The first time Shannon saw the outside world in 23 years was the day she walked into the Whitcraft Group in Plainville in early 2022. She has been incarcerated since she was a teenager. “I didn’t really have much of a focus or a vision as far as what my future would be,” she says. “I didn’t even think I was gonna have a future, honestly, because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.”
Now, though, everything has changed. Shannon is one of four currently incarcerated women enrolled in a work-release program at Whitcraft. Every day, they board a bus from York Correctional Institute in Niantic to Plainville and spend the day machining, inspecting, and shipping parts for planes and helicopters.
Shannon is one of four women chosen to pilot the program after it was approved in February 2022. They are of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences, but they are all grateful for the opportunity to do something positive with their time.
“I come in here and learn something new every day,” says Sydney Damato. “It’s changed the whole trajectory of my release and my future.” Sydney wasn’t even born yet when Shannon was first incarcerated and when we spoke, she was waiting to be released any day.
The program is a first-of-its-kind, a brand-new opportunity for women in the state’s prisons to learn advanced manufacturing. In fact, the Whitcraft program is the only work-release option for women in Connecticut.
“I think for these women — they’re trailblazers right now,” says Trina Sexton, Warden at York Correctional. “They are showing employers that incarcerated women have a lot of skills, have a lot of potential, this is a pool of labor that they should consider if they want to continue being successful operating in this state, and I think that’s huge.”
The Whitcraft work-release program is based on a similar project created for men in 2018 and organizers say it might have come about much sooner if it weren’t for the pandemic, which shut down all work release options. It’s the brainchild of Whitcraft COO Jaqueline Gallo who wanted to find a way to provide opportunities to people who might not get them elsewhere.
“These individuals were given a sentence. They served their time. When the sentence completes, they should be able to go back into society because they served their time and they paid their debt to society, so to speak,” says Gallo. “But that’s not the way it works. They are often serving a life sentence because they’re not able to re-enter society in a meaningful way because they can’t get a job — a meaningful career.”
Gallo obviously cares about the program. She’s put in an immense amount of effort to get it off the ground, working directly with the Warden at York, the Department of Correction, and transitional housing services across the state.
For her, and for others at Whitcraft, the reasons are personal as well as practical. “I have family members who were incarcerated and who were not able to ever really get a job,” Gallo says.
The ability to find employment after release weighed heavy on the minds of the women I spoke to. Along with housing, it was a primary concern for their ability to reintegrate into society.
“My biggest fear was always — I always talk to my parents about like, what am I going to do for work?” says Jessica York, who grew up on a farm and spent some time working in retail before her incarceration. “How am I ever going to have independence and live on my own again if no one will hire me because I have a record, because I have a felony?”
“Once I was released, I would have went home with pretty much no work experience, so finding a job that isn’t just a job that’s pulling teeth to go to every day, it wouldn’t have necessarily been easy,” explains Sydney. “So getting this opportunity to start a career path at my age with the circumstances that I’m in is huge.”
Employment is also a factor in recidivism. Research shows that those with a stable job post-release are less likely to re-offend. Of the thousands of people released from Connecticut state prisons each year, about half of them re-offend within thirty-six months. Around 30% of them find themselves back in prison in just a single year.
“When you don’t have money and you don’t have a skill, what do you want to do?” asks Judy Sirrine, who deferred a move to transitional housing to work at Whitcraft. “You might revert to old patterns of living, which means the door becomes a revolving door back to incarceration, and that can be avoided if someone takes the chance on you.”
“It’s definitely changed the trajectory of my life at this point, like the vision that I had for myself,” says Shannon. “This is putting everything into play to give me stable ground for when I do walk out.”
The type of employment also matters, though. According to a study from 2017, stable jobs with a higher employment level contribute to a much lower rate of recidivism than less-skilled jobs. That’s part of the point of Whitcraft’s program. “I want it to be the right opportunity,” says Ted Chandler, General Manager of the Plainville facility. “Some jobs… it’s a job, right? There’s no advancement opportunities. There’s a lot of advancement here, and I want everybody to be able to take advantage of that.”
“When we look at how people are going to sustain themselves when they got out of incarceration — this isn’t a job. This is a career opportunity,” says Sexton. “Some of these women come in very broken, and by having something like this where they are gaining their confidence back, they realize that they are a valued member of a team, they have in-demand market skills. That is extremely powerful for these women.”
The women in Whitcraft’s program gain skills in a growing industry and, upon their release, are offered full-time jobs. The company, for its part, pays participants minimum wage (they’re eligible for raises and make full market wages upon release) and fills open positions with employees eager to work and learn.
This is a boon to Whitcraft in particular. Their staff was hit hard during the pandemic. The South Windsor-based company has nine locations across seven states and in 2019 had 1,800 employees. Now, they have 1,300.
The program also generates something a little less tangible. “It helps build loyalty, where companies are really fighting attrition,” explains Gallo. “And because we’re giving somebody an opportunity that they wouldn’t alternatively have, there is some intangible goodwill there. That there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll stay.”
The women agree. They are all hoping to stay on as full-time employees once their time in prison is over. “Any company that’s willing to step outside of the box and give people who are incarcerated an opportunity, a chance for a better life, like we have to remain loyal to them,” says Shannon.
Reception to the program has also been positive among Whitcraft’s existing staff. Managers at the facility were given the opportunity to participate in the interview process and Gallo says that was when they realized how big an impact the program could have on those in the prison system. Chandler says now he’s fielding questions from employees about when they will see more people added to the program.
“They don’t look at us any differently because we’re inmates coming in here,” says Shannon. “They treat us just like everybody else, which, that honestly blew my mind.”
“They do not care at all that we’re currently incarcerated. They just love that we’re here,” says Jessica. “They teach us. They show us around. They make sure we’re good. And there’s nothing weird.”
While it represents a huge step for people working to re-enter society, the program is extremely limited. Candidates are chosen based on several strict criteria and it can take months to work up to it.
Angel Torres got his start while he was still incarcerated. He worked his way from a maximum-security facility, all the way to the second chance dorms at Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution. But it took years to make that journey and a commitment to turning himself around.
“I was a knucklehead when I first came into prison,” explains Torres, saying he was cited for fighting. “And it just came to a point where I had to sit down and be like, hey, listen, you were messing up out there, you’re messing up in here, and then you’re going to get out and you’re going to mess up again.”
It’s been three years since he first joined Whitcraft. Now, Torres is a fulltime employee at the Plainville facility. He’s even been able to move back to his hometown of Waterbury to spend more time with his family. That’s the hope for this current crop of candidates too.
“I technically am homeless,” says Judy. “I came in, I was married and I had a home on a lake, I had a man on a farm, 40 acres. I have nothing, so I need to save money to start a new life. And this is where it’s starting.” Judy says she will be staying with a friend when she gets out and they’ve already worked out the best route to get to Whitcraft every day.
For the organizers, the hope is to continue expanding the program past this current group to give as many people as possible a chance to start their lives over. But that’s not without challenges. They need businesses who are willing to participate.
The Department of Corrections works with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, giving presentations and providing information to interested business owners and managers. They’re hoping to help as many people as possible.
“My hope for these furlough programs is that it becomes the anchor for these people to really change, to not come back,” says Sexton. “We want to see them out in the community. We don’t want to see them behind bars.”
Shannon, meanwhile, has her own message for women in her position. “Take advantage of every opportunity they give you. Learn as much as you can. Change your life, because this is definitely the way to go. This is definitely the way to do it. This is definitely what second chances look like. This is the vision that everybody talks about.”