“A person like me messed up his life so bad that you got to go back all the way into the dark room and reach the light,” he said. “You’ve got to try to look for the switch so you can see what’s in front of you, you don’t keep tripping over all the mistakes that you’ve made.”
Just minutes before, he had shrugged on a black graduation gown and steadied the cap on his head, ready to flip the tassel and move past his days of incarceration.
On Dec. 17, Benitez left jail after three and a half months. Behind bars, he decided to turn things around.
“I tried so hard to be positive,” said Benitez, noting that he tried to help fellow inmates while taking educational classes. Next month, Benitez says he’ll be off parole.
Eleven people graduated from the Worcester County Sheriff’s office Community Correction Center program and three people, including Benitez, were recognized for completing their High School Equivalency Test, known as HiSET.
Benitez got to the Community Correction Center at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. He volunteered to clean up the classroom that would later hold dozens of people: graduates and their families, sheriff office staff, judges, probation officers and members of the Worcester District Attorney’s office. They were all there to celebrate a program that can help people turn their lives around and make communities safer.
Assistance from those people helped Benitez face his demons, he said.
“I had to not be scared of my past self and actually move forward,” said Benitez.
As Benitez spoke, his daughter glanced around the room and slowly clapped her hands together, almost as if she was recognizing her father’s accomplishment.
The day was a moment of pride for everyone. Each graduate smiled as they shook hands with Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, program director Ana Calderon and other staff members. They looked down at the certificates clutched in their hands, a testament to hard work and days free of drugs and alcohol.
Clients in the program are court mandated to participate in drug testing and therapeutic programs like cognitive behavior therapy classes. The program includes intensive supervision, treatment and education to high-risk offenders, HiSet, job readiness training and placement, all with a goal to reduce recidivism and assist people in recovery from opioid addiction. The clients are also required to complete community service, Evangelidis said.
Thomas Hogan and Stephen Rouleau, who completed the Community Correction Center program, thanked the staff members for their work to keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
“What you’re looking at is someone who has a place to go every day who’s on probation or within a drug court and they have people that are looking out for them, and encouraging them, and holding them accountable, but in the meantime, if they are complying with that, we’re here to offer support, guidance, help and skills,” Evangelidis said.
The program has been around for more than 12 years, Evangelidis said. It’s a diversion program that keeps people out of jail but held accountable with regular drug tests.
“We look at this as a program to give people opportunities to learn the skills that will help them out of jail, keep them out of the criminal justice system, and give them the tools to turn their lives around,” Evangelidis said. “We’ll drug test you, we’ll hold you accountable, as long as you are working with us, we’ll work with you.”
At the end of the program, Lina To Carter, who managed the Straight Ahead Ministries cafe when it was in open in Main South, recalled days working with Benitez. Some days were difficult and Benitez would cuss, she recalled.
Tearing up, she congratulated him on the accomplishment: “You finally see the light, and I’m so proud of you.”