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Posts Tagged ‘prison’

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Photo: Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Carlos Omar Montes keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5′ X 5′ storage unit. With support from entrepreneurship programs, he’s building a new life after serving his time.

When I edited a magazine focused on low- and moderate-income issues in New England, I liked to acquire articles on helping former inmates lead a decent life after serving their sentence. Dumping someone on the side of the road with a toothbrush is hardly the way to help him start supporting himself and giving back to society (in the form of taxes, family stability, community service, etc.).

Although retired for four years, I am still drawn to such stories. Here’s one from Kelly Field at the Hechinger Report via the Boston Globe.

“Standing before a roomful of CEOs, angel investors and foundation representatives at Boston College Law School late last year, Carlos Omar Montes pitched his idea for a mobile barbershop.

“Omar’s Barbershop, he told the audience, would fill a niche in the grooming market, offering the ‘old-fashioned experience’ of hot lather and warm towels to men who are confined to group homes and nursing facilities.

“ ‘Omar’s will connect people to the happiest time in their lives, bringing them freedom, convenience and happiness,’ said Montes, dressed in a vest and tie for his presentation.

“A year and a half earlier, Montes, now 31, had been an inmate at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. He served almost eight years in all, there and elsewhere, for possession of drugs and a firearm. Now he was in a lecture hall on the pastoral suburban campus of Boston College Law School, for the final day of an entrepreneurship boot camp that paired former inmates with law student mentors.

“Covid-19 would arrive a few weeks later. Still, Montes spent the lockdown positioning himself to move forward with his business as soon as reopening allowed — amid a recession that otherwise would have made it considerably harder for him to get any other kind of job.

“The idea of bringing higher education inside prisons got considerable momentum in the years leading up to the pandemic, becoming the subject of books, documentaries and extensive media coverage.

“But if ex-inmates weren’t getting hired before coronavirus, they are unlikely to be in the front of the line now that millions of Americans are unemployed, no matter how much education they received.

“The stigma against candidates with criminal records is so strong that, even with the skills they may have learned behind bars, many find it easier to start a business than get hired by one, said Marc Howard, a professor of government and law who helped start Georgetown University’s Pivot entrepreneurship program last year. …

“Project Entrepreneur at BC, launched last year, is one of a small number of similar efforts that take place both inside prisons and on college campuses and attempt to provide inmates and ex-inmates with the skills, confidence and contacts they need to start their own businesses. They also aim to open traditional students’ eyes to the stigmas and systematic barriers to employment former prisoners like Omar face. …

“Many employers are wary of hiring ex-convicts. According to one widely cited study, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. The result: More than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and nearly half are re-arrested within eight years of their release. …

“Thirty-five states, including Massachusetts, and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted ‘ban the box’ policies that bar questions about prior convictions from job applications. …

“Said Kevin Sibley, executive director of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens, which helps formerly incarcerated people find education and employment, even in ‘ban the box’ states, many employers still run background checks late in the hiring process and drop any candidate who has committed a felony, ‘even when it has nothing to do with the work assignment.’ …

“Elizabeth Swanson, who has led a Babson College entrepreneurship program for prisoners for a decade, said the lessons of these prison entrepreneurship programs are not only for the inmates.

“When she asks students, at the start of each semester, what they think about prison, Swanson said, they’ll often say something like, ‘I’ve seen “Orange is the New Black.” ‘ Some are terrified to step inside a jail. But when they get to know the inmates, through letters or visits, ‘they do a complete 180.’ ”

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Ann Hermes/ Christian Science Monitor
Christopher Scott, left, and Steven Phillips, who spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, were finally exonerated and are determined to pay it forward.

When I worked at the Fed magazine, I solicited a couple articles from the Innocence Project, which has a branch in New England. I continue to be impressed with the complicated, difficult work they do to exonerate men and women who’ve been wrongly convicted and sent to prison.

Today’s article is about two unjustly imprisoned men who got eventually got exonerated and decided to help others.

