Gina's Team providing second chances to reformed prisoners

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PHOENIX - A local woman convicted of business fraud spent seven years inside Perryville prison.

During that time she went through a rollercoaster of emotions including losing her cell-mate to cancer. 3TV shows you how she came out of that experience, but didn't forget the women left behind.

“I met people I never would have in my previous life and experienced things I would have not believed possible,” Sue Ellen Allen said. “Some were horrific and some were wonderful. Gina was part of that wonderful. I was supposed to die, not Gina. She was only 25. I was 57.

Allen is remembering her roommate, Gina Panetta. The two shared a cell at Perryville prison in Goodyear. Panetta, who was a mother of four, died from leukemia while serving time in 2003.

“She said ‘Make it stop Sue Ellen, make it stop’,” Allen said. “I couldn't make it stop and no one would listen and she went into a coma and died in 36 hours.”

Now, 65-year-old Allen is sharing Panetta’s story and life behind bars in a book called "The Slumber Party from Hell." She was behind bars for seven years. Her crime was business fraud.

“In prison, you feel voiceless and forgotten,” Allen said. She gives readers an intimate look into the harsh reality of prison. She shares her own battle with breast cancer and how Panetta’s death moved her to help others in and out of the system.

“It was just a journey and now Panetta’s death and life are being given a second chance,” Allen said.

It’s a second chance to carry on Panetta’s dream of becoming a guidance counselor.  Allen, along with Panetta’s parents, founded Gina's Team which stands for Getting Inmates Needs Addressed through education and programming.

“We want to show that everyone has a story,” Diane Panetta, Gina’s mom said. “Everyone has a past and sometimes it doesn't turn out the way we hoped and we can change that.”

Gina's Team travels the state talking to women prisoners and even at-risk kids.

3TV caught up with them at Mingus Mountain Academy in Prescott. They bring volunteers, Arizona State University interns and speakers like Olympic gold medal swimmer Misty Hyman for encouragement.

“I believe that everybody can win their own gold medal in their own way,” Hyman said.

“They are human beings that were born into certain circumstances. They're doing the best they can and just as I’ve needed a second chance in my life and so do these women.

That's exactly what happened to 18-year-old Jessica Miller. In and out of trouble since she was 12, Mingus Mountain Academy and Gina's Team gave her opportunities she didn't think possible.

“I never thought about doing anything with myself,” Miller said. “I never thought about going to college not getting a job. They’re helping me graduate and I'm going to start fall classes in nursing.”

When one door closes, Allen hopes Gina's Team will be right there to open another.

“I can give meaning to Gina's life and help the women I saw behind bars and wish that everyone could turn their pain into power.” Allen said.

Gina’s Team also goes into Estrella jail.

For more information go to Gina's Team or email ginasteam@hotmail.com. For more on The Slumber Party from Hell go to InkwellProductions.