For some, Fourth means different kind of freedom

Nancy, a Worcester resident who is being held at McGrath House and is set to be released in October, cooled off yesterday. Nancy, a Worcester resident who is being held at McGrath House and is set to be released in October, cooled off yesterday. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / July 5, 2010

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The view wasn’t much to speak of; there were no fireworks, and no children. But there was a garden hose, a grill, a few wooden chairs. And a few moments of precious freedom.

To the 20-odd women who live at McGrath House, a halfway center in the South End, the Fourth of July meant something far different yesterday than marking the country’s founding. One was celebrating freedom from addiction. Another, freedom from the street life. A third, freedom from cancer, which has stopped ravaging her body.

“This really is a meaningful day in a lot of ways,’’ said Kristy, a 40-year-old from Worcester who was first locked up three years ago on a heroin charge.

She and the others are confined to McGrath, some for as little as a week, others for as long as a year, as a step toward reintegrating into society after a stint in prison.

McGrath administrators permitted them to speak on condition that their last names not be used.

Yesterday, they were allowed outside, where they grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, had a water fight, and tried to get a suntan. On a 20-square-foot patch of concrete next to a dusty construction site, the women set up tables with cupcakes and chips and spoke of the day when they would truly be independent.

“I’m one foot in, one foot out,’’ said Yadira, 28, who was supposed to be released last week but had to stay through the holiday waiting for paperwork. “I’ve been bawling my eyes out for the last two days.’’

McGrath is one of a handful of halfway houses in the Boston area run by Community Resources for Justice, an organization started by activists, educators, and clergy in 1878. The goal was to “educate the public about the causes of crime, advance public morality, and assist discharged prisoners.’’ At McGrath, the women are connected with counseling, drug treatment, education, and employment training.

They are also given what’s called “structured independence.’’ They can leave the center to work or visit family, but they must check in by phone every two hours. There are strict curfews, and strict consequences for breaking the rules. Some women can even be sent back to prison.

“We get people who have to go back and have to come back again,’’ said Elizabeth Davis, an administrative aide on duty yesterday. “We really try to work with them here.’’

When women first arrive at McGrath, some say it’s difficult to adjust.

“I would rather poke needles in my eyes than be here,’’ one new arrival said yesterday. But after a while, they get used to the rules and earn more freedom.

Yadira, even though she spent the last two days crying, said she is thankful. “There’s nothing worse than being in prison,’’ she said, sitting in the shade and listening to an iPod. “To me, this is a blessing.’’

She has been incarcerated for seven years, since she was 21.

Gina, 41, hopes she’ll make it to her release date in October. After she was found guilty of dealing heroin in Connecticut and Vermont, she spent seven years in state and federal prisons. During her time inside, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. For the moment, she is in good spirits, though. She has a job — as a telephone fund-raiser — and her cancer is in remission, she says. The barbecue was just another reason to celebrate.

“We’re out!’’ she exclaimed. “We’re out of jail, and we don’t normally get to go outside.’’

Kristy said she used to watch other people celebrate holidays like this one with family and friends and had little hope that she could ever do the same. She was trapped by an addiction to heroin that controlled her every thought, emotion, and action.

“I couldn’t see a way out,’’ she said.

Until she went to jail three years ago.

“It took this incarceration to get me freedom from my addiction,’’ she said. “Independence and freedom now have a whole new meaning for me.’’

Donovan Slack can be reached at

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