Henry Gass writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “The busiest P.O. box in North Texas may be in a drab, beige hallway in the post office of this Dallas suburb. [It’s] full of letters, mostly handwritten and postmarked from prisons across the country, addressed to what may be the most unusual detective agency in America. …

“The man who empties the box is Christopher Scott. Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, he dresses sharp, talks in the gritty patois of the South Dallas neighborhood he grew up in, and uses his bright smile sparingly.

“Under normal circumstances, he probably wouldn’t know Steven Phillips, and they most likely wouldn’t be best friends or partners in a detective agency. They’re from different backgrounds and different generations. While Mr. Scott navigated urban streets as a youth, Mr. Phillips grew up in the country, in the Ozarks. …

“Yet for all their differences, these two men – one white and one African American – have forged a common bond around a common purpose: trying to get people out of prison who should never have been there in the first place. Their Dallas-based nonprofit, House of Renewed Hope, also campaigns for criminal justice reforms and raises public awareness about how the system often fails.

“But it is the tantalizing prospect of uncovering new information that might, just might, free other innocent men that drives Mr. Scott and Mr. Phillips the most. They spend their days meeting clients in prison, tracking down and interviewing family members, friends, and potential eyewitnesses. They meet with prosecutors and activists, lawyers and experts. …

“The two men spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, crimes for which they were eventually exonerated. That’s why they read every letter they receive. They know there are others like them behind bars. …

“ ‘We was wronged,’ [Scott] says. ‘If you don’t want to see this happen to a lot of other people, there’s things that we can do, because we’ve been a part of that system before.’ …

“One April night in 1997 he was riding around his neighborhood with a friend, Claude Simmons. On their way home, he noticed a heavy police presence in the area and a helicopter flying overhead. A familiar nervousness crept in. …

‘So I’m scared, but I’m not too scared,’ he recalls. ‘In my head I’m thinking the law, the justice system, is going to get it together and figure it out.’

“Instead, he was identified by the wife of the slain man as one of the attackers. She had been sexually assaulted and her husband shot dead during a home invasion. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, and her testimony was crucial in convicting Mr. Scott in a trial that lasted only four hours. An all-white jury sentenced him to life.

“In prison. … he read three books a week, including law tomes, looking for ways to prove his innocence. He compared notes and exchanged tips with other guys in Coffield filing innocence claims in courts.

“His break came when a group of law students at the University of Texas at Arlington discovered that two other men, one of whom was in prison for aggravated robbery, had committed the murder for which Mr. Scott had been convicted. The prisoner confessed, and in 2009 his accomplice was arrested in Houston.

“After Mr. Scott passed a six-hour polygraph test, he was exonerated; Mr. Simmons was also exonerated. The two men were brought before a judge in Dallas and declared innocent. …

“ ‘I was like, “Dude, I asked for this 13 years ago, and they didn’t give it to me.” But I was happy. I knew I was going free. It was over.’

“When Mr. Scott got out, Mr. Phillips was waiting for him. He was in the courtroom for the exoneration hearing. Afterward he introduced himself and told him to call if he ever needed anything. Mr. Scott was wary at first – with everything he’d been through, he says, he didn’t trust white people – but after a few days living with his mother he did call.

“Mr. Phillips let him stay at an apartment he owned, lent him some money, and even bought him a cheap car.

“A year later, after going to regular meetings with other exonerees, Mr. Scott set up the House of Renewed Hope using some of his compensation money from the state. … He asked Mr. Phillips and Johnnie Lindsey, another exoneree, to be co-founders. …

“He’s getting close with one case. House of Renewed Hope has teamed up with the Innocence Project of Texas to try to exonerate Leslie Davis, a man who served 28 years in prison for aggravated robbery. His conviction was based largely off testimony from a Dallas police officer who claimed he’d eavesdropped on Mr. Davis confessing to the crime while hiding in some bushes.

“Some other Dallas officers gave similar testimony around that time in the early- and mid-90s, earning the nickname the ‘Bushmen’ with some county prosecutors, and it later came to light that several of them had been disciplined internally for dishonesty.

“ ‘That’s something that should have been disclosed to the defense and was not,’ says Mr. Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas.

