Transformative Program Reaches Inmates, Staff at Niantic Women’s Prison

By Karen Florin, The Day

Robin Ledbetter, left, is comforted by fellow mentor Elizabeth Ruiz on Friday, June 21, 2019, as she offers her final reflection to fellow inmates and state and correctional officials during a one-year anniversary celebration of the WORTH, or Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, unite at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. The program connects older inmates as mentors for younger inmates to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Robin Ledbetter, left, is comforted by fellow mentor Elizabeth Ruiz on Friday, June 21, 2019, as she offers her final reflection to fellow inmates and state and correctional officials during a one-year anniversary celebration of the WORTH, or Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, unite at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. The program connects older inmates as mentors for younger inmates to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

East Lyme — Inmate Mary J. Ames told a correction officer at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution a year ago that she prefers to be addressed by her first name.

The CO, Justin Murphy, responded, "Ames, I'm not there yet."

Ames, serving a 35-year sentence for fatally stabbing a bartender, and Murphy, in the seventh year of his career, had been transferred to the east side of the Niantic women's prison, where treatment is emphasized, to take part in a restorative justice program called WORTH for Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work.

The program might appear to be focused on the 18- to 25-year-old women who are mentored by older inmates like Ames, but it also has been transformative for the mentors and staff.

"I thought it would be a one-way street," Ames said. "I was so far off base. What happened here is reciprocal rehabilitation. Being a mentor has become one of the most gratifying experiences of my life."

Murphy, who said his primary focus during his first seven years on the job was to make sure his co-workers went home safe, is all the way "there" after a year of working in the WORTH program.

"If I can keep people safe on the inside and return women as better people on the outside, I'm doing my job," he said.

In addition to being mentored by elder inmates, the 25 young WORTH participants receive intensive reintegration programming that includes training in financial literacy from volunteers at Chelsea Groton Bank, job readiness skills, educational programs, substance abuse treatment and therapy. They live in a dormitory unit, focus on empowering one another and air their grievances by sitting in a circle and talking them out. 

On Friday, the women described their transformations through self-produced videos, songs, poetry and, in one case, a colorful children's book. Younger women admitted they had arrived hopeless, ashamed and addicted, and that prison, and especially the WORTH program, had saved their lives.

Tatla Colon, 23, who is serving a four-year sentence for a stabbing that occurred when she was 15, said she is in school for cosmetology, facilitating a group on codependency and teaching herself new things daily.

"I needed a little more seasoning before stepping out in the real world, and I'm going to continue the pursuit of happiness," she said.

WORTH is the sister program to TRUE, which was implemented for men at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in 2017. The idea for the dignity-based program was born in 2015, when then DOC Commissioner Scott Semple and then Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, sponsored by the Vera Institute, traveled to Germany to tour that country's prison system. Vera is dedicated to improving justice systems and strengthening communities, and Germany's prison system is rooted in the belief that all people are worthy of dignity.

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Olivia McDowellComment