Sunday, June 6, 2010


This is a wonderful story, as reported by the New York Times, that should only get better, as this former criminal—who transformed her life in prison through education and helping others—takes that transformation to the outside after being paroled in 2005.

She completed her parole last year and the program she is working for—which employs ex-prisoners almost exclusively—has been in existence since 1999 but as yet has not completed an evaluation to determine the effectiveness of their model; but we hope, when it is done, that the success will be significant.

An excerpt.

“DIANA ORTIZ waited in a cagelike room at the Fishkill Correctional Facility that winter morning in 2005, going over it in her head again and again. She needed to find the right words, conjure the right emotions, strike the right balance between remorse for her role in the killing of an off-duty police officer and recognition of all that she had accomplished in the 22 ½ years since.

“She wanted to explain how she had blossomed behind bars, earning a high school equivalency diploma and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in prison; how she barely recognized the wispy, naïve 18-year-old who had fallen for a man twice her age, become addicted to drugs and posed as a prostitute to set up a robbery that turned deadly.

“Convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison, Ms. Ortiz had been in the same situation, prepping for a parole hearing — four times before. She knew she would have about 10 minutes to make her case to three strangers who knew little of where she had been but controlled everything about where she would go. Each previous time she had been nervous and flushed with remorse and regret. Each time, parole had been denied.

“I felt it doesn’t matter what I say, it doesn’t matter who I am or what I’ve done,” she recalled thinking. “It’s never going to change; the crime will never change.”

“The hard part about it,” she added, “was that I changed.”…

“Convicted of felony murder at trial, she spent 18 years at Bedford Hills — the state’s only maximum-security prison for women. Eventually, her fears of rape and abusive guards faded, and she began taking classes, earning college degrees. She worked as a bookkeeper and with a church ministry, helping other inmates to reconnect with their children and learn to read. …

"In a little coffee shop in Harlem not long ago, Ms. Ortiz’s eyes were wet again after she spilled her soul. Now she, like Mr. Dennison, is helping other recently released inmates adapt, working with Exodus Transitional Community, a nonprofit group where 85 percent of the staff has served time. She completed her parole last year.

“I still have those dreams of not being able to leave prison, like I’m still in there trying to get out,” Ms. Ortiz said. “I’m no longer part of the system, but I keep having them. Why am I still struggling to get out?”