“Mr. Davis was released on parole several months ago, but he is still trying to clear his name. ‘It’s close,’ says Mr. Scott. ‘We just need a little more information.’ ” More here.

 

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Photo: Cliff Grassmick
Lucy Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, incorporates jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop into the dance classes she offers in women’s prisons.

My friend Asakiyume has been a tutor in a women’s prison for several years, where she has learned that many inmates got in trouble after suffering repeated abuse or gross failure by the educational system. Most students, she says, are grateful for any attention from outside and are determined to do better on release. I think she would like this story about a dancer serving incarcerated women in the South.

Maria Di Mento writes at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Lucy Wallace is a dancer who has spent a lot of time in prison. That’s because Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, travels the country teaching dance classes to incarcerated women to help them cope with depression, despair, PTSD, and complex trauma. …

“Despite her assumption that most prisons would turn her away, not one has.

‘I’ve never had a warden say, “No, we don’t want your program,” ’ Wallace says. ‘They’re grateful to get programming, especially in rural areas that are so remote no one goes there to volunteer.’

“A former dance major who has a master’s degree in psychology, Wallace incorporates a mix of movement styles into her dance classes, including jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop, and a variety of musical genres. …

“The program involves writing exercises and group discussions that let the women talk about their lives, how they coped with their first few weeks in prison, their biggest challenges, and what they’re getting out of the classes. She provides the prisons with DVDs of the classes and has certified about 400 prisoners who can lead the courses.

“Dance to Be Free is in 13 prisons in eight states and operates on a budget of about $100,000 a year. Few prisons will pay for the programming, something Wallace would like to change. For now, the charity receives all of its funding from individual donors, raising roughly $175,000 since 2015. …

“Wallace is holding off expanding the program for the time being and is instead focusing solely on the South, especially Mississippi and Florida, where she says women’s prisons are in deep need of programs.” More here.

From the Dance to Be Free website: “Our mission is to radically improve the lives of incarcerated women through the healing power of dance. We use ‘Cathartic Choreography’ to both train the inmates and teach them a new skill. We have seen this technique help our students deal with physical and mental illness, including PTSD and complex trauma.

“During our teacher trainings inmates gain confidence as they experience leadership and responsibility, often for the first time in their lives. That sense of accomplishment flourishes as our students learn to not only express themselves through dance, but to free others to do the same.

“Throughout this transformative experience, we teach the nuts and bolts of choreography, timing and flow, and just as importantly we facilitate journaling and sharing exercises that nurture introspection and self-awareness that inmates often need.”

I found the nonprofit organization’s video very moving.

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Photo: Francis Pakes
The view from the Icelandic prison that a criminology reseacher asked to stay in.

Abusing people who commit crimes is no longer considered effective for keeping them on the straight and narrow after they serve their time. For a different approach, consider Iceland, where two of the five prisons actually have no locks.

Francis Pakes, a professor of criminology at the UK’s University of Portsmouth, took a firsthand look and wrote about his experience for the Conversation.

“Iceland is a small country tucked away on the edge of Europe. It has a population of only about 340,000 people. Iceland’s prisons are small too. There are only five, altogether housing fewer than 200 prisoners. Of these five, two are open prisons. …

“When I asked the prison authorities in Iceland if I could spend a week in each of the two open prisons they were surprisingly receptive. I got the impression that they quite liked the idea: a foreign academic who wanted to get under the skin of these places by assuming the role of a prisoner. They promised to keep a room free for me. I was grateful and excited. I was going to experience both prisons from the inside. …

“The absence of security features was striking. The first prison I stayed in, Kvíabryggja prison in the west of the country, had little in the way of perimeter security. There is, however, a sign instructing passers by to keep out – mainly aimed at tourists. I could simply drive up to the small, mostly single-storey building and park up. I then walked in (yes, the doors were open) and said hello. …

“It was clear from the outset that prisoners and staff do things together. Food is important in prisons and in Kvíabryggja the communal dining room is a central space. It is where prisoners have breakfast, lunch and dinner together with staff. Prisoners cook the food, and with an officer they do the weekly food shop in a nearby village. Food was plentiful and tasty. It is considered bad form not to thank the prisoner chefs for their efforts. And you have to clean up after yourself. …

