NIANTIC, CT — Robin Ledbetter was 14 in 1996 when she was incarcerated on robbery and felony murder charges.
At the earliest, she’ll be up for parole in seven years and may qualify for shortened sentence because of a new federal law. But in the meantime, she’s found a reason to get up every morning. And it has changed her life.
“I was a woman with no purpose, a woman with no hope,” she told a crowd of state dignitaries, fellow inmates, guests and correction officers Friday morning. “I have learned more in the past year, than I have learned in the past 22 years.”
As a long-term inmate at York Correctional Institution, the state’s only prison for women, Longbetter admitted she was hopeful but surprised when she was chosen to act as one of six mentors for younger inmates in the hopes of giving them the skills to live a better life when they are released.
She was front and center Friday morning as the group, which included 22 mentees, corrections officers and counselors, celebrated the first anniversary of “W.O.R.T.H.” program — Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hardwork — with poetry, skits, video arts, and plain talk.
“I was fearful that this program was just another rumor on inmate.com,” Ledbetter said. “I was used to DOC disappointments. I never thought there would be this program or that I would be chosen.”
Gales of laughter streamed through the building where W.O.R.T.H. is housed Friday morning as mentees waited for the celebration to start. There was gentle kidding with the correction officers and lots of encouragement and clapping and more than a few tears. But mostly there was a lot of laughter — something that’s not expected in a prison setting.
The unit was based on the state’s pilot T.R.U.E. program for young men housed at Cheshire Correctional Institution. The success of the T.R.U.E. program was highlighted during a CBS “60 Minutes” segment a few months ago. T.R.U. E. was inspired by a trip to Germany made by then-Gov. Dannel Malloy to view their model of incarceration — which strongly leaned on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
The W.O.R.T.H. program came a bit later, but it’s based on the same template with the same principle — intensive therapy, intensive opportunity, and the belief that people can succeed no matter what their previous mistakes or hardships.
Billed as the first program of its kind for female inmates throughout the nation, the young women, ages 18 to 25, can apply to participate as do their mentors, who in some cases have been at the prison for decades.
The young women in the program are housed with mentors in a separate building from the general prison population and are given the tools, and the help, they need to succeed after they are released. Every morning they meet in a circle, to assess everyone’s mood and get a positive start to the day.
The mentees participate in group counseling and can quickly take programs such as anger management and victim advocacy, that are harder to schedule for the general population, said Chelse Dall, a counselor working in the program.
There are challenges in that the young women tend to get shorter sentences, so staff must adapt to provide each mentee with as much support as possible before they are released. Each young woman gets a “passport,” a booklet that lists the various steps they must take to be successful. After each step is completed, a staff member must stamp the entry. Mentees also must provide their initials when the inmate participates in certain rituals such as the morning and evening community circle.
The stamps go toward incentives such as extra television time or a photo sent home to family — which is usually not allowed in other parts of the prison. After a two-week orientation phase, family engagement starts to play a role, Dall said.
The mentees choose a family member, teacher, or other supportive person who will engage in their rehabilitation, she said. “The counselors can tell that person what she is doing well and go to them and say, she’s struggling with something, and they can offer feedback and brainstorm together on what may work,” Dall said.
Before a crowd of state officials, including Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook, Warden Sharonda Carlos and prior Warden Guiliana Mudano, who worked to get the program started, the women performed skits, read poetry, and talked about their lives before prison and how they have been changed by the W.O.R.T.H. program.
Although every staff member has chosen to be a part of the program, there was a transitional period for both inmates and correction officers who were used to being stern rather than open, Correction Officer Justin Murphy said. He admitted that it took him a few weeks to call participants by their first names, rather than their last.
He and mentee Jasmine Ortiz collaborated together on a children’s book — a dream of hers. She read the book out loud during the celebration, showing guests each colorfully illustrated page as she moved through the story. He choked up when he discussed what participating in the program has meant to him. “I’m very proud of what we created together,” Murphy said.
Ledbetter and mentee Sky LoRusso performed a series of rap pieces, first with the mentor telling the young woman the “Ten York Commandments,” including no snitching. The pieces went on to highlight the change the W.O.R.T.H program was offering and then the impact it has made on their lives.
The 37-year-old mentor also produced videos for the celebration and she runs the “Worthy” monthly newsletter featuring news, recipes, book reviews, and poetry. When she was placed in juvenile prison at age 14, she had never even used the internet, she said.
“This program was designed to saves the lives of young women,” Ledbetter said. “When I look in the mirror every morning, I see a woman of value.”