CAPSTONE: Breaking Free: A Second Chance

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By Marisa Cannici —

“I just don’t give a fuck right now in life, I could be doing so much better and I know it but I’m just reckless”

Coach sprints onto the court, “TIMEOUT!” The clock stops with 5 seconds left, the crowd spreads silent, you can see the sweat dripping off their faces. With pony-tails whipping back and forth as they run, the girls in matching white shorts and white tank tops meet in the middle, put their heads down, interlock arms, forming a circle as they whisper their final play of the game.

At just about sunset, the blaze beams through the solitary window against the lifeless walls, reflecting off of the clock making it nearly blinding to see that it says 7:00. Huddled in a circle the women in matching uniforms prepare for their daily routine. Only this time the matching uniform says “HCCC.”

Within a week of stepping off of the basketball court, for what she didn’t expect to be her final game as a college athlete, Kristen Bauer was taken into custody at the Hudson County Correctional Center.

This, just one instance of the 135 female prisoners serving time at the Kearny, New Jersey facility.

Kristen is part of a group called Women of Integrity United.

Women of Integrity United, a sub-program of Integrity House is a daily program that holds a maximum of 40 women at a time with various charges from drug possession to shoplifting and assault.

Based in Newark, New Jersey, Hudson County supports numerous in-house transitional programs to help inmates at their facility.

Kristen joined the Integrity group about two weeks into her sentence and was involved in the program for a total of two months.

“The average number of days the women are in the program is a little over a month but we have women who have been in the program for 8 months and women who are only in the program for 2 weeks; it varies,” said program coordinator, Amanda Elsayed.

“It really gave me the power and confidence to succeed when I got out,” Kristen said of the program. “I didn’t give a fuck until I realized everyone in here still has another chance at life.”

“Of all the bad luck that’s come to me, I can definitely say choosing to be part of this program was a gift,” Kristen said.

A good, steady support system is important to these women. They need other people to hear their stories and understand them in order for them to have closure with their old lives and give them the power to start over.

“I do all the intakes for new clients and I do the assessments so I do personally get to know these women,” said Elsayed.

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Three AM, straight out of the club, 85 miles per hour, tinted windows rolled up, lights passing so fast you can barely make out that it’s just a mixture of passing cars and street lights. A cop peaks out from the only hidden crevice on route 280. Red and Blue lights reflected off the rear view mirror into the eyes of what will soon be HCCC’s newest inmate.

Each year 60,000 women are convicted of a drug felony.

“I could be doing so much better and I know it but I’m just reckless with it. I just don’t give a fuck right now in life,” said an inmate named Samantha.

Most inmates leave jail with no savings, no stable housing, no health or unemployment benefits, and very limited job possibilities.

Click here to see more Jersey City, What Crime?

“I was trippin’ on some heavy stuff. That speedball type shit,” said Samantha. A speedball is referring to an injected mixture of cocaine and heroin. “A part of me didn’t want to pull over but at the same time I realized I was so fucked up I didn’t have much control over what I was thinking.”

Sam was charged with possession of illegal drugs and sentenced to two years without bail. This was her second time visiting the facility in three years.

Two of every three people in jail are re-arrested within three years of release. This is mainly because they aren’t taught any type of transitioning process to get their normal lives back after their sentence is over. The majority of job-training programs in jails have declined.

“I’ve fucked up a lot lately and it’s just eating me alive. I just need to find a job to get me back on track.”

“I hate having to write resumes though because they show the gap I was in jail and then I look like a fucking criminal,” said Sam. “Then companies ask and I need to explain and usually causes me to lose the opportunity and its annoying starting all over again.”

Eight months after being released, 48% of released inmates still rely on family and friends for money.

Women of Integrity give the out-patients the opportunity to learn ways around these types of problems. “We do different group [programs] like family dynamics, new directions, 12 step groups, and anger management,” said Elsayed.

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Unlike Kristen, Sam didn’t take part in any type of program like Women of Integrity United.

“The inmates that are admitted into our program have to meet certain criteria to join; must have substance abuse history, must be female,” said Elsayed.

The program was designed to provide addiction treatment and recovery support to those who ask for help. You’d think everyone wanted help to get their lives back together but that is not the case.

Kristen was just recently released from HCCC in the summer. The last time Sam was locked behind prison walls wasn’t since 2009.

Programs being offered have drastically been altered for the fact that it is constantly in debate. Whether or not to keep state funded programs in prisons is a continuous question because some believe they don’t see any improvement in inmate statistics. They think it’s just not worth all the effort.

Integrity House was founded in Newark in 1968. Over the years they have become the largest treatment facility throughout New Jersey.

The majority of both male and female inmates have the same vision of the first thing they want to do when getting out of jail: get drunk, get high and get laid. Not necessarily in that order. This often causes one of the biggest mistakes convicts make when leaving jail: not having a safe support group.

“I acted like it wasn’t a big deal, I left my man because I was fresh out of jail and I knew I was gunna get with mad dudes anyway. I just keep fucking up and it’s too overwhelming,” said Sam.

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The average age of arrest is 17 and the average education level is 11th grade.

Kristen was arrested when she was 21, a senior in college. Kristen was majoring in Communications, hoping to find a job in public relations after graduation. Unfortunately Kristen hasn’t had the chance to get back to school but is planning on doing so in fall 2011. Right now she is focusing her time and energy toward her full-time job at a local bank.

“If it weren’t for all the support from family, friends, and the people I’ve met at HCCC, it wouldn’t have been so easy to get back on track,” said Kristen.

Sam was only 18 when she visited HCCC in 2009. Sam was given the opportunity to attend weekly class meetings which was the only real-life training she got while in jail. She explained that it has taken her a lot longer to get her life on track. She didn’t get the chance to have people in jail lift her spirits and push her to do well.

“I was all fucked up. The time made me think a lot but it made me mad. I wanted to do the whole thing over but get away with it just to have the upper hand,” said Sam. “I thought about revenge every day.”

Sam received her GED just five months ago, almost two years after leaving jail.

“I’m just going down a bad path again and I’m just trying to find my answer and way out of it,” said Sam.

Women of Integrity and Integrity House are just one of the dozens of Hudson County Correction Center’s ways of helping their inmates get the support they need and to keep them out of jail.

As Kristen tells her story and reminisces back to the days she was locked behind bars, she brings up a quote one of the inmates shared at a Women of Integrity United meeting that she explains will stick with her forever.

As Kristen pushed her body back in her chair, she lowered her voice as it trembled just a bit. I couldn’t tell if it was fear or relief.

“The scary thing is: It’s so true. It’s so real. It’s a short line with so much meaning behind it,” she calmly said.

With the soothing sound of her voice, the words seemed to roll right off of Kristen’s tongue.

“Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” -Vanilla Sky