Vera Institute: Cheshire unit for young adults could be model for country

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Cheshire — A Cheshire Correctional Institution unit aiming to reduce recidivism among young adults could serve as a model for the rest of the country, speakers said during a conference hosted Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice. 

The conference, distinct in that participants in New York and Connecticut were connected by video stream, culminated Vera’s Reimagining Prison project, an initiative the nonprofit launched in June 2016 to examine how prisons can better prepare inmates for re-entry to society, thus leading to safer communities.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple were key partners in the project even before it formally launched, visiting Germany in June 2015 to see how the criminal justice system here could be different.

That visit — where attendees saw inmates who participated in job training and had opportunities ready for them upon release, and inmates who could walk up and say hello to visitors without correction officers treating them as a threat — inspired the T.R.U.E. unit in Cheshire, where 18- to 25-year-old offenders are paired with older mentors in an area separate from the rest of the prison.

Jermaine Young, who has been incarcerated for 20 years, was one of the first mentors in the unit, which was dedicated in March last year.

Participating on a panel with Warden Scott Erfe, principal and counselor supervisor Jennifer Peterson, Vera researcher Ryan Shanahan and mentee Chris Belcher, Young said he was surprised at how correction officers didn’t talk down to T.R.U.E. inmates, and how inmates were expected to be open and honest with themselves, their feelings and one another.

Young applied to be part of the unit — as did the other 11 mentors, 17 mentees and about 100 staffers who work across three shifts — but quickly learned being a mentor isn’t what he thought it was.

“I figured out it’s about teaching as well as being taught,” he said. “It’s not about coming down here and telling these folks don’t do this, don’t do that. They heard that all their life. I’m teaching them how to be a human being again.”

As is true for the W.O.R.T.H. unit that launched in the women-only York Correctional Institution in July, the men in T.R.U.E. have more freedom than their counterparts in the prison's other units.

But the setup also means they have less freedom to hide when something’s bothering them — if a fellow inmate doesn’t ask what’s wrong, a staffer will.

“In this unit, you’re forced to deal with your emotions,” said Shanahan, who visits Cheshire occasionally and has been working in corrections since 1999. “There’s no turning away, and that takes bravery.”

Shanahan said she’s humbled each time she sees staff members call upon their extra training — in human development, motivational interviewing, conflict resolution, you name it — to address issues or concerns that arise in the communal living unit.

Young said he sometimes finds it mentally and emotionally draining to be the go-to for the younger inmates, “but the gratification you get seeing these guys elevate supersedes all that.”

Many who commit crimes are victims themselves, he said, and that likely is why the modus operandi — talking down to inmates and not addressing the root of their misbehavior — has led to such high recidivism in the country that has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Recidivism is the likelihood that a convicted criminal will commit another crime.

“If you’re looking at the public safety issue, why not get everybody correct before they go out into neighborhoods?” Young asked. “If you’re treated like an animal long enough, you’re going to start acting like an animal.”

Changing the dynamic

Erfe, the warden, said he initially wasn’t on board with the T.R.U.E. unit, primarily because he didn’t understand what it was going to look like — an issue resolved by a face-to-face conversation with Vera officials.

“I’m committed to this unit,” he said. “I’ve always had the mindset that we need to be able to prepare inmates for the world, because most of them will get out, and when they do, where are they going to live? Right next to us.”

Belcher, a mentee in the unit, said he feels better about his prospects than ever before but believes probation and parole should be more involved to ensure success on the outside. Erfe said officials are working to do just that.

“There are a lot of good numbers associated with this, a lot of good results,” Erfe said of the model. “It needs to be sustained and grown.”

Malloy, who addressed the conference from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he wanted T.R.U.E. and W.O.R.T.H. to focus on young adults because young people who are incarcerated even for a short period of time are more likely to reoffend, and because the racial gap among young incarcerated adults is more prominent than among their older counterparts.

Many people believe prison should punish people and provide no opportunity for betterment, Malloy said, but he believes prison should be a vehicle for change.

“If we could change that dynamic, we would have less crime, lower recidivism and could turn lives around," he said. "If you think about folks in prison, they could waste all their time or could be invested. But they need the institution to be invested, as well.”

Property and violent crimes have decreased 19 percent since Malloy took office in 2011, and the state’s prison population, around 18,000 in 2011, is on track to dip below 13,000 by January.

Malloy said he knows that even members of the T.R.U.E. unit may reoffend upon release.

“But that was happening in a system with bad results,” he said, referring to the high recidivism rate in the United States. “Now we have an improved system with better results and are OK with taking the heat ... when bad things happen because there are so far fewer of them.”


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