Ann McGrail Koletsky ’61

Ann McGrail Koletsky ’61

Written by Phuong Le ’16

1961_60_AnnKoletsky

Ann McGrail Koletsky ’61

Little is known about the lives of women who are behind bars, even with the release of the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black. However, Ann Koletsky ‘61, who has been involved in the volunteer program at the women’s prison of Connecticut for nearly 40 years, understands the importance of erasing misconceptions about inmates and seeing beyond the mug shots and the uniforms.

Raised in Hamden, Connecticut, Koletsky heard about Manhattanville College through her best friend, Martha. A major in English, Koletsky could still remember the struggle as well as the joy when she finished her senior thesis on James Joyce. During her college years, she was most involved with the Touchstone Newspaper and planned to attend Columbia School of Journalism in order to become a news reporter following her undergraduate studies.

“But I was a 50s girl, remember?” Koletsky said with a hearty laugh. “So I went and got married instead.”

While her husband was in the Navy, she moved with him to Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. After he was offered a job at a law firm, they relocated to Waterford, Connecticut, where they have lived for nearly 50 years. When the couple first moved to Waterford, housekeeping was a full time responsibility for Koletsky who was busy caring for her two baby daughters. However, one night when she was doing chores, something unusual happened as she watched new coverage of a Chicago riot on television.

“I was standing there, ironing little girls’ clothes, having a coffee and saying, ‘This whole civil rights movement is passing me by, and I am missing out on history,’” she recalled.

Shortly after her family moved into their own house, Koletsky decided that to help the movement, she could take in a Fresh Air Fund child. For several weeks during the summertime, she welcomed a four-year-old girl from South Bronx into her home, which she continued to do for several years. In the meantime, she read about an organization set up in honor of Robert Kennedy in Hartford, Connecticut. She found its methods to be disturbing as minority children would be loaded on buses and driven to the beaches where they would be left to mingle with minimal supervision as well as go home with strangers to create an integrated atmosphere. Koletsky considered this to be extremely unsafe to the children. After several discussions with the organization, Koletsky offered to set up housing with people she knew well in the area as an alternative for kids in the integration program. She would receive the children’s names and ages before pairing them with her acquaintances. Koletsky was also the key contact person if the children or the volunteers had any concerns.

“I really got to roll up my sleeves and started to become a bit of an activist,” she shared.

During this time, she got to know the wife of her husband’s law partner, Frederica Brenneman, who was a juvenile court judge and also one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Law School. Koletsky asked Brenneman if there was anything an ordinary citizen could do in to help troubled kids. In response, she suggested a brand new program started by the Connecticut Prison Association (CPA) which was very similar to “Big Brothers Big Sisters” except that it specifically involved juvenile delinquents. She quickly joined the program where her role was to match the volunteers with the children through screening, orienting and training.

“The whole purpose was to provide a supportive relationship to children who were already in trouble, to try whatever could be a catalyst of change before these kids got into deeper troubles,” she shared.

From 1974 to 1978, after her babysitter left, Koletsky took a break from working in order to take care of her three children. “Otherwise, I would have raised my own juvenile delinquents,” she said with a giggle.

In 1978, she accepted an offer from the CPA to become the director of the volunteer sponsor program for Connecticut’s only women’s prison, Niantic Correctional Institution. The program’s goal was to create a channel through which ordinary citizens could impact the criminal justice system, especially in the prisons. Volunteers were asked to build a supportive and positive relationship with the incarcerated women and provide prisoners with a connection to the outside world. Similar to her job in the juvenile court program, Koletsky was also responsible for recruiting, orienting and training prospective volunteers. She strongly valued the mission of the program, which was to work with women who came from severe deprivation in their lives and boost their self-image and provide them skills for recovery.

“It was about developing a relationship,” she commented, “and it was amazing how incredible it was to recognize inmates as significant human beings and not just objects to be warehoused.”

Besides the women’s prison, Koletsky also operated the sponsor program on some levels at other male facilities. As the program became more and more extensive, including liaisons to colleges and graduate schools such as Yale Divinity School as a source of volunteers, she also found herself much busier and “driving all over the state.” However, as the crack cocaine epidemic surged throughout 1980s, the population of incarcerated women burgeoned, and Koletsky decided to focus all of her attention on the women’s program.Koletsky shared that most of the women who became drug addicts grew up in lower socioeconomic environments among the chaos and violence of drug-infested neighborhoods. In her opinion, for them to survive the tragedies in their lives was “a testimony to the resilience of the human mind, body and spirit.”

To Koletsky, prison can be a place where criminals start to realize their potential because they are living in a sober environment with access to education. This is why her goal was not only to bring in volunteers but also increase the number and variety of programs. For example, there are storybook projects where inmates recorded stories which would be sent back home to their children, labor coaching sessions for pregnant women and World’s AIDS Day symposium. Due to the sensitive nature of the sponsor program, the foremost quality that Koletsky looks for in a volunteer is open-mindedness.  Commitment and continuity of service are also vitally important because these women repeatedly faced rejection or abandonment throughout their lives in the outside world.

“The volunteers should come in modeling how they live their lives, sharing who they are and the tools they use for coping with life,” Koletsky remarked.

In 1994, the administration of Connecticut Governor John Rowland rescinded funding for some CPA programs causing Koletsky’s job to be terminated. This prompted her to go into an eight-week training to become a correctional officer. She went back to the women’s prison as a Correctional Counselor, and it took her a year to get the program on its feet again. Koletsky’s responsibilities were almost the same as when she was the director of the sponsor program, except that she also had a larger role enforcing security. She retired in 2001 but still comes to the prison three times a week as a volunteer. She affectionately called the women’s prison her second home.

“I came to this place knowing that there was nothing special about me,” Koletsky said. “That if I grew up where they grew up then I’d be in prison too. I was a white and middle class woman, and I was amazed at their acceptance of me. I saw no prejudice on their parts. Being with the women and helping them were among the most rewarding moments in my life.”

Koletsky credits Manhattanville with giving her understanding and compassion for inmates. She carried the values that she had learned during her college years into her lengthy career.

“Manhattanville inspired a sense of spirituality in me without shoving religion down my throat,” Koletsky shared. “I learned to see Christ incarnated in everyone, and it helped tremendously with my field. Many people disliked their jobs but I am whistling my way to work every day.”

Koletsky recent photo

Ann Koletsky traveling in Ireland, May 2014

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