Dunasha Payne’s first visit to Westchester was in shackles, when she was transported to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. At the time of her arrest, she was a 21-year-old college student, an airline ticket agent, and the mother of a toddler. She doesn’t deny the crime that led her to a sentence of seven years in a maximum-security prison. But Payne does want people on the outside to understand something about the people who live hidden in their midst.
“People think that everyone incarcerated is a monster,” she says. “They don’t know that a lot of people locked up are just like me. They had children; they had families. Maybe they did one thing wrong. Maybe they are innocent. Maybe they’re incarcerated for something that happened to them, like domestic violence, or they were being molested or abused, and they acted out.”
Payne, who was convicted of manslaughter, now works as a teaching artist for The Drama Club, a nonprofit organization providing theater programming to incarcerated young people. Now released, Payne, 30, is reunited with her daughter, who started junior high school this fall.
At any given time, roughly 2,600 people are locked up in Westchester. Under the law, they are considered county residents. New York State’s Department of Corrections & Community Supervision (DOCCS) houses three prisons here: Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for men in Ossining; Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security facility for women; and Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for women. Both women’s prisons are in Bedford Hills. Additionally, Westchester County runs a jail, in Valhalla, which houses men and women.
The prisons and jail remain largely invisible to most residents. In fact, incarceration in Westchester is a story of one world locked inside another. The enclosed world is made up of the people who live, work, visit, and volunteer in state prisons and the county jail. The surrounding world is most everyone else, who go about their days with no interaction and little consciousness of their imprisoned neighbors.
“People have these institutions in their backyards, and they know nothing about them,” says Charles Moore, who was formerly incarcerated at Sing Sing and is now director of operations for Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a nonprofit program that teaches people in prison life skills through the arts. Before he “made the one poor decision that landed me in prison for 17 years,” all Moore knew about Sing Sing was what he’d seen in the movies.
Prisons and jails are not the same thing. Prisons are under the jurisdiction of the state or federal government and house people convicted of crimes with longer sentences. Jails, usually run by a locality, hold those who are newly arrested and awaiting trial and sentencing, as well as those sentenced to serve one year or less.
Step One for someone sentenced to prison in New York is processing at a state reception center.
“It’s here that you realize that you’re being stripped of everything,” says Moore. “You’re stripped of all the clothes you came in with, and you’re stripped of your name — because it’s there that you are given your ID number, which will be used throughout your incarceration.”
From the reception centers, people are taken to whatever prison they are assigned to, usually by bus. Sometimes, they don’t know which facility they are going to until they arrive. The center is also meant to prepare people for life on the inside. Payne says what struck her most about going to prison was no longer being recognized as an individual.
“It’s like you’re a newborn baby all over again,” she says. “You don’t have a voice. You don’t have an opinion. You aren’t allowed to speak up for yourself. You’re told when to go to the bathroom. It’s like, ‘You have to stand over there; don’t move; don’t look at me; put your hands on the wall.’”
For incarcerated people, the day is marked by counts, a basic security measure in which the population is literally counted by correction officers. The first is often at 5 a.m. — incarcerated people must stand up inside their cells — and the last is at night. The counts take place throughout the day, including during visiting hours.
Incarcerated people in New York get three meals a day, recreational time, and many have jobs within the prison — in laundry, food services, cleaning, and the like, earning an average of $1.50 a day. Chaplains are available from all major faiths.
In the afternoon and evening, incarcerated people may attend various programs. The nature of these activities varies by type and facility. First, depending on their crimes, some individuals are mandated by the state to take certain programs. These include antiviolence and anger-management classes, treatment for sex offenders, as well as alcohol-and-substance-abuse treatment.
Non-mandatory programming may be run by the state, by contractors, or by volunteers, though anyone working inside a prison must undergo full security clearance. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is the ultimate authority on any programming inside the prisons, and security in their primary concern.
Among the most well-known programs is “Puppies Behind Bars” at Bedford Hills, which trains incarcerated women to raise puppies as service dogs for wounded war veterans, as well as explosive detection canines for law enforcement.
At any given time, roughly 2,600 people are locked up in Westchester. Under the law, they are considered county residents.
One of the largest providers of programming is the nonprofit Osborne Association, which provides parenting classes and other therapeutic services to incarcerated and released people, as well as to their families. Hour Children, another nonprofit, works directly with incarcerated mothers during and after their time in prison. It also runs a nursery program and children’s center at Bedford Hills, as well as a visitation and summer program for children.
“These children are very, very impacted by the loss,” says Jane Siflen, director of the Children’s Center at Bedford Hills. “For a lot of children, it’s shameful, and some will blame themselves, asking, ‘What did I do?’ The visitation lessens these things, so the child can say, ‘My mom didn’t abandon me. She got in trouble, and that’s why she’s gone.’ If they feel like their moms are still in their lives, they can start healing.”
