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Richmond Hill drug program helps ex-cons

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Watching Elizabeth Hernandez make the rounds at her office — a formidable woman with dark, shoulder-length hair walking the corridors with keys in hand, locking and unlocking doors — it is easy to evoke the image of her in her former role as women’s warden on Rikers Island.

But 10 years ago Hernandez left that behind to help the very same women — inmates with a history of drug abuse — once they make it to the outside.

Hernandez, 39, is the coordinator of the Outreach Project’s Women in Recovery program in Richmond Hill, an out-patient rehabilitation clinic designed specifically for women. Now when Hernandez cracks open a door, she enters rooms full of women, talking, training, laughing, rebuilding their lives.

The clients are not there voluntarily. They are mandated to enroll by their parole agreements, but Hernandez said the idea that a non-voluntary program cannot succeed is simply a myth.

“I’ve seen the changes from being forced to be here. Something clicks once they start getting involved with the staff. Before you know it [they] want to be here.”

While she worked on Rikers, Hernandez saw that not only were there no drug treatment programs, but half of the island was using or dealing drugs. And often those drugs were brought in by the prison staff, “which was no real help,” she said in a dead-pan tone.

Haydee Figueroa, an animated 38-year-old mother of five who is in the program, said the drug problem on Rikers was rampant.

“That’s a playground over there, truly a playground,” she said. “All you have to do is ask and trust me, it will come.”

And as for treatment or a sympathetic ear, Figueroa said, the officers just did their job.

“You’re just what they call you, an inmate. That’s what you are,” she said.

But to Hernandez and her staff, Figueroa and the 26 others who are currently enrolled in the program are much more. “They are women, mothers, daughters,” Hernandez said, noting that many of them were also the victims of physical abuse or may have prostituted themselves while high.

Five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., the participants attend sessions for relapse prevention, meditation, G.E.D. preparation, acupuncture, and job searches as well as parenting skills and learning how to resist the pressure of male partners, which in many cases is what landed them in prison, according to Hernandez.

The program’s retention rate is modest. After a six-month period, 53 percent of their participants stay in the program, Hernandez said. But when compared with similar programs which report 40 percent, Hernandez said, their numbers appear encouraging. During the program’s 12-year existence they have administered to more than 500 women, they said.

Housed in a newly renovated two-story building, at the crossroads of Jamaica Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard, the center’s pristine peach-colored hallways are hung with calming pastel works by expressionist painters. Inside each of the seminar rooms, many of which are equipped with dimmers to soften the lighting, inspirational posters proclaiming “Discovery,” “Courage,” “Risk” offer soothing poems or proverbs of support.

But the program is hardly a school or a spa, and as a constant reminder twice a week the women enter a small room, under the supervision of a staff member to submit urine samples to detect drugs. The urine tests, as with the monthly reports Hernandez prepares for parole officers, are required as part of the parole agreements.

Cathy Wright, a robust 37-year-old mother of two said she has been in the program for nine months. Wright, sitting at a table, her hair pulled back tightly from a clean, dark complexion and speaking quickly with a flurry of hand gestures, said she was arrested nearly two years ago for selling crack-cocaine in Corona. Initially, she said, she was a customer. But then one day a dealer came to her home and he asked if she, too, wanted to deal.

Her new venture, Wright said, brought her on average $5,000 a week. “It was a booming business at the time, but it was a headache. Constantly, people are knocking at your door,” she said.

After her conviction for selling a controlled substance, Wright spent most of her 16-month sentence at Rikers, and although close to home, she did not allow her small children, then 1 and 2, to be brought to see her. Children, Wright said, are submitted to strip searches when they visit inmates.

Two years later with the help of the program, she sees her 3-year-old and 4-year-old on the weekends, and she is preparing for a career in computers and office administration. The program and its staff, she said, “give me assurance that I’m not totally worthless.”

Sitting in her dark, womblike office with New Age music emanating from a corner and the calming trickling sounds of a small, pebbled fountain, Hernandez said she still encounters prejudice because of her clients. When her mother telephones, she often asks, “How can you work with those people?”

Hernandez raises her arms, gesturing quotation marks in the air, “those people,” she repeated, shaking her head. “This is the population that nobody wants to work with. And basically, they’re lovely. They’re just regular women that have hurt in their lives.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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