, 88 percent of the prison population enters with a drug addiction. Lamb told the women at York that 70 percent of incarcerated women have been the victims of incest or sexual violence.
“Some women are here for having committed single acts of violence after years — lifetimes, in some cases — of horrific, predatory abuse,” Lamb said. “Within the confines of this prison, their writing begins to give them wings with which to hover above the baffling maze of their lives, and from that perspective they begin to see the repeating patterns, dead ends and blind alleys of their pasts, and, more importantly, a way out.”
High school diploma recipients are: Jasmine Ahmad, Alicia Cobas, Jessica Dancy, Latasha Dixon, Alissa Figueroa, Diana Garces, Kelly Gondolfi, Christy Gorman, SueAnn Gorman, Julia Harper, Jennifer Kos, Amanda McDonald, Gina Montagna, Sharenna Morris, Fidarije Nieva, Kelley Rafaklo, Vondella Riddick, Julie-Ann Robichaud, Tysheka Robinson, Sabrina Samson, Tracy Shumaker, Sarah Taylor, Elizabeth Arbour, Anna Arces, Heather Burke, Shannon Clark, Allison Costello, Katherine Czajka, Lindsey Delgado, Debra DeMartin, Alexa Furlow, Yajaira Garcia, Amy Giordano, Hudel Gordon, Tiffany Hairston, Stephanie Hill, Mary Homa, Stephanie Kelley, Dawn Maher, Donna Melendez, Kemeshon Mills, Tiffany Organ, Rebecca Rakuza, Nicole Somers, Tara Spaulding, Jasmine Turner, Jenee Williams and Kennia Yung Krasselt.
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