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Posts Tagged ‘jail’

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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Photo:

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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Because I believe in Pete Seeger’s notion that “one and one and 50 make a million,” I’m drawn to stories of individuals making small contributions that could add up to something big.

So here is a story from Forbes, of all places, about several women in Detroit quietly working toward rescuing the city.

Denise Restauri writes, “As we drive through Detroit, on the surface I see a city that’s been abandoned by its residents, filled with poverty and crime. But when we stop and meet store owners, artists and women who went from being homeless to employed, I see a city that’s energized with entrepreneurship, hipster creativity and potential.

“Suddenly I understand what Veronika Scott, the 24-year-old who is sitting in the driver’s seat, often called ‘the crazy coat lady,’ means when she says, ‘I love Detroit.’

“Veronika is empowering Detroit with a disruptive business model. She’s the CEO and Founder of The Empowerment Plan, a non-profit organization that employs homeless women and trains them to become full-time seamstresses who produce coats that turn into sleeping bags which are given to homeless individuals across the nation.

“She doesn’t just employ these women — she educates and equips them with the professional skills and knowledge needed to compete in Detroit’s new economy and evolving job market.”

Restauri goes on to describe five other female-powered enterprises in her Forbes post.

JJ Curis, 32, is gallery director at the Library Street Collective, which helps struggling artists. The five James Sisters, 25-32, cofounded DROUGHT to make organically grown produce accessible to all.

Amy Kaherl, 32, is the executive director of Detroit SOUP, a novel idea that involves inviting people to pay for a dinner where they can hear pitches from local charities and vote on which one should get the evening’s donations, or micro grants.

Cheryl P. Johnson, 53, is the CEO of COTS: Coalition On Temporary Shelter. And LaKeisha Blackwell, 41, is jail diversion coordinator at Northeast Guidance Center. Read about the women here.

Photo: Forbes
Veronika Scott wears the Empowerment Plan’s sleeping bag coat.

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I liked Jacki Lyden’s story at National Public Radio about some unusual artists in the 1960s.

“If you traveled by way of Florida’s Route 1 in the 1960s, you might have encountered a young, African-American artist, selling a lushly painted oil landscape from his car. They weren’t allowed in galleries during Jim Crow segregation — but motels, office buildings and tourists would buy their vivid works.

“Together, they formed a loosely associated band around Fort Pierce, Fla., that came to be known as The Highwaymen. At $20 a painting, they made their way out of agricultural jobs like citrus-picking and defined the cultural look of an era.

“Their paintings departed from an earlier tradition of landscape painting in Fort Pierce. A.E. ‘Beanie’ Backus, considered the father of the landscape movement there, caught the clouds and savannahs and inlets that were falling to developers in the mid-century. He would teach many youngsters who came to his studio, including the teenage Alfred Hair, leader of The Highwaymen.

“These artists would take off in their own direction. But success has brought enduring tensions on their home turf, raising questions about art, race and cultural legacy. …

“The who’s who of The Highwaymen can be tricky. (A curator named Jim Fitch coined the name in the ’90s and it stuck.) Gary Monroe, author of The Highwaymen, Florida’s African-American Landscape Artists, counts 26 original painters — 18 of whom are still living. That’s how many were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.”

Lots more.

Photograph: Gary Monroe
Alfred Hair (left) and Robert Lewis

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