Portrait

6x8 Portrait is a research project that will explore the impact of mass incarceration on families in the New York City metropolitan area in a way that aims to trigger a national conversation on the topic. 

Melissa Polonio embraces 'rebirth' after paying for her crimes

Melissa Polonio embraces 'rebirth' after paying for her crimes

There was a time when Melissa Polonio made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The wife of a notorious drug dealer, Polonio was splashed across the pages of the New York Post and New York Daily News after killing a woman in a fit of envy in 1995. She was arrested four years later while on the lam in the Dominican Republic.

“All the bad decisions led me to my incarceration and negative things that was part of my growing up, of my life,” Polonio recalled.

A native of the Dominican Republic who moved to New York City at age nine, Polonio said her parents had warned her about marrying drug kingpin Jorge “Chi Chi” Garcia. Police at the time said jealousy led Polonio to stab and kill 26-year-old Sandra Pujol on April 9, 1995, at a party in Washington Heights.

“I didn’t listen. I was too blind,” Polonio said. “I got into this relationship that was mentally and physically abusive and I didn’t know how to get out.”

Polonio has spent the past two decades trying to piece her life back together. Polonio served 16 years behind bars starting in 1999. Polonio once topped the most-wanted 15 fugitives in the United States and at the time was just one of two women on the NYPD’s most wanted list. She was eventually apprehended and arrested by the U.S. Marshals. It was her time in prison that allowed Polonio to reflect on her life and crimes and the future she wanted once she got out.

“Life had been hard in the past. This has been like a rebirth for me. The Melissa that was meant to be in life… not that ugly person, that monster people thought I was, but the real loving and kind person that I am — not what my action portrayed that I was,” she said.

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Polonio’s sons – just one and 2½ when she went to prison – didn’t see her children grow. Through the years, Polonio’s family would bring her children to visit her at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., each month. The prison has housed some famous inmates in the past, including New York real-estate bigwig Leona Helmsley and singer Lauryn Hill, both for tax evasion.

“We were out there in the yard playing, dancing, hugging, kissing — that was one of my greatest memories while incarcerated,” she said. “I spoke with them and asked them for forgiveness because I was a woman before I was a mother and that is hard to speak with them about.”

Polonio added that her family was “disappointed at me because they didn’t raise me to be the person that I had become, but with that they have unconditional love and they supported me through my incarceration. They never left me alone; they always used to go see me.”

While doing time in Danbury, Polonio went from operating a $4,000-a-day crack empire in The Bronx to earning her associate’s degree through the Bard Prison Initiative, which provides a college education for inmates.  

“Getting out was like a new world to me. Everything was different – the phones was even a challenge for me,” said Polonio. “Dealing with situations that were foreign to me... but those are real-life situations that I had to acclimate to.”

After Polonio, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was released from prison, she enrolled in “Hour Children,” a re-entry program that provides housing and support for previously incarcerated inmates. Polonio said she was determined not to repeat her past mistakes.

“I don’t want to go back to my old block, I don’t want to go back to the same environment. I need a change I want to come home and I want to come to something different... I knew that was imperative for me to move forward in a positive light,” she recalled telling her family.

Polonio, now 49, has bucked the odds. She has earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology through Hunter College and graduated at the top of her class. She then found employment at the Ford Foundation, which gives formerly-incarcerated men and women the chance to intern there for a year.

“I know what I did wrong. I don’t want to go back,” she said. “I know what I want to look forward to... I want to make up for the things that I did.”

Looking ahead to the future, Polonio said she envisions a life where she can become an integral part society.

“If I can help the people that are in need, then that’s what I want to do,” said Polonio. “Me giving back is the way to say, you know, I’m sorry for the pain that I have caused to others, the pain I have caused my family, my children. I cannot take the things that I did back, but I can make things better.”


Interview by Madison Peace

Written by Wes Parnell and Kassidy Vavra

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