“Prisoners have their own room keys but they leave their doors unlocked, pretty much at all times. This is a potent symbol: life in Kvíabryggja is all about trust. I found that difficult at first, knowing that my passport, rental car keys and research notes were all in my room. In the end I did what prisoners do and even slept with the door unlocked. I slept like a baby. …

“It was the informality of the interactions that struck me most. We watched football together. … I got teased a bit of course, as all prison researchers do. But prisoners also shared gossip and many prisoners and staff alike shared very personal, even intimate feelings and stories with me. When Pétur gained his freedom and his dad arrived to pick him up, he hugged many prisoners and staff goodbye, including me. We all got a bit emotional.

“Kvíabryggja is of course still a prison. Many prisoners feel frustrated, angry, anxious, struggle with their health and worry about the future. But the environment is safe and the food a delight. There is contact with the outside world, generous visiting arrangements, and there is always a listening ear. As prisons go, this means a lot.

“This remote prison and with no more than 20 prisoners, and around three staff around at most at any time, is a tiny community. Prisoners and staff smoke together in the cramped but ever busy smoking room. They need to get on.

“Life is defined by these informal interactions. This is not necessarily easy. This prison population is highly mixed. There are female prisoners, foreign nationals and prisoners of pensionable age or with a disability all mixed in together. …

“The importance of getting on is a take away message. This is far harder to achieve in large busy prisons where new prisoners arrive and leave every day. But just like community policing works best if most public interactions are friendly, a prison is a more positive place if most interactions are friendly and benign too.”

More at the Conversation, here.

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Photos: A Ride Home
When you get out of prison, you’re often on your own. That’s where A Ride Home comes in.

The other day, I was reiterating for a couple grandchildren the basics of the Christmas story. When you get down to essentials, the life of the grownup Baby Jesus, as told to us, was all about teaching kindness and going among the poor and outcast to comfort them.

I told the kids that “when Herod the King heard [about a new ‘Governor’], he was troubled” because he didn’t know the baby would not grow up to be the kind of leader that would take Herod’s throne and soldiers and money but instead would teach people about being good to one another.

Although we aren’t regular churchgoers, the kids like the annual Christmas pageant, and I wanted to go over the setting and roles a bit.

That’s a long intro to saying that Christmas is a particularly good time to consider how much the poor and outcast — and those who provide compassion to them — can benefit when we adhere to what is really the essence of all religions.

I recently learned about a great example of compassion for the outcast — a program for ex-offenders called “A Ride Home.” WNYC radio interviewed the people behind it.

“People released from prisons face all kinds of barriers as they transition back into the outside world, whether it’s finding jobs or housing.

“But beyond these large challenges, there are all kinds of small things the formerly incarcerated have to re-learn on the outside world — from opening doors, ordering from a menu, to choosing what kind of shampoo to buy.

“The Ride Home program helps people with those first few hours when they get out of prisons in California. …

“Carlos Cervantes is one of the program’s drivers, who is formerly incarcerated, and now picks people up, takes them for coffee and food, buys them new clothes and is with them in those first moments. He remembers the moments leading up to his own release back in 2011.

” ‘You feel nervous, asking, “What’s on the other side? How does the other side look like.” For me having spent 10 years 8 months, it’s kind of like this picture that like you can only imagine,’ he said.”

You can listen to WNYC’s podcast about the compassionate program via iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What I especially like is that former offenders want to help out by volunteering with the program. A Ride Home can make a person’s first post-prison emotion one of gratitude. And we all know what good things a feeling of gratitude can work in the world.

More at WNYC, here. Check out some really nice photos at the Ride Home website, here.

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Photo: William Raynard/Essex County Sheriff’s Department
From left, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and department director of food services Kathy Lawrence meet with program director Kate Benashski, Carlos Zagada, and Josiel Cabrera from Haven From Hunger on the farm at the Essex County Pre-Release Center in Lawrence.

