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Posts Tagged ‘jail’

Photo: John Walker
Melvin Smith, who completed the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) program at Fresno County Jail, is now clean and running his family’s well-drilling business.

Here’s another example of a program that has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Brianna Calix reports at the Fresno Bee, “The last time Melvin Smith was arrested, he was so hungry and tired that he prayed to God the authorities would keep him in Fresno County Jail instead of releasing him.

“Smith was arrested 14 times in 2013 for drug use, auto theft and vandalism. In Fresno County, law enforcement arrested him 41 times since 1999. ‘I was wild,’ he said. In jail, his ‘celly’ asked him where he saw himself in five years. Smith’s goal was to reunite with his family.

“He’s been out of jail for four years, sober for five years and his probation ends in June. He runs his grandfather’s well and pump company, goes to church with Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and is about to buy a home with a pool for his family. For birthdays, he takes his family on trips to places such as Universal Studios, Magic Mountain and Disneyland.

“During that last stint in jail, Smith went through the Transition from Jail to Community program. It helps inmates who are more likely to re-offend prepare for life after incarceration.

“The TJC program, as it’s known, was started in 2013. The men who complete the program have a dramatically lower recidivism rate than the rest of the jail population, in part due to the support system the program builds for them.

“ ‘We’ve had programs for many years in the jail,’ Sheriff Margaret Mims said. ‘This one was very different.’ …

“Inmates have to opt into the program voluntarily, and not just any inmate can qualify. Forty or fewer people participate in the program at a time. The jail houses between 2,600 and 2,900 inmates.

“Jail staff evaluate each inmate based on how many times they’ve been arrested in Fresno County, their age and how old they were when they first were arrested. Based on that score, staff evaluate the inmate’s risk to re-offend. Only medium-to-high-risk inmates qualify.

“If the inmate agrees to participate in the program, he signs a contract pledging to participate, follow the rules and stay engaged with supervision upon release.

“In a typical housing unit, the inmates tend to group by race, said Michelle LeFors, Fresno County Jail’s inmate services director.

“ ‘Not in the TJC,’ she said. ‘You’ll see mixed races sitting together, sharing a meal with each other. … They work with each other as opposed to against each other. If you ask the inmates, they’ll tell you they leave their politics at the door.’ …

“As a gang dropout in jail, [inmate Clinton S. ] constantly worried about his safety. But that’s not the case in the TJC program. …

” ‘Everyone in here is pretty much in here for the same reason. There is perks that they come over here for, but everyone obviously wants to change because being in jail is not cool. It gets old. You grow up quick.’

“The program has helped transform his mindset and taught him to persevere and that his consequences have actions.

“So far, his biggest takeaway in the program is to ‘not give up.’ ”

More here. See also the recent post on my cousin’s work to rehabilitate 18- to 24-year-old prisoners. So encouraging.

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bn-vu227_nyches_m_20171025125530Photo: Bess Adler for The Wall Street Journal
Rikers Island inmate Camilo Arcelay faced off against chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley at the Rikers Island jail complex.

I like articles about better ways to prepare prison inmates for a return to society. In this 2015 post, for example, I wrote about a jailhouse debate club that beat Harvard, raising the spirits and aspirations of prisoners at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility.

Today’s story concerns a serious chess competition in a notorious New York City prison.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs at the Wall Street Journal writes, “On a rainy afternoon at the Rikers Island Jail Complex [in October] five men and one woman wearing tan uniforms sat in front of chess boards surrounded by an audience of correction officers and fellow inmates.

“Maurice Ashley, a 2003 U.S. Chess Federation grandmaster of the year walked from one board to the next, simultaneously playing six games. One by one, he eliminated the inmates — except for Camilo Arcelay, 37 years old, who used his king to take Mr. Ashley’s last pawn. That left Mr. Arcelay and Mr. Ashley with a king as their last piece.

“The result was a draw — enough for Mr. Ashley, who also judged the event, to name Mr. Arcelay the winner of the first chess tournament, which is slated to become an annual event at Rikers Island.

“ ‘To be in a situation that I’m in right now in jail, it leaves me speechless,’ Mr. Arcelay said, referring to his chess victory. ‘Because I’ve made so many bad decisions to be here.’

