Veronica Carrier is a college graduate with a teaching degree who got herself into trouble with too much partying after a personal tragedy — a downward spiral that led to drug abuse, robberies and eventually prison.
But this Christmas will be a special one for her. For the first time in years, she will be fully free to celebrate with her two children and husband. She is finished with three years in prison and five years of parole.
“Now this is the first year where I don’t have to worry so much, and I’m truly, like, free,” said Carrier, 39, of Ronkonkoma. “It’s nice to be able to go out and look at Christmas lights past 8 o'clock curfew.”
“I have the ability to be with my family on Christmas, give my kids gifts,” she said. “I can pay my rent. I can do things that everybody just kind of takes for granted.”
WHAT TO KNOW
The nonprofit New Hour goes into jails in Riverhead, Yaphank and East Meadow and offers women classes in parenting, career development, and health and wellness.
Also serving parolees, it has helped about 1,200 women this year and a total of about 9,000 since its founding in 2015, according to the Brentwood-based group.
Christmas is an especially hard time for incarcerated women and their children, the group's executive director said.
Carrier, a one-time gymnast who graduated from Centereach High School and Dowling College, is a beneficiary of the nonprofit New Hour for Women and Children LI. It is the only organization that works with women in Long Island’s three jails to help rehabilitate them and prepare them to transition back into society.
The Brentwood-based program goes into jails in Riverhead, Yaphank and East Meadow several times a week and offers the women classes in parenting, re-entry, career development, and health and wellness. In January, the group is taking on a fourth facility: New York City's Rikers Island, which holds about 300 incarcerated women, said Serena Martin-Liguori, executive director of New Hour.
The group also helps women once they are out of jail. It provides basic supplies like toiletries and kids’ school supplies, assistance finding housing, jobs and educational opportunities, and classes in areas such as leadership, resume writing and financial planning.
“We try to eliminate the barriers that get in the way of women becoming successful,” Martin-Liguori said.
'Children suffer the most'
New Hour has helped about 1,200 women this year, she said, and a total of about 9,000 since its founding in 2015. The group assists incarcerated women both on Long Island and upstate.
Christmas is an especially hard time for the women and their children, she said, since it is a sentimental, family-based holiday for most people.
“Children suffer the most,” Martin-Liguori said. “They suffer so much trauma when their mothers are incarcerated.”
But for those who have finished serving their time, and hopefully are turning their lives around, this Christmas will be especially joyous, she said.
Carrier is one of them. She has a job as a case manager in a drug rehabilitation program, speaks at high schools to warn students about drug abuse, and will start work on a master’s degree at Adelphi University in January.
She said she grew up a "normal kid" on Long Island, heavily involved in gymnastics and heading off to a local college.
But after graduation, and the death of her boyfriend in a tragic car accident, the bar scene and drinking led her into drug abuse with increasingly hard-core narcotics. To support her habit, she started burglarizing houses, she said. She quickly got caught. She was 31.
“I had every opportunity. I was a normal kid growing up. I was an athlete,” Carrier said. But the drug use “just got to be too much for me to be able to control.”
“Over the course of a few years, I was just a lost cause,” she said.
New Hour helped get her life back on track, she said. She eventually got married, and had two children.
Her parole ended in April. That means she is no longer under any restrictions such as not being able to leave home after 8 p.m.
“Nobody notices the sky at night and how pretty it is,” she said. “But especially when you are in prison for years and you’re not allowed out at night to look up at the sky — you appreciate these little things … that people kind of take for granted.”
Martin-Liguori noted that the number of women in jails and prisons is growing rapidly in this country, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Some 80% of women who are incarcerated are mothers, she said.
While some people may not feel much sympathy for women in jail, Martin-Liguori said it is in everyone’s interest that they get rehabilitated while they are incarcerated.
“When someone comes home and they’re stable and they’re less likely to reoffend or commit another crime, it’s really keeping us all safe,” she said.
Suffolk sheriff supports group
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. said he has welcomed New Hour into his jails, in part because he shares the group's belief in rehabilitation.
“I am grateful to New Hour for Women and Children for their support of women who are currently incarcerated or recently released from the Suffolk County Correctional Facilities, and their families as well,” he said in a statement.
“Rehabilitation is the focus of the many programs offered in the Suffolk County Correctional Facilities, and New Hour for Women and Children play an integral part in the rehabilitation and success of” incarcerated women, he said.
New Hour was inspired by an older program called Hour Children which is based in Queens and was started by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. That program provides housing for women recently released from jail and their children, and conducts programs in prisons upstate.
New Hour has its offices in Brentwood on the campus of the Sisters of St. Joseph, though it operates independently of the nuns.
Another Long Island woman who said New Hour helped rescue her is Natalie Rodriguez, 31, of Brentwood.
She spent two years in prison on drug charges, and came back home in August 2019.
A court had placed her two children under the care of Rodriguez' mother. The order restricted Rodriguez from living with them and limited her visiting hours.
Those restrictions ended this year, so Rodriguez is back living with her kids for the first time in five years.
Wearing matching pajamas
When asked what it would be like to spend her first Christmas in years at home with her children, she said, “I’m going to cry. I’m just so thankful and grateful. I feel so much joy to be able to be with my kids.”
“It’s the greatest feeling, honestly, next to giving birth to them, being able to be next to them, and wake up with them and wear matching pajamas,” she said. “Little things that you don’t think about.”
Her parents treated her and her kids to plane tickets to Florida, so they were headed south on Friday — and will spend Christmas in the Sunshine State.
“It’s so insane that I am able to get on a plane with my family and go and just make memories,” she said.
When she gets back, Rodriguez will be a member of the new team that is going into Rikers in January to help incarcerated women there, Martin-Liguori said.
Examples like Rodriguez and Carrier show there is hope for a better life for the women, even at Christmas, she said.
“We tell our members, ‘This is your new hour. This is your moment of rebirth and hope and the next part of your journey,’” she said.