Program helps keep women out of handcuffs

Nefertiti Garnett believes in second chances and credits the one she was given for saving her life.

"When I found myself with handcuffs on again, sitting in that cell, I felt worthless," Garnett

Garnett's life started unraveling after her mom, Judith died in 2004. Identity theft charges landed her close to seven years in prison. But once she got out, it was only a matter of months until she was back again.

"What was wrong with me? You're saying like, 'What's wrong with you?'" she said. "A lady at the time in Nassau County as an inmate came to me and told me about this program."

That program is the Women's Opportunity Rehabilitation Center, or WORC, in Hempstead, a community correction program that offers an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent female felony offenders in Nassau County.

Executive Director Diane Gaines takes the lead role in helping them turn their lives around. 

"I've been doing this for 30 years, so they see I have their best interest at heart," Gaines said.

Kim Harris, who was convicted for substance abuse, explained exactly how Gaines, who uses a wheelchair, has inspired her.

"When I really had a hold on the physical changes that she has to endure every day to come to her place of employment to provide and offer services for someone like myself, I was like, 'How dare you?' [to myself] 'How dare you?'" Harris said. "And it just strengthened my commitment."

Over the past 25 years, more than 1,000 women have benefited from the program. Right now, 13 students are enrolled and six are waiting to be accepted.

"Anything from substance abuse issues to mental health issues—if we deal with the issues that brought them into the criminal justice system to begin with and we work through the issues, then hopefully they won't be back again," said Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, who helps fund the program using money seized from criminals.

But now a $200,000 state grant will give Gaines the ability to hire more staff.

"They become better parents, they become productive members of society," Gaines said. "They get employment and they're able to give back to society."