Former inmate tells story of life behind bars in Greenwich talk
GREENWICH — She seemed it all. A Connecticut resident, Chandra Bozelko was a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton in the middle of her post-graduate studies when her live forever changed.
Bozelko was arrested in 2005 and charged with nonviolent crimes. She served time in prison at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institution from December 2007 to March 2014, when she was released. She was on probation until this past March.
The experience changed Bozelko: She returned to society as an activist and writer, with a syndicated column and her website, “Prison Diaries,” that she began while she was incarcerated. And when Bozelko shared her story in Greenwich last week, her goal was to raise awareness and get more people involved.
Prison reform is desperately in the U.S., the biggest incarcerator in the world, she said. Her focus is on restoring rights and stopping recidivism by finding opportunities for released prisoners.
The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, she said, but it has a quarter of its prisoners. For every 100,000 people in the county, 716 are incarcerated. She compared that to China, which incarcerates 186 people for every 100,000 people; England, with 148 incarcerated; and Canada, with 106 incarcerated.
“The situation with women in prison is actually much more bleak, there’s probably 200,000 give or take women incarcerated in both federal and state systems,” Bozelko said. “And in Connecticut, we’re actually worse. It’s 143 women per 100,000 residents.”
And one fact about her fellow inmates stood out, she told her Greenwich audience.
“I noticed a very serious trend in what people were telling me about their stories,” Bozelko said. “Almost always the women had some story of childhood sexual abuse, to the point that I’m noticing this every time I talk to a woman about her background. There is some horrific tale about being raped by uncles, grandfathers, neighbors — and things I won’t even mention here. ... There is a cause and connection here. Young girls who are abused in their youth must have a higher risk of ending up in prison.”
Studies from Amnesty International and others back up that claim, Bozelko said. She has campaigned to put more focus on sexual abuse as a root cause for incarceration.
“If we were able to identify young girls and young boys who were sexually abused as children and treat them for that and manage their traumatic experiences and reactions things might be different,” Bozelko said.
Bozelko shared her perspective but held back much of her own story when she spoke last week to the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich.
Her reticence to talk about her own arrest was due to only to time constraints in her hour-long speech, she said. But she answered questions about her arrest afterward from curious RMA members.
During her talk, Bozelko said her arrest involved numerous charges of identity theft. According to her website, www.prison-diaries.com, she was convicted of 13 felonies and four misdemeanors, including first-degree attempted larceny, illegal use of a credit card, jury tampering and third-degree larceny. She continues to pursue appeals.
When she first went to prison at the end of 2007, Bozelko endured overcrowded conditions. Then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the legislature toughened rules for paroling prisoners after two parolees brutally murdered Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters inside their Cheshire home.
Bozelko described a shortage of space at York, with bunk beds stacked closely together. The facility was using all available floor spaces for prisoners, including offices and hallways. Conditions made it impossible for prisoners to keep track of what little personal possessions they had, she said.
“It is chaotic in any prison. When I went in, we were extremely overcrowded,” Bozelko said. “I was very lucky. I was put in a dorm, but these were very severe conditions. I think in many ways I was lucky because it woke me up to what prison is really about.”
A lack of space wasn’t the only problem she faced. Bozelko said she suffered through solitary confinement, and was targeted by guards and inmates for hazing and harassment. The bureaucracy in prison, where all requests must be in writing, even in an emergency, made life difficult, she said, comparing it to “having to send a letter to 911.” Prisoners face enormous fees for simple tasks, too, such as making a phone call, she said.
With the dependence on the written word, education and literacy are critical in prison, which 68 percent of inmates enter without a high school diploma and where another 15 percent have a diploma but are still subliterate, Bozelko said.
“It always struck me that this was a big setup for women because I can’t go to a guard and say ‘This is what I need. Can you help me?’” Bozelko said. “So many of the women weren’t able to articulate what they needed. They knew what they needed, but they weren’t able to put it down on paper and express the urgency or say they need it addressed.”
Now she is focused on putting the spotlight on the root of issues that lead to crime through her columns and award-winning website.
“I want to open people’s minds to people who were formerly incarcerated, let people know what’s happening in jails and what can be done about it,” Bozelko said.