New East Lyme unit hopes to stop women from returning to prison

East Lyme — A new unit in the women-only York Correctional Institution in Niantic pairs 18- to 25-year-old offenders with older mentors in an effort to prevent the young women from returning to prison.

Called W.O.R.T.H., or Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard work, the developing program houses 20 women with the capacity for 50.

Participants are nonviolent young women set to be released soon and highly vetted older inmates trained in young adult development, cross-generational mentorship, conflict resolution and program facilitation.

Though Monday marked the official dedication of the unit, its mentors began training in November, and participants moved into their new building May 30.

On Monday, one of the unit’s younger members, 21-year-old Vanessa Alvarado, led Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and several other politicians and correction officials around the building.

In the dining area, the word “WORTH” is drawn at the top of a chalkboard naming each participating woman. A corkboard changed daily features a word, a quote and a fun fact.

Outside, a garden and a basketball court stand inside the fenced-in grounds.

In another part of the facility, chairs sit inside small cubicles, each used for programming and meetings throughout the day. A couple of bookshelves line the walls; informational pamphlets rest below a dry-erase board calendar.

Standing inside the living quarters — mentees sleep in bunks on the right side of the room while mentors are in beds on the left — Alvarado, imprisoned for burglary and driving under the influence, gushed about the program.

“Right now, this is above and beyond what I expected,” she said.

‘The best part of my life’

In a speech prior to the tour, Malloy said 75 percent of those incarcerated in Connecticut did time between the ages of 18 and 25.

“This is why we need to set offenders in this group on a better path,” he said.

“We’ve already reduced recidivism among women,” he said. “The W.O.R.T.H. unit is the next step. It will further lower the crime rate and allow us to use taxpayer dollars for education, workforce training and business investment.”

The York unit most immediately is modeled after the T.R.U.E. program, or Truthfulness, Respect, Understanding and Elevating, which opened in the Cheshire Correctional Institution in March 2017.

But the inspiration for both came from prisons in Germany, which Malloy and state Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple toured in 2015 thanks to funding from the national research nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

“The science is clear that people are not fully mature until they’re at least 25,” Malloy said. “A person who enters this system at a young age can be permanently impacted.”

“We need to give these young women a second chance while they’re here so they can produce a more productive life when they leave,” he said. “They have committed crimes and should be held accountable, but while they’re in corrections, we need to work with them to provide the tools they need.”

After the tour, six mentors and mentees boasted about the program.

“This program has been the best part of my life so far,” Alvarado said.

The structure is different from the larger York prison. Rather than fending for herself, each member is part of a community.

Mentors meet each morning during count time, when they used to have to stay in their bunks. They discuss the issues they’ve seen in the building, and whether a particular mentee is having a bad day. Correction officers sit in on the meetings, often asking how they can help set the younger inmates straight.

At 8 a.m., mentors, mentees and correction officers join together for a meeting.

The rest of each day includes programming: counseling that explores why a person turned to substance abuse, yoga, Shakespeare theater courses, a screening of the movie "Black Panther," game night.

The structure led Alvarado, for the first time, to acknowledge what led her to use drugs in the first place. She thinks that knowledge will help her stay sober upon release.

The mentors said it’s the first time they’ve had such support from correctional officers.

“They’re seeing us as human and we’re seeing them as human, too,” said mentor Deborah Ranger, who is paired with Alvarado. “This is the way it should have been all along.”

“People are still responsible for their actions,” said the 52-year-old former New Britain resident, in prison for first-degree larceny. “But that doesn’t mean you have to demoralize them. The more support they have, the better they will be.”

“We’re going to be your neighbors one day,” Ranger, who will be released this fall, said. “Personally, I want to help out in my community. I want to be a conserver of the earth. And if I were you, I would want that instead of a person who is angry and alone.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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