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Prison project aims to help inmates straighten out lives

Annetta King- Simpson, left, and Bonita Blake, right,

Annetta King- Simpson, left, and Bonita Blake, right, both of whom are incarcerated at Rikers Island, are interviewed about the I-CAN (Individualized Correction Achievement Network) at the Rose M. Singer Center. (March 10, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

Retired schoolteacher Annetta King Simpson said her shoplifting addiction became an adrenaline rush that landed her in jail five times in the past 15 years.

"It was insanity with the jewelry," said Simpson, who is doing time at Rikers Island Correctional Facility for stealing perfume, pocketbooks, shoes and jewelry from high-end department stores such as Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor.

The 56-year-old former third-grade teacher said recently she is determined to change her criminal lifestyle through a new prison program called I-CAN, which is geared to detainees ready for the outside world even if they are incarcerated for only 20 days.

Simpson is serving eight months and will be released in May. She is banking on the I-CAN program to help her find a job. or even volunteer work in a literacy program.

"I want to be a different person," she said, acknowledging that keeping herself busy will keep her out of the department stores.

The I-CAN program offers participants job training, job referrals and counseling. Inside Rikers, participants receive three or four counseling sessions a week -- both one-on-one and group meetings, which Simpson says help her "rethink my behavioral patterns by listening to other people's stories."

Simpson said a heart attack forced her into early retirement and she found herself with lots of time on her hands, and that may have contributed to her life of crime.

The New York City Department of Correction released about 88,000 inmates in 2012. Seventy-six percent of them went home, with 69 percent returning to jail within a year, according to department data. I-CAN is expected to enroll 2,270 high-risk repeat offenders starting at the age of 19. The cost of the program is $3.6 million for 2013.

I-CAN transitional planner Verdell Sims, 35, said basic thresholds in life such as getting a GED high school diploma, a resume or proper state identification can help an inmate "get into the mind-set for the future and engage in the real world."

Winter Drayton, 29, program coordinator, said when I-CAN participants leave jail their accomplishments are monitored with follow-up at the program's city offices.

The I-CAN program is operated by nonprofit contractor Osborne Association and the Fortune Society, which are paid for their work by the Department of Correction when I-CAN inmates successfully meet their goals within a six-month period after their release.

Bonita Blake, 52, who made a living cutting sheet metal for aircraft at Boeing, said she is in jail for "stealing."

A grandmother of 11 grandchildren, Blake -- who will be out in June -- said she hopes the program will help her find housing and a job. "I have never written a resume," she said, adding that the program is teaching her how to open up and speak to people.

"I need to change and share my story," she said. For now, she talks to her grandchildren. "They need to know the truth. I tell them that I broke the law and I have to pay."

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