2009-05-28 / Local & State

Octogenarian Finds Home Outside The Big House


SHARON, Pa. (AP) - At age 84, Ellen Jean Handyside could be a great-grandmother.

She isn't.

Until March, Miss Handyside was the oldest inmate in the Pennsylvania prison system, a distinction she isn't proud of but doesn't deny.

"Two years, eight months and nine days,'' is how long she served.

She hated every day of it, she said.

But it's what happened because Handyside is a habitual shoplifter with convictions that date back almost two decades.

She was released March 2 into the care of Sankofa House for Women Inc. - a place designed to help nonviolent women transition from life behind bars to life within the law. Sankofa House is located in Sharon, near the Ohio border about halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie.

For Handyside, if Sankofa House didn't exist she'd still be in prison.

"Otherwise, I had nowhere to go,'' she said. When she was imprisoned, she lost her home in Warren, near the New York border about 50 miles southeast of Erie. She is estranged from her only known living relative, a sister whom she hasn't seen for years.

Before 1990, Handyside lived a respectable law-abiding life: She came from a "normal'' family, lived through the Great Depression, was college educated, and worked for Clearfield and Jefferson counties in their human resources departments. She also worked in the finance department of the City of Warren, she said.

After her father and a brother passed away and her sister moved from Pennsylvania, Handyside become her mother's chief caregiver. In 1990, her mom "died choking on a piece of food'' - something that crushed her emotionally, she said.

"It was so hard on me, so traumatic, I won't ever get over it,'' she said. "After that, it was just myself living in Warren.''

She began shoplifting small things from stores there - as she puts it, "picking up things'' - not because she didn't have the money to pay for them, but because it gave her a thrill, she said.

Stealing filled a "void in my life and in my heart,'' she said. Getting away with it also gave her a sense of accomplishment, she said.

"You have a sense of 'I did something, I got away with it,''' after stealing, she said. "I always had the money and I never needed what I took.

"After that, my life just started going downhill,'' she said.

With no family or friends to support her, she didn't know what to do. She's a loner, "never got into playing bingo or bus trips'' and lived by herself, she said.

Her arrests were publicized and she's banned from most stores in the Warren area, she said.

"My name was in the paper I don't know how many times,'' she said.

She was fined or placed on probation after most of her "more than 20'' arrests.

That changed on June 23, 2006, when she was sentenced to 20 months in the state system for stealing over-the-counter painkillers, she said.

She "lost everything'' when she went to prison - first to Muncy, about 10 miles east of Williamsport, and then at Cambridge Springs, about 20 miles south of Erie, where she served the latter part of her time.

"I wish everybody could spend a week or so'' in prison, to observe the conditions, she said.

Prisoners have few rights and are treated badly, she said. Many of the fellow prisoners were violent offenders or had drug and alcohol problems - things Handyside said she's never struggled with.

She lost weight behind bars and "never finished a meal'' because of the time limits placed on eating. She recalled being "shackled and handcuffed'' even when sick and needing medical treatment.

"Those memories will never leave me,'' she said.

She heard about Sankofa House last year and sought information because she had nowhere else to go. At first, she didn't get a reply because Sankofa House is designed for younger women with substance abuse problems, executive director Lynda Moss-McDougall said.

Handyside doesn't meet Sankofa's criteria, she said.

"I thought, 'I'm just going to stay and die here''' in prison, Handyside said.

The prison system won't release inmates who don't have a place to stay.

In light of that, Moss-Mc- Dougall said she couldn't turn down the octogenarian. During Handyside's time in prison, she was the eldest inmate in the state.

Since March, she's found a new home in downtown Sharon.

"I think I'm progressing pretty well,'' Handyside said, as her sponsor nodded in agreement.

Moss-McDougall said Handyside has make big strides since coming to Sharon. She attends St. Joseph Church and volunteers at the Prince of Peace Center in Farrell, just south of Sharon. She's looking for a permanent place to call home here because she likes the area.

She's also resisted the temptation to steal again - despite having a sweet tooth and making a visit to Daffin's Candies unsupervised, she said. Now she wants to visit a local clothing outlet and a shoe store to look - and maybe pay for - a few items, she said.

"It might be better to have me in Sharon,'' Handyside said, because she has no friends left in Warren. Plus, she likes the people here.

"They really are trying to do everything they can for me,'' she said.

She's "got her Social Security'' benefits started and "everything is falling right in place.''

She's told her story to church groups and people have responded with compassion, not spite, she said. "Everybody's so warm.''

"So that's my story up to here,'' Handyside said, as she works to build a future. "I don't mind telling my story.''

She enjoys golf and hopes to play some of that, along with finding more volunteer work to occupy her time, she said.

Moss-McDougall said helping people like Handyside is one of the rewards of her job.

"I love what I do, I truly do,'' Moss-McDougall said.

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