“The final round of the 2-month tournament is part of a series of programming designed to educate and reduce idleness funded by a $38.9 million New York City initiative.

” ‘It teaches them how to think, how to strategize, in an environment that is conducive to those things,’ said James Walsh, department of corrections deputy commissioner of adult programming & community partnerships.

“While this was the first official tournament at Rikers, chess has long been popular behind bars. Carl Portman, 53, the author of Chess Behind Bars, and the manager of prisons chess for the English Chess Federation, said the game’s history in prisons dates to World War II, when inmates would create chess pieces from scrap materials, and differentiate the two sides by using coffee powder to dye some pieces. …

“At Rikers, the seed for the tournament was planted two years ago when corrections officer Gregory Lamb bought a chess set so he could play with 16- and 17-year-old inmates. Prison officials soon asked him to organize sessions with adult inmates twice a week. That evolved into the tournament organized by the corrections’ Adult Programs Unit that began two months ago with 800 inmates participating.

“ ‘Inmates are probably the best chess players because they play all day,’ Mr. Lamb noted. …

“During the games, inmates stood on bleachers cheering, critiquing and moving their arms on imaginary boards as if they, too, were participating.

“ ‘Society wastes so much when we don’t channel the energy and capabilities of those who have been incarcerated,’ Mr. Ashley said.”

More at the WSJ, here.

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My cousin Alex Frank is on a mission to reform the criminal justice system, starting with young men. She has worked in prisons on a variety of programs for some years now and is seeing measurable results.

A recent Boston Globe editorial expressed hope for the latest initiative. “Early next year, one of the most important criminal justice reform experiments in the country will spread to a stately brick jailhouse in Billerica.

“The Middlesex Jail and House of Correction will become one of the first in the nation to create a dedicated, service-rich cell block for young men.

“Inmates, ages 18 to 24, will gather in peace circles to talk through conflict. They’ll learn how to budget for rent and transportation. And they’ll get the chance to hold their children during visiting hours. ….

“The idea is that 19- and 24-year-olds are fundamentally different than 35- and 40-year-olds — less mature, yes, but also more malleable, and better positioned to change.

“It’s an idea borne out by decades of neuroscience research, which shows the brain is still developing into the mid-20s. And Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, who is launching the unit, understands that research intuitively.

“He calls himself a ‘recovering young adult,’ who was adrift as a young man and didn’t get serious until his mid-20s. …

“Koutoujian says it only makes sense to keep impressionable young offenders away from the older inmates they mix with now. … Tailored services, he says, can make a real difference. A separate unit he established for military veterans is showing strong early results and garnering national attention.

“For this new project, Koutoujian is leaning heavily on the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based organization that helped create the nation’s first comprehensive unit for young adults at a tough prison in Cheshire, Conn., known as ‘The Rock.’

“The Cheshire unit hasn’t had a single fight between prisoners or attack on a guard since it launched early this year, and just a fraction of the disciplinary issues that normally arise among young adults in prison.

“Alex Frank, a senior program associate at Vera who has worked on both the Connecticut and Middlesex projects, says any serious effort to reduce mass incarceration in this country ‘requires a focus on young adults.’

“Eighteen-to-24-year-olds account for 10 percent of the American population but 21 percent of prison admissions, she notes. And their recidivism rates are much higher than for other age groups. Whatever we’re doing now is clearly failing. …

“The most expedient approach may be creating the sort of separate cell block Koutoujian is preparing to launch in Middlesex in February. …

“UTEC, an impressive, Lowell-based organization already working to rehabilitate some of the toughest young men in the region, will play a central role. Gregg Croteau, the executive director of the nonprofit, says his group will aim to smooth the transition to the outside — offering job training in jail, for instance, followed by work at a UTEC-run cafe after release. More.

See also this Lowell Sun article, which quotes Alex: “This project goes beyond simply improving living conditions for young people, and seeks to transform facility culture for everyone who lives and works in their facility … By providing meaningful opportunities for young adults to be successful and investing in their potential, supporting and reimagining the role of staff, Middlesex Jail & House of Correction is transforming the current correctional culture to promote equity, accountability, restoration, and healing.”

I think reader Asakiyume, who volunteers in a prison, knows exactly what Alex is saying about prison culture.