Most of my posts about people helping people must seem like a drop in the bucket to readers: the problems of this world are so enormous. But I like to think about what can be accomplished by, say, one person whose better nature is released by a program like the one for ex-offenders described here. And I like to think of the way many such efforts can accumulate to improve the world.

Morgan Hughes writes at the Boston Globe, “Drive around the back of the Essex County Pre-release and Re-Entry center in Lawrence, and you’ll find 6 acres of pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and gourds.

“Inmates at the center run the farm, which yields about 50,000 pounds of produce each season to feed others who are incarcerated and the wider community. Located just behind Interstate 495, the farm is fertile ground for personal growth.

“ ‘We’re giving jobs to the inmates, we use the crops, but it’s also an opportunity to give back to the community,’ Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger said.

“At the moment, the farm has about seven inmates who volunteer to plant, maintain, and harvest the produce. They feed not only the roughly 200 inmates at the pre-release center, but those at the Middleton House of Correction and Women in Transition, a women’s pre-release center in Salisbury.

“The facility purchases meals from a third-party food vendor, but the kitchen incorporates the fresh produce into the menu whenever possible.

“ ‘They live there, so they can really see the fruits of their labor,’ Coppinger said.

“About 30,000 pounds go to food pantries and homeless shelters in the Merrimack Valley and throughout the North Shore, said Kathy Lawrence, director of food services for the sheriff’s department. …

“She said, ‘What we can do sometimes is either incorporate [our produce] into the menu and serve it in addition to what’s being prepared, or we can substitute in ratatouille instead of giving them frozen green beans.’

“But even when the harvest is over and the ground begins to freeze, these hyperlocal vegetables are used throughout the year, Lawrence said. Bell and Italian peppers are frozen to use in casserole dishes. The butternut squash is also kept in the freezer and saved for special holiday meals.

“Heather Bonanno-Baker is manager of both Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen and the farm at the pre-release center. She took over duties from her father, who helped inmates run the farm for at least 15 years.

“She said she teaches inmates how to plant and water the crops, manage pests, and harvest at the end of the season. She shows them what a vegetable looks like when it’s ready to be picked, and how to wash it before it goes to a kitchen.

“ ‘I’m big into teaching the public about agriculture, growing your own food, and where it comes from,’ Bonanno-Baker said. …

“When Lawrence collected some feedback from the farm workers, she said some common themes were ‘a sense of pride in what they’ve grown’ and feeling rewarded to be able to give back to the community. One told her: ‘Hard work leads to positive results.’

“Lawrence teaches ServSafe to inmates working in the kitchen, a certification in food safety necessary for many jobs in the food industry. Coppinger said working on the farm provides another skill they could use to find a job when they are released.

“ ‘From the minute you arrive at intake in Middleton, to when you are about to be released at the pre-release center is trying to get them in better shape to get out of here and not come back,’ he said.

‘I always like to say, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back.” ‘

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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800px-savinien_de_cyrano_de_bergeracArt: Zacharie Heince (1611-1669)
The 19th Century Edmond Rostand comedy
Cyrano de Bergerac was recently performed in a New York prison that has unusual rehabilitation programs.

Sometimes when an article I want to share with you has its photos under lock and key, I look for alternative images on Google. It was interesting to see that modern renditions of the outsize nose on Cyrano de Bergerac are much more extreme than the one above. Today’s productions really go overboard trying to make the silver-tongued hero look as ugly as possible. A recent production in a prison also exaggerated the nose, which you can see if you click on the original article.

Jesse Wegman wrote about the show at the New York Times, “Cyrano de Bergerac will be eligible for parole in 2022. For the time being, he is a vision in Gallic effrontery, pinballing around the stage in the gymnasium at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y.

“The production of Edmond Rostand’s canonical 19th-century comedy, which enjoyed a well-attended two-day run early [in June], was the work of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a 20-year-old organization that operates in prisons across New York State. The program introduces inmates to theater, dance, writing and other creative arts in the hope of teaching them life skills and improving their chances at success upon release. …

“When [inmates] proposed ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ the show’s director, Charlie Scatamacchia, was skeptical. ‘I thought, yeah, that’s not gonna happen,’ he said. ‘It’s got multiple scene changes, costume changes. It’s got sword fighting. I doubted my ability to direct them, and their ability to pick up these skills in the time we had. I’ve never been happier to be proved so wrong.’

