Here’s a depressing statistic. In Massachusetts, over half of all young adult men released from jails and prisons go back within three years. The state’s largest county wants to disrupt that cycle. A few months ago, it adopted a new approach, teaching responsibility. As Cristina Quinn of member station WGBH reports, the more responsibility inmates learn, the greater freedom they can earn.
CRISTINA QUINN, BYLINE: On the top floor of the Middlesex House of Correction and Jail in Billerica, Mass., there is a barbershop, a library, even a meditation room.
This is the PACT unit. It stands for People Achieving Change Together. It’s designed specifically for 18- to 24-year-olds who want to make sure this is the last time they are here, like 22-year-old Eric Darden.
ERIC DARDEN: I want to just kind of break the cycle and try to strive to be better, instead of coming back.
QUINN: He’s finishing up a two-year sentence for armed robbery and assault and battery. Besides having a cell all to himself he says the atmosphere in the PACT unit is distinctly different from the rest of the jail. In his last cell block, he’d always been on guard. But here…
DARDEN: You don’t have to worry about looking over your back. You have a situation. You can talk about it instead of, like, someone trying to hype it up.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sixteen. I have, like, a list, and I just don’t want to…
QUINN: In the PACT unit, the unspoken rules of jail politics fall by the wayside. Inmates and corrections officers have a more relaxed relationship. But the idea of putting all these young guys in one block was something Assistant Deputy Superintendent Scot Chaput initially didn’t want to do.
SCOT CHAPUT: I thought they were totally crazy. Most of our discipline is with that age group, right? The fighting, just refusing to do things.
QUINN: That crazy idea is something Middlesex County sheriff Peter Koutoujian wanted to try. He’s tired of seeing the same people cycle in and out of his jail.
PETER KOUTOUJIAN: Everything about this unit is designed in a way to prepare them for re-entry by giving them some of the skill sets that they didn’t have and some of the introspection that they never had.
QUINN: They do that by attending mandatory anger management meetings, sessions with therapists and consistently reporting to work or class. All of them had to apply to be here. This approach is motivated by scientific research. Studies show brain development continues into the mid-20s meaning programs like these can make a big difference in rehabilitation.
KOUTOUJIAN: For these young men, who are in a very significant part of their lives where change can be profound. You need to make sure that you’re replicating what life will be on the outside, otherwise they’ll never be able to re-engage.
QUINN: That means more phone privileges and face-to-face visits with family, if they stick to the program. The sheriff’s office partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and reform group. They looked to Germany’s prison system, a leader in prioritizing rehabilitation and re-socialization. It’s a departure for US prisons.
ALEX FRANK: It’s different. It’s uncomfortable. It might feel like a risk.
QUINN: The Vera Institute’s Alex Frank is one of the key players in helping prisoners take that risk.
FRANK: At this juncture in the US, I think it’s a leap that more and more systems are willing to take.
QUINN: In Bristol County, Mass., Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is known for his stricter approach. He thinks we’re not addressing the main problem, preventing at-risk youth from getting into trouble in the first place.
THOMAS HODGSON: I think it’s great that this experimental unit is being tried. But I believe if we want to stop this cycle of recidivism and increased dysfunction and people coming to jail, it takes a lot more time to change people who are so far down the road.
QUINN: Connecticut launched the nation’s first young adult unit over a year ago. There have been no reports of any fights since it opened. So they’re launching two more, including one at a women’s prison. Seven other jurisdictions across the country also want in and are now on the Vera Institute’s waiting list. For NPR News, I’m Cristina Quinn in Billerica, Mass.