Prison social worker who survived child sex abuse tries to save program for female inmates

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BROOKLYN — Natasha Slater, a student in clinical social work at Hunter College studying for her Master’s degree, has conducted a Family Violence psychotherapy group at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility since last August.

It was part of a 12-year-old program with sessions on spousal abuse and one on child abuse.

A 2013 study estimated 82 percent of the women in Bedford Hills were survivors of severe physical and/or sexual abuse.

“They didn’t know what abuse was,” Slater told PIX11. “They were so conditioned to the lifestyle they were in.”

Slater was so disturbed when the New York State Department of Correction and Community Services ended this particular program in April that she reached out to PIX11.

“They cried,” Slater said of some of the female inmates she counseled. “They said, ‘You know, they take everything away from us.’ They feel dehumanized and they asked me to be a voice for them.”

One of the prisoners Slater worked with was Myeshia T., who told us she’s a rape survivor and was physically abused by her mother since she was a toddler.

She had her feet scalded in a tub of hot water when she was 18 months old and showed us the scars.

Myeshia said she was 9 when a man took a group of foster children on a field trip and raped her afterwards.

“He cut my arm with a knife and told me if I was to tell anybody, he would kill me. And he raped me,” she said.

Myeshia’s life descended later into a downward spiral of alcohol and crack cocaine addiction.

She was given a 16-year prison sentence for throwing hot oil at her boyfriend and stabbing him.

She told PIX11 the family violence program helped her enormously.

“We talk about the child abuse we all endured,” Myeshia, now 44, told PIX11. “Even though I’m responsible for my crimes, there were other things before my crimes.”

Samantha Hughes of Rochester is 22 years old. She received a 15-year prison sentence at age 20 in a headline-making kidnapping case.

Hughes lured two students from the University of Rochester to a house, where other men and women were waiting to beat them up, after some kind of deal gone wrong.

Hughes said she wasn’t there when the students were tortured and sexually assaulted. One of them was shot.

After SWAT teams rescued the men, Hughes was taken into custody with eight other people, partly due to evidence picked up from her Facebook account.

Hughes said she was physically abused as a child by her mother, who was in and out of family court over custody matters. Hughes’ father did time in federal prison on gun trafficking and drug charges.

She had a good support system with her grandparents, but her honor-roll grades started going down when she began hanging out with a bad crowd.

Before the kidnapping episode, she had suffered a miscarriage.

She said the Family Violence program “helped me to address some of the issues I had with my mother. I’m very blessed that my mother does come, typically, once a month.  We really have worked through past hurts.”

Hughes said she did so well in the Family Violence program, supervisors made her a facilitator for the other inmates.

When the program recently ended, she was assigned to a porter’s job.

Hughes has been taking college courses and hopes to get a bachelor’s degree before her prison term is finished in 2028 or 2029.

She calls her grandparents everyday and reassures them, telling them the 15 years behind bars “probably saved me” from a bad lifestyle.

Myeshia T. is taking a horticulture class and misses the Family Violence program.

“I was basically taught, you know, to get into school, to do other programs, to find the right people to interact with,” Myeshia said.

PIX11 called the state, asking about the decision to replace the Family Violence program with another model called Living Safe and Without Violence. We were told it’s an “evidence-based” program, in terms of effectiveness, and that it’s being used in other women’s prisons.

Social worker Slater, who survived sexual abuse as a child and had police respond to her home during a domestic violence incident with her ex-husband, identifies with what some prisoners have been through.

She doesn’t think the new program addresses their mental health needs.

“I received help,” Slater said of the trauma she went through as a child and young adult. “I could have been sitting in prison.”

The mother of three daughters just finished her internship at Bedford Hills. She said she will not stop fighting for the prisoners’ emotional rehabilitation.

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