The truth about consequences: CCWF inmate shares her story with students

Story and Photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

When Kaitlin Bennett got behind the wheel of her car after having drinks with a friend in 2012, she didn’t know her decision would have devastating effects.

Speeding and running a red light, she crashed into a vehicle carrying five teenagers. A few were ejected and suffered major injuries. Bennett woke up in county jail, where she began her life as a prisoner.

Today, as an inmate at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), Bennett is sharing the lessons she learned with youth, using herself as an example to stop them from making the same bad decision.

“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t fix anything,” Bennett said. “Giving back is the only thing that helps lessen my shame and guilt. If I can help one person, that’s the only thing that matters to me.”

Bennett, who also gives back by serving as a firefighter at CCWF, was recruited by Fire Chief C. Diaz to speak to local high schoolers as part of the Every 15 Minutes program. Schools throughout the country take part in two-day events that include a graphic reenactment of a drunk-driving crash, including a memorial for the students “killed” in the accident.

“I’m asking all of you for the next hour to open your eyes very wide,” urged James Enochs High School Principal Deborah Rowe, speaking to a gym full of seniors assembled for the somber presentation. “Consider how the choices that you make each and every day impact the lives of others so very greatly.”

The day of the mock crash, students were pulled out of class at 15-minute intervals, their empty desks an illustration of the statistic that every 15 minutes, someone is killed or seriously injured in an alcohol-related incident. Then, the students were called out to the field to witness the crash reenactment, complete with first responders from throughout the community, who volunteered their time to show the students just what happens during such an event. Agencies participating included the California Highway Patrol, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, Modesto Police Department, Modesto Fire, American Medical Response ambulance and Memorial Medical Center.

“If you’re a first responder for any period of time, you’ve been to many crashes just like this,” said CHP Officer Eric Parsons. “Most of the people you saw out there working that crash do this on a regular basis, unfortunately.”

CCWF inmate firefighter Kaitlin Bennett, in street clothes, tells the students about a woman she knew who made the terrible decision to drink and drive.

CCWF inmate firefighter Kaitlin Bennett, in street clothes, tells the students about a woman she knew who made the terrible decision to drink and drive.

During the memorial at Enochs High School in Modesto, a guest speaker – Bennett – stood at the podium, dressed in street clothes and looking, for all intents and purposes, like a professional young woman. As she spoke, she shared a story about a woman she once knew who had a hard childhood but maintained a positive outlook as she moved into an adulthood that included marriage and raising two great kids. By building walls and stuffing her feelings down a bottle, she was able to power through the challenges of a father who abandoned her, a husband on deployment and relationships ending. She put on a happy face, provided for her family and drank to numb the pain.

“Deciding to go out with a friend one night to have a few drinks turned out to be one of her biggest regrets in life,” Bennett told the students. “She remembers waking up on the concrete floor of a cell, disoriented, confused. She was being charged with a felony DUI with great bodily injury. She made a careless, foolish, thoughtless decision to drink and drive.”

The students listened with rapt attention as Bennett recounted the injuries the teen in the other car suffered, and how scared they must have been, lying on the roadway, screaming for help.

“She did this,” Bennett said. “She caused this damage. She hurt and forever changed these people’s lives and their families. The shame and guilt eat her alive and consume her when she closes her eyes. The irreparable damage she has caused to a multitude of innocent lives creates in her a personal prison from which she will not be pardoned.”

The gym was silent as Bennett stepped to the side of the podium and removed her jeans and sweater to reveal a bright-orange jumpsuit with “CDCR inmate” stamped on the leg. Before being handcuffed and led out of the gym by an officer, she revealed she was the driver, and is serving an eight-year prison sentence for DUI with great bodily injury.

The students are silent as CCWF Capt. Y. Hill leads inmate Kaitlin Bennett out of the gym in handcuffs.

The students are silent as CCWF Capt. Y. Hill leads inmate Kaitlin Bennett out of the gym in handcuffs.

Penny Johnson, whose son Kalief was one of the “living dead” at the ceremony, made a point to speak with Bennett after the memorial to thank her for sharing her story.

“Everyone else’s story was pretend,” Johnson said. “When she got up there, hers was for real. She’s living it every day because of a bad decision. It really hit home, and I think some students will probably realize this could really happen.”

CCWF Fire Chief C. Diaz, who supervises Bennett, said CCWF has a 250-square-mile mutual aid response area, and that almost daily his crew responds to some type of vehicle accident. While not all are alcohol-related, he said, even one is too many. That’s why he supports Every 15 Minutes, even though there is a lot of effort and coordination involved.

“To be a part of it and see the impact the speaker makes – I’ll do every single one the warden lets me do,” he said. “All we need to do is stop one. Just one.”

The effort is fully supported by CCWF and Warden Deborah K. Johnson.

“The involvement in this event serves two purposes,” Warden Johnson said. “First, it allows the inmates an opportunity to make amends to the victims or their families and second, and most importantly, it saves a life. CCWF will continue to support the community by participating in this effort.”

The intended message came through loud and clear to student Brooke Bettencourt, who was led into the gym handcuffed and in a county jail uniform. She had taken on the role of the driver for Every 15 Minutes, which included being field-tested for sobriety at the scene, arrested and actually transported to the county jail. Taking part in the crash, she said, was so realistic she forgot she was acting. Watching from the audience, Bennett nodded knowingly as Bettencourt recounted the intense shame and guilt she felt realizing the destruction she had caused.