“Behind the title character’s plastered-on proboscis and feathered chapeau is Rodney Spivey-Jones, a 35-year-old from Syracuse. Mr. Spivey-Jones, who had never acted before, first auditioned for the role of Le Bret, the play’s narrator. But Mr. Scatamacchia quickly realized that he was a good fit to play the lead — one of the most verbose roles in theater.

“Mr. Spivey-Jones is no stranger to addressing a crowd — he helped form an inmate debate team at another prison that beat a team from Harvard in 2015. Still, he had not given any thought to playing Cyrano and didn’t understand how big the role was until he kept getting called back to read for it. …

“When the show went up, Mr. Spivey-Jones realized that he had memorized not only his own lines but every other character’s as well — a handy trick when a castmate ran into trouble, and he could provide a cue on the spot. …

“A bigger obstacle than memorization, it turned out, was getting swords inside the prison. Corrections officials nixed various materials, like a hard plastic foil. … The cast of 13 men took the setbacks in stride, as people in prison learn to do with most things. Along with a professional actress, Kate Kenney, who played the role of Cyrano’s love interest, Roxane, the crew worked every week through the winter and spring to get the show into shape. …

“The program, which has about 400 alumni who were released from prison, is popular among both inmates and New York’s prison administrators, who have seen its philosophy pay off. Studies of prison-arts programs around the country, including R.T.A., have found that their participants are better behaved than other inmates, earned educational degrees earlier and in some cases are less likely to wind up back behind bars after release.”

It would be wrong to minimize the crimes these guys have committed or the pain they have caused their victims, but if there’s a way for offenders to become engaged with the world in more positive ways, that’s a good thing in my book.

And I love that play.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Walker State Prison/Times Free Press
Holly Mulcahy, left, and Mary Corbett perform in front of 128 Walker State Prison’s Faith and Character Based inmates.

When I read about some of the crimes that send people to prison, I do have trouble experiencing empathy for the perpetrators. But then I remember that not everyone in prison is unreachable. That’s why I find stories like Barry Courter’s at the Associated Press hopeful.

He writes about a music program in a Georgia State prison: “Holly Mulcahy stands with her violin, her back to the wall of the gym at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. Next to her is Mary Corbett with her violin. Between them and 128 inmates serving time for a host of crimes big and small. …

“The men are seated in chairs fanned out in a semicircle facing the stage, quiet and staring at the two women, who are smiling and relaxed.

“The place is so quiet, Corbett steps to the microphone and says with a laugh, ‘Talk amongst yourselves. We have to tune up.’

“It’s a relatively simple moment, but it sets the tone for how the rest of the evening will go.

“Walker State Prison, home to about 400 inmates, is unique among Georgia prisons. In 2011, the facility became the testing ground for the Georgia Department of Corrections’ new Faith and Character Based program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity and faith.

“Inmates in the Faith and Character Based curriculum have all requested to be there and have gone through a vetting process before being allowed to participate in the two-year program. …

“ ‘Half of the men there are lifers, but to be there, they must be eligible for parole,’ says Alan Bonderud. He’s been volunteering there since 2010 and was involved in mentoring new mentors when the prison added the [program]. …

“The goal is to give the men skills that will help them increase their chances of reacclimating into society upon release and to reduce the chances of the men ever returning to prison.

“Education is a key component as the men take a variety of classes — a few have earned Master of Divinity degrees, for example — but so is character development.

“Mulcahy first visited Walker State about three years ago after a chance meeting with Bonderud at a Chattanooga Symphony & Opera-sponsored gala. When Mulcahy, the CSO concertmaster, learned that Bonderud mentored at Walker State, she expressed an interest in performing there.

“ ‘I didn’t want to just go there and perform,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do more.’

