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Pamela Zimba speaking at last Sunday’s Adopt-A-Prison organized by Bedford’s Prison Relations Advisory Committee (PRAC). Zimba told the more than 100 attendees about how she started Lilac House in Mount Vernon, a safe place for women recently released from prison where they can rebuild their lives.

With compassion as a key motivator, a growing number of organizations are actively helping women who are currently incarcerated at the Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities.

Many groups also help women after they are released from prison.

The diverse set of outfits providing support gathered last Sunday at an Adopt-A- Prison event held by Bedford’s Prison Relations Advisory Committee (PRAC).

A standing-room-only crowd of over 100 people filled the main room at the Bedford Hills Community House to listen to representatives from 21 organizations helping current and former inmates.

Adopt-A-Prison is a joint program of the Interfaith Prison Partnership, the Town of Bedford, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and the Taconic Correctional Facility. Both prisons are located next to one another in Bedford Hills.

Bedford is one of the first municipalities in the country to have an advisory committee to address issues at the facilities. The effort started as a way to implement the Interfaith Prison Partnership’s Adopt-A-Prison in 2019.

Since then, 17 different PRAC initiatives have been introduced to the two facilities. Programs include offering skills to help inmates readapt after release, Mother’s Day dinners for incarcerated moms, providing children with activity bags for kids visiting their mothers and live music and arts and educational programs.

PRAC Chair Sharon Griest Ballen welcomed visitors to the Apr. 14 program and spoke of the many support programs.

“We can let our neighbors know that we care about them, that they matter and that they are valued,” Ballen said.

She added that PRAC was about “standing up for people who we, as a society, failed long before they ever committed a crime.”

Ballen particularly thanked Hans Hallundbaek the former director of the Interfaith Prison Partnership who initiated the Adopt-A-Prison program five years ago.

Particularly poignant were the stories told by former prisoners who started support groups or became key staffers in re-entry or educational programs.

Former inmate Pamela Zimba spoke about how she started Lilac House in Mount Vernon, a safe place for women just released from prison where they can start to rebuild their lives.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people filled the main room at the Bedford Hills Community House on Apr. 14 for Bedford’s Prison Relations Advisory Committee’s Adopt-A-Prison event. More than 20 organizations that help current and former inmates were represented.

In 2013 Zimba was sentenced to seven years for her involvement in a burglary ring. She was accepted into the Bard Prison Initiative, which provides a college education to prisoners. She graduated in 2017 while still incarcerated, receiving an associate’s degree in liberal arts.

“Upon my release I ended up in a shelter and it was literally like walking back into prison,” she told the audience. “That’s when I first realized why people go back to prison. That motivated me to start a house for women recently released from prison.”

Zimba worked for a time at the Ford Foundation and learned how to create a place for former incarcerated women from an organization known as Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality. She opened Lilac House in January 2023.

Sharon Nunez shared her story of how she became an outreach specialist at Exodus Transitional Community, which helps former prisoners integrate back into their communities. More than two decades ago, Nunez was a first-time offender sentenced to six years to life for criminal possession of a controlled substance punishment for what is now considered the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The laws were eventually dismantled.

While incarcerated Nunez took every educational and support program offered to build her skills.

“Fast forward and I went on to become general manager of a famous fabric store known as Mood Fabrics, where I worked for 10 years,” Nunez said. “Then three years ago during COVID, I worked temporarily for Exodus and ended up staying. It’s an honor for me to give help and support to those who need it.”

Local officials who attended the program included state senators Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers) and Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro); Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford); County Legislator Erika Pierce (D-Katonah); Bedford Supervisor Ellen Calves, Rev. Merle McJunkin, pastor at Antioch Baptist Church; Daniel Martuscello, acting commissioner of the Department of Correction and Community Supervision; Superintendent of the Taconic Correctional Facility Emily Wilson; and Eileen Russell, superintendent of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Harckham said legislation must address disparate sentencing between men and women.

“When I met with some of the women, both in Bedford Hills and Taconic, they were talking about how the men who they committed their crimes with were out and they were still incarcerated,” Harckham said. “That brings up the issue of disproportionate sentencing. We have a bill dealing with a study (to examine) disparate sentencing.”

Harckham is also collaborating with Burdick and other state legislators on environmental issues at the prison facilities including installing some type of air conditioning and water testing for contamination.

Williams, the Taconic Correctional facility superintendent for more than three years, said it’s clear how important the role of PRAC has been.

“They support the individuals that are incarcerated at my facility and (support) many of you in this room. I appreciate what you do for us,” Williams said.

That a wide assortment of support organizations was in the same place last Sunday added to the buzz of networking amidst handshaking and hugs.

“The central tenet of all of us here is compassion,” Harckham said. “We don’t want to judge anybody by their worst day. We are here today with compassion, love and support and with teamwork and collaboration.”



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