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Making the Most Of Their Time

Making the Most Of Their TimeLock ’em up and throw away the key is not the approach at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in New York that for nearly 30 years has been a model for humane and progressive incarceration.

“I think we have more programs than any other facility in the state,” says Deputy Superintendent Judith MacCalla. Around 75 percent of the nearly 820 women at the facility are enrolled in college or other programs, MacCalla says, adding that women don’t always want to leave because they can’t get what the prison offers elsewhere.

That includes a nursery program which allows mothers to keep their children with them for up to 18 months; the Puppies Behind Bars program, in which inmates train guide dogs for the disabled; family violence prevention; AIDS counseling; drug and alcohol treatment; plus a laundry list of parenting and family interventions.

There are even writing and theater workshops offered by Broadway playwright Eve Ensler. Her work with the inmates culminated in the Sundance award-winning documentary “What I Want My Words to Do to You” — in which stars like Ruby Dee, Glenn Close, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei acted out the words and stories of the women in the writer’s workshop.

The women participate in these opportunities only after completing grueling work assignments in areas like the laundry and the kitchen. But having these programs available definitely inspires inmates to “make the most of our time,” says Deborah Armstrong, 51.

In the 9½ years she’s been behind bars, Armstrong has become a palliative care aide for the terminally ill and a teacher’s aide for the GED classes. She’s a trained facilitator in the Alternative to Violence program, an apprentice in the HIV/AIDS counseling program and she’s two courses and a thesis away from getting her bachelor’s.

“I just want God to forgive me and send me home to be with my family,” she says. “But until that time comes, I want to give back.”

— K.H.

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