“Bonderud says the recitals ‘have been very effective. They continue to increase the numbers of men who attend, and reports from the men are that they now share their programs with family members, and it gives them something new to talk about. It encourages them with their families. Some even have had family members take up the violin.’ …

“The program begins with ‘How Majestic the Expanse’ by Shawna Wolf, then Mulcahy opens the floor for discussion. Two inmates move around the room delivering hand-held microphones to prisoners who have raised their hands to speak.

“No one speaks except for the inmate with the microphone.

“ ‘I pictured it reminded me of icicles,’ he begins. ‘I could hear the sound of light coming through the trees and birds chirping. I heard the pulse in the music.’ …

“Mulcahy doesn’t try to lead, correct, judge or in any way influence the discussion, except to encourage the men to say what they think.

“ ‘There are no wrong answers,’ she says. …

“[Inmate Scott] Reed says he did not attend the early recitals, but he couldn’t help but be surprised at what he heard in the dormitories (the men live in bunk beds in large open rooms rather than cells) after the performances.

“ ‘I heard grown men talking about their feelings and their emotions that they felt hearing the music,’ he says.

“ ‘These are pretty hard guys from the streets.’

“Says inmate Garrett Anderson, ‘I’ve never heard this kind of music before. Never. And I never thought about how something made me feel. I never talked about it.’ ”

More.

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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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Photo: Paula Keller
Actor Luverne Seifert demonstrates techniques of Ten Thousand Things, which brings free, low-budget, high-quality theater to people who are not rich.

A new theater company trains actors to do high-quality, free performances for new, nontraditional audiences. Somehow I knew it would be based in Minneapolis, a hotbed of theatrical innovation in the late 1990s when I lived there.

Theresa J. Beckhusen reported the story at American Theatre.

” ‘If I was going to spend my life making theatre, I didn’t want to make art for rich people.’ This is how Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things (TTT), a theatre company in Minneapolis, kicked off a recent conference. …

“The gathering drew around 100 theatre makers from across the country to compare notes about working with the grass-roots theatrical model championed by Hensley’s company. Its motto could be fairly summed up as … art for not-rich people.

“For 30 years Ten Thousand Things has been touring productions to prisons, transitional housing, rehab centers, immigrant centers, shelters for survivors of domestic violence, and more — and all for free. …

“TTT productions are performed in the round, in whatever space their tour sites have available. … Actors mingle with audience members, interacting before, during, and after performances.

“The productions are spare: no lavish costumes, no fancy sets, no lights. Hensley puts a premium on story and language. …

“Many conference attendees shared stories … One incarcerated woman in particular was moved by a wedding scene in The Tempest because she’d missed all the weddings in her family. [Another told] how audience members drove from Tijuana to San Diego just to see a bilingual Twelfth Night. …

“Playwright Kira Obolensky led a session on choosing material that would work in the intimate settings pioneered by TTT. She began by posing a question … : What story would you tell if everyone was in the audience? … ‘I don’t think a lot of American playwrights and directors ask themselves this question.’ …

“Brad Delzer reported that he recently began employing TTT’s model with True North Theatre, his new theatre company in Carlisle, Pa. Sensing an opportunity to bring theatre to places that don’t typically see it, and to connect with the strong military community in the Carlisle area, Dezler toured Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad to a soup kitchen, a men’s shelter, and the town’s Army Heritage Center, before holding two public performances. …

“He had been generally apprehensive about the whole thing, but had particularly fretted about how a six-minute list of wars from the last few centuries would go over. ‘It played really well, he said, noting the power that came from the moment. ‘It surprised us.’ ”

There’s more at American Theatre, here, where you can see how different TTT groups manage to fund free performances.

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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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The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Some reasons: required minimum sentences, for-profit prisons that lobby officials to get more business, lack of programs to treat addictions. Most US prisons don’t help people who commit crimes to learn better behaviors, and it’s hard for ex-offenders to find jobs when they get out.

According to the Sentencing Project, “In the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally.”

The good news is that here and there, local sheriffs are experimenting with techniques to reduce recidivism, as are individual states. Whether the new programs are motivated by the wish to save public money, by compassion, or for any other reason, the trend is promising.

