Jackie Lucibello was serving a three-year sentence at the York Correctional Institution when she found out that her mother was dying from complications related to AIDS.
If Lucibello wanted to visit her mother in the hospital, she first had to be “blackboxed.”
A high-strength plastic box was placed over the key hole to her handcuffs to keep her from trying to pick the lock.
Chains running from her ankles to her waist to her wrists all intersected in that black box, rendering her practically immobile.
At the hospital, she was pushed in a wheelchair through the corridors, was not allowed to see any other visiting family members, and was watched by two guards with the hospital bedroom door open as she spent her final moments with her mother.
“I can’t even explain to you how dehumanizing [that was],” Lucibello said on a recent episode of WNHH radio’s “Criminal Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.” “You literally feel like you’re an animal. … That was a changing moment in my life.”
Released from prison in December 2013, Lucibello is now one of the leaders of the Women’s Resettlement Working Group (WRWG), a new organization that focuses on providing support and community for formerly incarcerated women in New Haven.
WRWG started in 2015 as a group of people involved with Project Fresh Start, the city’s prison reentry program, who were specifically dedicated to women’s issues.
The group now has around 20 members and meets once a month at Project M.O.R.E. headquarters at 830 Grand Ave., where participants discuss and strategize around challenges that formerly incarcerated women face in finding adequate housing, healthcare, employment, nutrition and childcare.
The group also provides an outlet for women like Jackie to share their stories with people who have experienced similar traumas while serving time in prison, and to work through some of the shame and stigma that sticks with female inmates even after they have been released.
“When I came home, I was thrust into motherhood,” Lucibello said.
She had given birth to her son while in prison, but immediately had to give him up to her mother and stepfather until she finished her sentence at York. Her stepfather took full responsibility for raising her son after her mother passed away.
“Now before that,” she continued, “I was a heroin addict running the streets. I came home to a 3-year-old running around who wants a mother. It was overwhelming for me, because I hadn’t known how to be a mother. I wasn’t a mother. I was a drug addict back then. Just finding a job and having support and getting my license [were challenges]. If you don’t have someone in your corner fighting along with you, picking you up when you’re feeling down, it’s very easy to slip back into the bucket saying, go back to what you know.”
Lucibello was able to find that kind of support in her family and in a women’s discussion group at Project Fresh Start.
She and Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) social work assistant professor Amy Smoyer are trying to build WRWG into a one-stop shop for conversation, support and social service coordination for women like Lucibello who may not know how to get their lives back on track after getting out of prison.
One of WRWG’s newest initiatives is the Welcome Home Project, in which members make sure that there is always someone waiting at the police department to greet women when they are first dropped off in New Haven after being released from prison. Smoyer said that women are often dropped off by themselves at five or six in the morning, and do not know where to turn once they find themselves no longer behind bars.
Smoyer also said that formerly incarcerated women face unique challenges in finding housing upon returning to New Haven. She said that 75 percent of women returning from prison to New Haven experience homelessness at one point in their lives.
“The number-one place where people live when they come home from prison is with their mom or girlfriend,” Smoyer said. “So a woman coming home, often her mom’s home is not available to her because her kids are living there. When men go to prison, their children stay with the maternal family. Their mom is still available to them. For women, the housing opportunities are narrowed because the women in their life are caring for their kids and some women are not ready to be reunited with their kids.”
Smoyer said that this tension between homelessness and being thrust right back into familial responsibilities often results in women living with unfamiliar men, which can in turn result in exchanging sex for housing and increasing one’s risk for contracting HIV.
With initiatives like the Welcome Home Project, Smoyer and Lucibello are looking to reduce the likelihood that formerly incarcerated women will end up out on the streets, further isolated from family, or falling back into bad habits.
Some of the other topics discussed at WRWG meetings include the Yale School of Medicine’s Transitions Clinic, which provides medical care to women returning to New Haven from prison, the Children with Incarcerated Parents initiative, and a working group dedicated to decreasing the number of women at York Correctional Institution.
“We know that the people who are going to solve the problem are the people who are closest related to that problem,” Smoyer said about the WRWG’s mission to empower formerly incarcerated women to take leadership roles in pushing for criminal justice reform. “And that’s what we saw with HIV. We have a new world in terms of HIV because people living with HIV stood up and fought for it. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the Women Resettlement Working Group right now.”
Learn more about the WRWG at the group’s website: http://nhwrwg.blogspot.com/.
Previous “Criminal Justice Insider” articles:
“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH FM at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Listen to the full interview with Jackie Lucibello and Amy Smoyer by clicking on the audio player or Facebook Live video below.