Photo: UTEC
Young people from the nonprofit UTEC in Lowell, Massachusetts, have been actively engaged in pushing for criminal justice reform. In February, they will start working with the Middlesex sheriff on a promising prison intervention.
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A recent post at Asakiyume’s blog reminded me of Young at Heart, the senior-citizen chorus that inspired a movie I recommended to readers in 2011.

Asakiyume wrote, “One of the women I work with at the jail is in the choir there. I got permission to go in for the performance. The jail choir group is called the Majestics, and they’ve been mentored by a senior-citizen choir called Young at Heart, all of whom were wearing T-shirts that said ‘We put the “zen” in “senior citizen.'”

“Young at Heart performed as the opening act … Then the Majestics took the stage. There were six women, and they covered a great age range (three in their twenties, two in their thirties-forties, and one who was even older than me) and ethnically diverse (two Black, one Hispanic, three White). They sang well-known songs with lots of different flavors (hip-hop, pop, blues, soul), and all the choir members were featured at least once … The entire thing was a huge success; the audience was **so** supportive. …

“At the end the programs director called for an encore, and there hadn’t been a song laid by for that, but the Young At Heart choir sang “Forever Young” … Each time someone sang a solo, he or she linked arms with one of the members of the Majestics and brought them forward, and I could see tears in my student’s eyes and I had tears in mine, because–as the chaplain who was present pointed out–that song is a benediction, and it was so great to hear those words of blessing and hope and expectation directed at the audience in the jail:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young”

-@-

So lovely. Such songs take on extra meaning when sung by seniors or by people who feel hopeless.

The Young at Heart movie, which I still hope you’ll see, was also full of resonance. And it exposed me to popular music like Coldplay’s “I will try to fix you.” Whenever that song comes on the radio, I see in my mind’s eye the old guy with the oxygen tank who drew tears from his audiences. He is surely gone now, but not that memory.

That the chorus has gone beyond inspiring seniors and their families to inspiring prisoners who have little to make them feel positive or hopeful — well, it’s just too amazing.

More at Asakiyume’s blog, here.

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Photo: Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
From left, Army veteran Kevin Faherty speaking with Paul Connor, veteran services coordinator, and Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian in January.

A sad fact of war is that those who serve too often come back suffering from emotional trauma or addiction.

Fortunately, there are understanding people who can help them move on. We just need more of them.

Kevin Cullen at the Boston Globe describes what one Massachusetts sheriff is doing to make veterans’ lives more hopeful.

“For the past year, with hardly any attention, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and his staff have developed an innovative approach that is transforming lives for the better, lowering recidivism rates and raising the odds that those who have served their country can become more responsible, productive citizens.

“[Jan. 13] marked the first anniversary of the Housing Unit for Military Veterans at the Middlesex jail and house of correction, the first of its kind in New England, and really the only one quite like it nationwide. Its acronym is HUMV, or Humvee, an armored vehicle that once protected many of the younger vets in the unit. …

“Koutoujian tapped Paul Connor, an Army veteran, to run the unit. They got a waiver from the state, so that pre-trial prisoners and inmates already serving their sentences could be housed together. The HUMV is set up like a barracks, bunks lined up in the self-contained unit. …

“The men in the unit are broken down into squads, sharing chores and other duties, which builds camaraderie and accountability. …

“Connor’s veteran status makes a real connection with those in the unit. His decade of sobriety, meanwhile, makes him a role model. Like the vast majority of inmates in the general population, most of the vets in the HUMV have struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. …

“Amy Bonneau, a social worker from the Boston Vets Center, runs a support group at the HUMV.

” ‘For a lot of these guys, their underlying issues can be traced back to their service,’ she said. ‘If we don’t treat what got them here, they end up coming back. What we see is the camaraderie that this unit fosters makes them more willing to take the treatment seriously. It’s more than helping themselves. They don’t want to let down their brothers.’

“Connor, still a captain in the National Guard, puts it in terms that everybody in the unit understands.

“ ‘In boot camp, they break you down,’ he said. ‘A lot of these guys come in here broken. We are building them back up.’ ”

More here.

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At my former magazine we focused on lower-income issues, which meant we sometimes published research on topics such as prison reform, the criminalization of addiction, and job programs for ex-offenders.

