Women portrayed in 'Orange is the New Black' sound off on prison health care

North Haven — Looking out onto a room packed largely with Quinnipiac University students, Carol Soto last week recounted a tale from her time in the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution.

It was in the early 2000s, and Soto’s dorm mate had just undergone a particularly rough round of chemotherapy.

Ordinarily, a person might be held in the hospital for observation after such treatment. But according to Soto, the woman was sent back to prison with a phone number to call should any issues arise.

Sure enough, the woman developed an alternating fever and chills. But when Soto asked a correction officer for help, he allegedly told her nothing would happen until the morning. He claimed the woman would be better off with Soto's care than possibly in solitary for the night, Soto said.

Disappointed, Soto said she filled plastic bags she had acquired with ice to help keep her cellmate’s temperature in check. The woman made it through the night.

“He was right,” Soto said of the correction officer. “I took better care of her.”

Soto was one of three women who spoke at Quinnipiac University’s North Haven campus on the morning of Jan. 26. Organized by assistant professor Amber Kelly, the forum was sponsored by several schools within the university and supported by the university's Prison Project. That project joins activists, students and teachers together with the goal of advancing criminal justice reform.

Two of the women — Soto and Beatrice Codianni — inspired characters that appeared first in Piper Kerman’s memoir, and then in the corresponding Netflix series, "Orange is the New Black." Kerman had pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking and money laundering charges and served time with the pair in the Danbury prison. In the series, Yoga Jones is loosely based on Soto and Codianni is portrayed as Esposito.

The third woman who spoke was Jaclyn Lucibello. She served about three years at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic between 2010 and 2014.

In an email, Lynne Kelly, executive assistant at the federal facility in Danbury, refuted Soto’s claims.

“If Institutional Staff determine that an inmate's medical condition warrants a trip to the outside hospital, then they are sent out immediately, even ‘after hours,’” Kelly wrote in response to the chemotherapy story. “We do not house inmates in restrictive housing for this purpose or until the next day.”

Kelly pointed out that her institution is accredited by the American Correctional Association and Joint Commission. She said officials there “are committed to providing appropriate health care to the inmate population that we serve.”

Women: The fastest-growing incarcerated population

The goal of the Quinnipiac forum was to explore the state of health care in state and federal prisons. It wasn’t even close to the first time Soto and Codianni had spoken on the matter — both are heavily involved in criminal justice activism.

Soto, for example, helped launch and continues to lead the New York chapter of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. Codianni founded the Sex Worker and Allies Network, which does outreach in the greater New Haven area and aims to end violence against sex workers.

In opening the forum, Kelly, whose instruction is in social work, presented statistics on women’s incarceration. Nationally, the number of incarcerated women has skyrocketed over the past several decades, from 8,000 in 1970 to almost 110,000 in 2014.

In Connecticut, available records show the number of women in prison has increased by about 70 percent since 1990. That’s compared to about 48 percent for men over the same time period.

Last Friday’s wide-ranging discussion touched on many topics, including the fact that women without nearby family members can lose custody of their kids after 14 months of incarceration. The speakers also talked about how a majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence, and how many of them struggle with mental health issues in part because of that.

“This isn’t what’s happening in another country,” said Kelly, who provides trauma-informed, mindfulness-based stress reduction classes at York. “This is what our prison system is like.”

'Help us build an alternative'

As for Lucibello, she ended up at York after drug addiction led her to a burglary ring. She was arrested several times before finally receiving prison time, she said.

Lucibello got clean with the help of methadone before she was sentenced. Still, her past caught up with her and she was forced to give birth to her son while incarcerated.

According to Lucibello, correction officers were slow to respond when she began having contractions on a Thursday night in 2010. She said one of them asked her Friday morning if she could wait until shift change for her trip to the hospital.

Lucibello said she was shackled on her way to the hospital July 2, 2010. She alleged she was shackled to the bed when she gave birth, too, and joined only by a male correction officer.

“I gave birth on a Friday afternoon and was back at York Sunday morning,” Lucibello said. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son, and that was the most heartbreaking thing.”

In an email, Karen Martucci, acting director of the External Affairs Division of the state Department of Correction, said federal health law prohibits her from commenting specifically on Lucibello’s case. In general, Martucci said, “offenders in active labor are not placed in restraints.” She added that DOC policy requires employees to do their best to ensure female officers accompany female offenders to the hospital.

During her talk, Soto explained that she ended up in prison under a law intended to target gangs. Charged with possession of less than 3 ounces of marijuana and conspiracy to distribute a much larger amount of the drug, Soto said she was arraigned with 20 co-defendants she had never met. She later was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison.

In closing, she called on those in the room to reform the system or create a new one that addresses the needs of offenders and gives them a better shot in life.

“I’m sorry I’m putting this on you, but you are our future,” Soto said. “You must help us build an alternative to incarceration.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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