“Those tears that came down my face, the screams I was screaming, were real,” she said. “I just want everyone to understand how real it is –this could happen to anyone. It’s so easy to take the life of someone. It’s even easier to just not get behind the wheel.”

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16 Responses

  1. S. Lacy Thursday, June 22, 2017 / 8:31 am

    This is a great program and one that needs to gain momentum nationwide in our schools. Thank CCWP staff who allowed inmate Bennett to share her story. That took courage for her, but courage for the CCWF staff to allow this process to move forward and involve the community. Bravo!

  2. Dana Saturday, April 15, 2017 / 8:14 pm

    I do the make-up for a lot of the schools in the Modesto area & have heard Kaitlin speak many times. Her speech has had huge impacts on not only the kids in this program but some of the parents as well. I know it’s hard for her to talk about it because you can hear it in her voice. She is doing it to help stop one person from drinking & driving, I know she has. Thank you for allowing her to speak because the kids don’t really relate to the victims who have been injured but, I have seen them relate to Kaitlyn.

  3. Heaven Tuesday, October 18, 2016 / 11:40 am

    A few drinks? I am the mother of one of the majorly injured kids. She was 3 times the limit. Beyond a few drinks. Instead of her speaking, they should have the vicitims she affected speak. She showed no remorse after the accident, stepping over my child in the street asking to be taken home. She had no remorse while sober in jail assuming we were exacerbating the injuries for more money while I watched my daughter endure the most pain she had ever felt. Bitter? Yes. I don’t think she should be able to leave the four walls of jail and have an escape from her guilt and shame. She should be forced to live with it just like the kids and family of this have to deal with their memories and current effects of this.

  4. Lt. M. D. Williams, CCWF Friday, June 24, 2016 / 12:30 am

    Excellent Job Central California Women’s Facility Staff! CCWF Staff are dedicated to making a difference in our communities and effecting change in the lives of those we interact with. The program Every Fifteen Seconds has impacted many lives through real life reenactments of real life situations. The Inmate Firefighter realy leaves an impression that will not be easily forgotten. Being allowed to be a part of such an amazing program is a gift in itself. Keep up the great work. I enjoyed the amazing article and pictures, PIO K. Khokhobashvili.

    Lt. M. D. Williams,
    Central California Women’s Facility Family

  5. Jeni Vicini Thursday, June 23, 2016 / 10:50 am

    What an amazing program. Too bad it isn’t offered at every high school in America. It takes one bad decision to ruin not only your life but also so many others. Drinking and driving begins with you but unfortunately in a lot of cases it does not end with you. It involves our mothers fathers brothers sisters children and friends and everyone that cares about them. Good program and kudos to the 15 minutes program and everyone that helps it run

  6. Christine Boyd Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 6:51 pm

    Bravo to CCWF for letting I/M Bennett tell her story to these young students. What an impact that must of made on them.

  7. M. Robb Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 2:59 pm

    What an awesome program! I hope it saves many lives. Unfortunately, Kaitlin Bennett’s tale is far too common. I commend her for her courage to share her story with these youth and hope it made a lasting impact.

  8. Cynthia D Wood Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 2:24 pm

    When my son was in high school, he was one of the victims who was killed. Even knowing this was staged, it was the most real, eye opening reality I had ever experience. Not only did it open my eyes to this growing problem but it also opened many young teens who shared their stories with me. Every 15 minutes is a much needed program for all high schools. although I know it will not have an impact on all. But it does on some. Saving one life is worth everything. God bless you, Kaitlin, for sharing your story.

  9. D. Hicks Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 1:34 pm

    What an awesome program!

  10. Lisa S. Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 1:09 pm

    Can you imagine the youth who could possibly be influenced to make better choices (and consequently the lives saved) if this program were to be taken to every high school in California? Wouldn’t it be worth any cost?

  11. Carol Johnson Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 11:17 am

    Awesome story! Let’s keep informing people of the dangers of drinking, drugs, & cell phone use, while driving.

  12. Amanda C. Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 11:10 am

    I agree with Robin, I hope they can implement this for texting drivers as well. Should be charged like drunk drivers too.

  13. Connie Yanez Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 10:35 am

    This program will make a significant impact. It should become a mandatory part of every freshman and senior class statewide. These type of accidents are becoming too common effecting so many innocent lives. Prevention in the form of reality is what will make a difference.

  14. Robin Swauger Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 9:28 am

    Awesome! I love how the 15-minute program impacts the audience. I have two children 21 and 17. Even though my son is beyond high school, a message like this would be such a valuable reminder and life lesson. And if I could be bold, I’d like to add that marijuana smoking (under the influence of drugs) and cell phone texting have recently been in the headlines as causing the same havoc. So if there’s an opportunity to bring this message to our community, I’d love to bring my family and attend. Thank you for making a positive impact. Robin

    • nb Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 10:22 am

      Indeed! I would love to see some of this appear locally. The more information out there the better.

  15. Estela Marley Wednesday, June 22, 2016 / 9:26 am

    This program should go state wide. I can feel the pain Bettencourt is going through and can make others realize they don’t have to be in her shoes.

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