Recently, I saw an article that reminded me of those efforts. It’s about an unusual fine-dining restaurant in Cleveland.

Jenn Hall covers the story at Paste, “Though the numbers vary by state, roughly three-quarters of ex-convicts are rearrested within five years, and more than half of those return behind bars. Ask Brandon Chrostowski about it, and he’ll tell you that it’s more than a problem. It’s a civil-rights issue — and that’s why he decided to do something about it.

“For diners at Edwins Restaurant in Cleveland Shaker Square, fine French cuisine is an initial draw. The setting is nouvelle-chic, befitting a Francophile menu that garners praise. Bar service is sophisticated, with a wine list that runs deep. But the reason to return goes beyond the plate. In almost every position, both front and back of house, ex-offenders are training to launch new careers.

“It’s the only white-tablecloth restaurant of its kind in the U.S.

“The trainees are part of Edwins’ six-month Restaurant and Leadership Training Program, of which Chrostowski is founder and CEO. (Edwins is a portmanteau of ‘education’ and ‘wins.’) Covering everything from mother sauces to white-tablecloth service, the program aims not just to equip ex-offenders with skills, but also to power them with the confidence to apply them.

“It’s a program borne of careful planning. Chrostowski first had the idea in 2004, secured approval to operate as a 501 (c) (3) in 2008, and then spent six years perfecting the pedagogy before opening the restaurant’s doors in 2013. Now, 20,000 diners visit Edwins each year.

“But job prep and a fine French meal is just one part of the story. Ultimately, Edwins is a support network for those determined to challenge statistics. So while participants indeed learn a perfect braise, they also get help with everything from reinstating their driver’s license to securing medical care. It’s a humanizing approach to a sobering problem, and perhaps that’s why it’s working. The Edwins-alumni recidivism rate stands at just 1.2 percent. …

“Asked what drives him, he says it’s about paying forward a break he was given. Growing up in Detroit, Chrostowski had a legal run-in and was lucky to land probation instead of a prison sentence. That ‘aha’ moment primed him to take stock, find a mentor and launch a fine-dining career …

“Though he reads like an optimist (and is when it comes to a belief in transformation), Chrostowski sees himself as a pragmatist. Given the chance, he says, many ex-offenders have the capacity and strength to rebuild. They just need that all-critical chance.”

To read Hall’s interview with Chrostowski, click here.

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When people are serving time for a crime, how much better for society — both during their sentence and after they get out — if they have some useful work while inside.

Patricia Leigh Brown writes at Atlas Obscura, “Justin King spends most of his hours in a cinderblock dormitory room for minimum-security prisoners, sleeping on a metal bunk bed and being constantly monitored by surveillance cameras.

“But on a crisp California morning with coastal fog hanging on the hillsides, King, who is serving time for selling methamphetamines, and three of his fellow inmates at the Mendocino County jail huddle together in a 175-acre vineyard to pick plump sangiovese grapes. The only visible difference between the prisoners and the other field workers are the GPS tracking devices wrapped around their ankles.

” ‘Hey dude!’ King, 32, called out to his fellow inmate, Meliton Rangel, as King eyed a promising group of clusters wet with dew. ‘I hit clump city here!’

“The men’s enthusiasm for grapes with just the right sugar levels and tannins is a variation on the concept of work release, in which inmates deemed low security risks are employed by private companies. …

” ‘They’re hard workers,’ [Vineyard owner Martha] Barra says of her new employees, who wear “civilian” clothes in her magazine-esque vineyard. ‘They have to meet the same punctuality and performance requirements as everybody else.’ …

“The work is notoriously grueling: At first, Rangel, a stiff-legged 37, said he was going to quit. That changed when he received his first paycheck—his first one ever. ‘This has really helped me out,’ he says. ‘It feels very good to work.’ …

“In the Mendocino program last year, four of the six inmates who worked on the grape crew at Redwood Valley Vineyards have indeed stayed out of jail. Three now have full-time jobs. One now works at the vineyard full-time, rebounding from tough years of drug addiction and homelessness. …

” ‘There’s peace of mind out here,’ King says.”

More here.

Photo: Olivier Vanpé /Wikimedia Commons
Clusters of ripe and unripe Pinot noir grapes.

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