Mikaela Porter writes at the Hartford Courant about an initiative in Connecticut.

“For years John Pittman was known as a lifer in the state prison here. But now, he’s taken on a new identity: mentor. …

” ‘My philosophy is this: no one is going to save us but us,’ Pittman said in an interview. ‘I’m older than these guys – grandfather age – and if they can learn something from me without being in my situation with a life sentence then I felt I did my job.’

“The pilot program, called T.R.U.E. (Truthfulness to oneself and others, Respect toward the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here, Elevating into success) was set up [early this year] for about 70 18- to 25-year-old offenders at the prison. …

“The pilot program started with a visit to Germany, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Correction Commissioner Scott Semple, Vera Institute of Justice President Nicholas Turner toured prisons there.

” ‘We saw people behind bars who had keys to their own cells, cells [they] decorated themselves,’ Turner said. ‘They wore their own street clothes and they cooked their own meals and they worked in the community. People who were there left better off than they had come in.’ …

” ‘This population of 18- to 25-year-olds is responsible for 25 percent of the incidents that we respond to within our correctional institutions,’ Cheshire Warden Scott Erfe said.

“Erfe said approximately 100 correction staff over three shifts will work in the unit, and that workers have taken three weeks of training on human development and behavioral impact, motivational interviewing, mediation and conflict resolution for young offenders, trauma-informed interventions for young adult offenders and family engagement.

“The program includes work on life skills, educational assistance, team-building exercises and family assistance.

” ‘Although this unit is still in its infancy, it is clear that this has a chance to be something truly special,’ Erfe said.” More here.

I particularly like the “U” of T.R.U.E. I believe a lack of self-knowledge probably underlies most of the world’s problems, not just incarceration rates.

Photo: Lauren Schneiderman / Hartford Courant
Inmates talk to Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy about a rehabilitation program at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Mentors work with offenders between the ages 18-25 to both make facilities safer and prevent young adults from returning to prison.

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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:

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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Prison improv classes organized by actress Sabra Williams and film director Tim Robbins correlate with lower recidivism, according to a recent article in New York magazine.

Writes reporter Mickey Rapkin, “You can imagine how this idea was received 10 years ago, but here’s the pitch: A tenacious British actress teams up with Oscar winner Tim Robbins to bring acting classes to maximum-security prisons.

“And not just any acting classes, but improv workshops that ask Crips and Bloods and convicted murderers and white supremacists to sit together, wear makeup and masks, and maybe even pretend to be women sometimes. The eight-week intensive is meant to help the incarcerated better handle their emotions. …

“People said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you want to give them crayons. You’ve got acting classes?’” recalls Robbins of the launch of the Actors Gang Prison Project. ‘We’re like, “No, … it’s about changing behavior.” ‘

“Fundraising was a slog. Correctional officers pushed back. And these actor-facilitators were dismissed as another merry band of liberals pushing what’s known in the Prison Industrial Complex as ‘hug-a-thug’ programming.

“Sabra Williams, the co-founder and executive director of the Prison Project — who also had a small part in Kristen Wiig’s Welcome to Me last year — remembers those early days. ‘There was so much opposition … A few haters thought we were giving inmates too much power. One spread rumors that I was having an inappropriate relationship with a student.’

“Yet, despite the haters, the Prison Project celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and will expand to 10 California prisons in February 2017, just as some hard data has finally come in to prove the program’s merits.

“The recidivism rate in the state is more than 50 percent. But a recent preliminary study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that, for inmates who completed the Prison Project, that number dropped to 10.6 percent. Critics will point to a sample size that’s too small to draw broad conclusions, and it’s a valid concern. But the provisional findings are encouraging.” More here.

I want so much to believe in this approach, but having recently read poet Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir of life in a maximum security prison in the late 1990s, I can’t help but wonder. I look forward to more data. My review of Baca’s A Place to Stand is at GoodReads.

Photo: Peter Merts
Sabra Williams, Tim Robbins, and inmates in an Actor’s Gang Prison Project class at the California Rehabilitation Center.

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