Many others work within prisons. Not all programs are available at each facility, nor are all people in prison eligible for every program.
Sean Pica was 16 years old and had a ninth-grade education when he was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Today, he has two master’s degrees and is the executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a nonprofit that provides precollege, college, life skills, and reentry support to incarcerated men and women. Pica, the son of two New York City police officers, served 16 and a half years of his sentence for manslaughter. Initially, he got his high school equivalency in prison. Then he began college classes.
“I wanted to be able to tell my parents I was involved in something positive,” Pica says. “I was a teenager, and I was not college material.” Pica’s story is not a typical one, but educational opportunities are available in the prisons and in the jail. Pica himself was one of the founders of Hudson Link.
Higher education is a challenge in prison, partly because incarcerated people are moved around to different facilities, and, particularly back in the 1980s and 1990s, college programs came and went in prisons. They are not always politically popular.
While sympathetic to victims and their families who balk at various opportunities provided to people in prison, officials point out that almost everyone who is incarcerated will be eventually released.
“They are coming home at some point, and it’s our job to do everything in our power to help address those elements that contributed to the criminal activity to begin with,” says Joseph Spano, commissioner of Westchester County Correction. “If we do a good job, everyone wins. The returning citizen wins, and the community wins. It’s not a feel-good thing for us; it’s an obligation and responsibility.”
DOCCS provides an adult basic education program for men and women who test below a sixth-grade level on math, reading, and language arts. The state also provides a High School Equivalency program. There are also ESL classes, as well as a variety of vocational-training certificate programs, ranging from carpentry at Sing Sing to cosmetology at Taconic and Bedford Hills.
Reprogramming My Potential by Jermaine Archer
I grew up in Brooklyn, in an impoverished neighborhood. Most of my male family members served time in prison. I saw crimes committed daily. Not surprisingly, I ended up incarcerated, albeit for a murder I did not commit. Inside, I realized I had a defective navigational system: I kept finding myself in unfavorable places. In time, I decided to pursue programs, not necessarily believing they would change me but rather to not waste my time.
In prison, program connotes “job”; the facility paid us penal-servitude wages to attend school, repair computers, serve meals, et cetera. I took up therapeutic, vocational, and educational programs. As a production manager in Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), I learned the importance of teamwork and leadership, and of working with others to get goals accomplished. More importantly, RTA provided a safe space to release suppressed feelings and emotions not necessarily safe to expose in prison settings. Like a child undeterred by societal pressures, I began having fun in an un-fun environment. I learned to repair refrigerators and air conditioners, picking up a trade along the way. Poignantly, I realized that many problems could be fixed simply by rewiring the circuitry. Through Hudson Link, I earned a Bachelor of Science in behavioral science, the benefits of which are innumerable. Worth noting, I had to stay out of trouble, which helped me create new, positive habits, but more significantly, I learned that the mind is very complicated but can be studied both by others and by oneself.
Merriam-Webster defines program as: “To give (a computer) a set of instructions to perform a particular action.” I believed my circumstances growing up hardwired or “programmed” me for a criminal lifestyle. Today, I work for The Legal Aid Society of Westchester County, implementing programs to mitigate justice-impacted clients’ sentences. When clients show reluctance to enrolling in programs, I use my experience to show how programs helped me rewire, or “reprogram,” my psyche, leave prison a better person, and secure gainful employment.
Perhaps I was never hardwired after all.
Jermaine Archer resides in White Plains and works with the Legal Aid Society as a sentence-mitigation specialist.
Men at Sing Sing can apply for a Mercy College associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree through Hudson Link, which also offers a college-readiness program. Union Theological Seminary offers a Master of Divinity degree. All classes take place inside the prison.
“When you get involved with self-help programs — whether it be RTA or a parenting program or higher education — and you achieve something, sometimes that’s the first thing you’ve ever achieved in your life.”
Incarcerated individuals are not entitled to a college education, and higher learning for eligible men and women is not funded by the state or taxpayer dollars. What used to be a piecemeal system has become far more organized. Today, Hudson Link is in six sites, with nine college partners serving 680 students. Fundraising remains a challenge.
“We have this program that we know is changing and saving lives every day,” says Pica. “We’re serving a pretty large segment of the incarcerated population in New York. We know this program is effective: 98 percent of people who’ve graduated in the last 20 years have not gone back to prison. It shouldn’t be this hard to raise money.”
“We know this program is effective: 98 percent of people who’ve graduated in the last 20 years have not gone back to prison.”
For women, The Bedford Hills College Program — a consortium of colleges, including Purchase, Marymount Manhattan, Union Theological Seminary, and Sarah Lawrence — offers higher education. At Taconic, Hudson Link provides precollege programming, as well as higher education through Marymount Manhattan College. The Bard Prison Initiative also offers classes for associate’s degrees.
