Mar 10, 2014

Sheriff Ashe, former inmate speak at First Friday Prayer Breakfast



Story and photos by Rebecca Drake

SPRINGFIELD – In his 40 years in office, Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe has never forgotten the most important truth he said he learned from the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught him in elementary and high school: the dignity and worth of every human life.

Sheriff Ashe, who recently announced his decision not to seek reelection in 2016, was the featured speaker at the March 7 First Friday Prayer Breakfast held at the Bishop Marshall center, here. He was accompanied by Robert Connell, a former inmate of the Ludlow correctional facility and the Western Massachusetts Correctional Alcohol Center (WMCAC) in Springfield.

Both men emphasized the roles of self-determination and faith in helping criminal offenders make positive changes in their lives.

“There is nothing more powerful than a person who has turned their life around,” Ashe said, in reference to Connell, who is currently a social work student at Elms College in Chicopee.

Addressing the prayer breakfast attendees, the sheriff described his philosophy of rehabilitating inmates as one focused on being “firm and fair” and on “providing dignity and wirth to every human being.” The goal, he said, is to challenge the inmates to change their lives through accountability and “striving toward excellence.”

Ashe noted the obstacles that most inmates must overcome in order to mend broken lives. “Over 98 percent have substance abuse issues; 95 percent have little or no marketable skills,” he said. He praised the talents and dedication of correctional facility staff over the years who have helped implement vocational and educational programs, as well as partnerships with local community colleges, cities and businesses.

The sheriff acknowledged the leadership qualities of James Keller, superintendent of the correctional alcohol center, who also was present at the prayer breakfast. As a “graduate” of the correctional alcohol center, Connell provided moving testimony of its effectiveness in helping individuals repair lives damaged by long-term substance abuse issues.

“I was trapped in a world of denials,” Connell said in his remarks at the prayer breakfast. “It was deteriorating my soul and the lives of those around me.”      

“I started using drugs and alcohol early in life,” said Connell, who is now 36. “I wound up in Ludlow (the Hampden County correctional facility) five years ago.”

“I knew that I needed help and thank God the help was there,” Connell said.

At the jail in Ludlow, he said, he found educational opportunities, structure, balance, patience, compassion and tolerance. “I had never experienced them before,” he said. “The correctional system is a large part of restoring me to faith.”

Connell (pictured at right) cited the programs at the correctional alcohol center, as well, noting that he became educated about “the disease of addiction.”

With the help of the correctional facility programs in Ludlow and Springfield, Connell said, he was able “to start being a human being again.”

“I got my son back in my life. I went back to school,” Connell said. “I found out I wanted to help people.”

Connell emphasized that in order for inmates to turn their lives around, they have to want, and more importantly, ask for, help from the right kind of people.

“It’s amazing” he said. “When you ask for help, you actually start getting it.”

He admitted that “the wreckage of my past life is still with me,” but, that because of the help he asked for and received, he completed an associate’s degree at Holyoke Community College and is now working toward a bachelor’s degree at Elms College, for which he has received awards and scholarships – things he never thought possible in his life.

“In the world that I’ve created around me, these things do happen,” Connell said. “The gifts that I’ve received along the way are reflected in the people around me now.”

He acknowledged the presence at the prayer breakfast of his fiancé, one of the new people in his life, and said that the correctional programs taught him that drugs and alcohol are not the solutions to life’s problems.

“It was love and faith that I needed,” he said.

Watch for a video segment on the March 7 prayer breakfast on an upcoming edition of the Springfield Diocese’s weekly newsmagazine, “Real to Reel,” which airs Saturday evenings at 7 on WWLP-22NEWS.