According to Hour Children, 62% of women in New York State prisons are mothers with children under 18; half are 9 or younger. (Many incarcerated men are fathers, but in most cases, mothers had been the primary caregivers before their arrests.) Seventy percent of incarcerated women in treatment report being abused as children.
“If you look at what brought many of these women to prison, it’s not inherent violence, or there was definitely provocation,” says Siflen of Hour Children. “I’m not justifying them, but there are many women who experienced tremendous domestic violence and are impacted with mental-health and substance-abuse issues from sexual trauma.”
At the infant nursery in Bedford Hills, mothers can keep their babies until they are 18 months old. While mothers are in school, working, or at mandated programs, the children go to a child-development program, also run by Hour Children. (These programs are supported by grants to Hour Children and New York State.)
Helping older children visit is critical for bonding, Siflen says, and the logistics of travel and lodging is often insurmountable for families. That said, reunions are not always easy for either mother or child. Children go through the same security checks as adults, passing rolls of barbed wires, removing their shoes, going through metal detectors, having their hands stamped. After the visits, the mothers go through intimate body searches.
Visits can also be emotionally painful. Payne described one with her young daughter.
“She said to the officer, ‘Can my mom come with me? I promise you she will not do whatever she did. I’d watch her, and I know she’s been doing so good. Can she just come home today?’” Payne recounted. “And the officer says, ‘No, she’s not able to come. But one day she will.’ To watch your kid go through that and not understand… it’s just a different dimension of awareness.”
Carolyn Jones worked as a correction officer for 30 years, almost all of them at Bedford Hills. She was also a union representative. The prison environment took getting used to for Jones — especially the sound of all the metal doors clanging shut at once. Early on, Jones earned the nickname Ticketron because she was always writing up infractions.
The job, she says, takes years to learn to do well. Over time, she learned the importance of creating an atmosphere of calm in a unit. But Jones says she always stayed alert, because of the level of untreated mental illness within the prison population and the possibility of a physical attack.
Being a correction officer is not an easy job, though Jones says she enjoyed her career. Many officers cannot afford to live in Westchester, she noted. Bedford Hills has housing for staff, and for a time, some staff at Sing Sing stayed in trailers on the property. Jones says she doesn’t see a huge difference between imprisoned people and the people who guard them. In fact, several people she knew growing up ended up inside Bedford Hills.
“Two of them looked at my uniform and said, ‘You ain’t no better than me,’ Jones recalled. “And it’s so true. I was hanging out with them when I was on the street. But someone was looking after me. A lot of people just had the luck of the parents who were given, and the lifestyle they were drawn to ended them up in prison.”
If you can adopt a highway, why not a prison? That was one thought behind The Prison Partnership program. Originally founded by the Hudson River Presbytery to engage their churches in prison ministry, it is now an interfaith group, fiscally sponsored by Hour Children. The partnership doesn’t work inside the prisons. Instead, it engages the surrounding community as a partner in recognizing the humanity behind bars.
Sharon Ballen, program coordinator, describes the work as “soap to sidewalks,” representing the micro and macro of the approach. “Soap” because the partnership collected 40,000 bars of soap during the pandemic for women at Bedford and Taconic. “Sidewalks,” because they have been lobbying the state and Town of Bedford to put in a sidewalk between the Bedford train station and the prison, to help visitors and staff navigate safely.
Soon after the new soap began arriving, so, too, did the thank-you notes.
“Thank you very much for thinking of me and my sisters at the Taconic Correctional Facility,” one woman wrote. “It’s a very welcome and humbling gesture. Often us women are forgotten, so I highly appreciate you. As a college student here at Taconic, I have been low on hope and supplies, and your gesture has cured both things.”
The Town of Bedford, which included the request for soap in the supervisor’s newsletter, may be the first in the nation to establish a prison advisory board. Representatives include local merchants, advocates, religious leaders, and a correction officer. Ballen emphasizes that the only way the partnership works is with the cooperation of DOCCS.
Many others volunteer to work in prisons. For instance, the Bedford Presbyterian Church runs “Woman 2 Woman,” which connects women congregants with incarcerated women who rarely or never get visitors. They correspond and visit, when permitted.
A host of organizations in the county try to help people after they are released from prison and jail. The transition is not easy. Payne still jumps at the sound of keys and can’t get used to not wearing shoes in the shower. Employment remains a challenge. At Hudson Link, nearly 70% of the staff were formerly incarcerated. People like Pica, Payne, and Moore are drawn to working in the kind of programs that once helped them.
“I’m not a bad guy, but I wanted to come home better than I was,” says Moore. “When you get involved with self-help programs — whether it be RTA or a parenting program or higher education — and you achieve something, sometimes that’s the first thing you’ve ever achieved in your life. It’s a tremendous self-esteem booster and starts a cycle of positivity. And it definitely changes people’s worldview and outlook on life.”
“A lot of people just had the luck of the parents who were given, and the lifestyle they were drawn to ended them up in prison.”