Malloy tours newly opened young adult unit at Cheshire prison

Inmates Christopher Belcher, Devon Eldemire, Andrew Dickson and John Pittman (left to right) talk to Gov. Malloy about the T.R.U.E. Program at the Cheshire Correctional Institution on Monday. T.R.U.E. stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating, the first of it's kind in the state. The Unit includes offenders between the ages 18-25 with the goal of making the facilities safer and preventing these young adults from returning to prison. (Lauren Schneiderman/Hartford Courant, pool)

Cheshire — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy shook hands with former gang members and convicted killers and wished them well during a tour of the new unit for young adults at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

The 18-to-25-year-olds in the newly dedicated T.R.U.E. program, and the "lifers" who are mentoring them, represent an important piece of Malloy's ongoing criminal justice reforms. The goal is to provide young prisoners with life-skills training and group therapy and to work with their families to help the men become productive and law-abiding citizens when they are released.

T.R.U.E. stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating.

"Roughly 95 percent of inmates will be released from custody one day," Malloy said. "The mistakes they have made in their lives should not be a permanent sentence for failure."

The young men and their older mentors, dressed in state-issued tan scrubs, lined up outside their cells as Malloy, Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple, Cheshire Warden Scott Erfe and Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, walked through with members of the media in their wake. 

Robert Bullock, 24, is serving a 27-year prison sentence for shooting at police officers in Bridgeport in 2010. He said he'll be at least 40 years old when he leaves prison, and he wants to go home for good. He has discovered an interest in business and finance.

"When I was younger, I used to act off impulse," he said. "Now I make more rational decisions."

Standing nearby was mentor Isschar Howard, 38, who is serving life without the possibility of parole for killing two men in New Haven in 2000. Though he never expects to leave prison, Howard said he can contribute to society by helping the young men better themselves. He said that listening to them and talking with them about their feelings has made them feel they are a part of something positive.

"What I get out of it is the experience of finally doing something right," he said. "All my life I've been known for doing wrong."

The cinder-blocked unit looks the same as others, except for the oversized chalkboards etched with positive messages and the T.R.U.E. banner, which some of the young men leap up and tap every time they leave the unit.  On a typical day, the unit members and staff gather each morning and evening, and whenever needed, for "check in," where they celebrate milestones and successes, engage in therapeutic activities and resolve conflicts. The inmates go to their jobs or school programs within the facility, then return to the unit to do chores, participate in more programming and meet one-on-one with staff and mentors.

Malloy, who shook hands and schmoozed his way through the unit, said it was his 18th trip inside a state prison and that he'd never experienced a more positive attitude from inmates.

"Oh, you're a Stamford boy," he said to one man. A native of Stamford, Malloy had served as that city's mayor for 14 years prior to being elected governor.

"What I'm trying to do is acknowledge that your brain wasn't fully developed," he told an inmate who said he had been sentenced as an adult for a crime he committed at age 17 just prior to 2007, when the state raised the age of those tried as juveniles from 16 to 18.

Looking to raise the age for juvenile protection even higher, Malloy recently introduced a bill that would create a new classification, called "young adults," for individuals aged 18, 19 and 20 accused of all but the most serious felonies or motor vehicle crimes.

Semple said the idea for the unit was born two years ago when he and Malloy, sponsored by the Vera Institute, traveled to Germany with Turner to tour that country's prison system. Turner, whose organization is dedicated to improving justice systems and strengthening communities, said Germany's system is "rooted in human dignity," with a program for 18-to-25-year-olds in which "people left better than when they came in."

Semple said the DOC used a $350,000 grant to open the unit along with $150,000 from the agency's budget. Correction staff came up with the idea of using prisoners serving life sentences as mentors. The T.R.U.E. unit is considered a pilot, and if it's successful, aspects of it could be duplicated in other facilities, Semple said.

Malloy said the prison population of young adults is down 60 percent since 2008, but that 70 percent of those over 25 were first incarcerated between the ages of 18 and 25. Prisons, he said, should not be crime schools for the young.

Christopher Belcher, serving eight years for a shooting in Bridgeport, said it was "pretty nice" to shake the governor's hand.

"It feels as if we're finally cared about," he said.

Mentor John Pittman, 63, who is 31 years into a life sentence for murdering his wife in Hartford in 1986, said he has never seen anything like the T.R.U.E. program in all his years of incarceration. Known as "Father Time," by the younger men, he wore a neatly trimmed white beard, shiny dress shoes and freshly ironed prison tans.

"There came a time when I realized there was purpose, and the purpose was to give back," he said. "These are the guys that are going back to the community," "I have a saying, 'You got next.'"

Malloy thanked Pittman and told him, "Live on through these guys."

According to the DOC, the Cheshire prison, which opened in 1913, was originally designed for male offenders between the ages of 16 to 24, with the intention of separating these offenders from the adult prison population. Since 1982, the state has not had a unit specifically targeted for young adults.

 "The dedication of the young adult T.R.U.E. unit in Connecticut is a powerful demonstration of Governor Malloy's deep commitment to criminal justice reform that is rooted in evidence about what works for public safety," said Turner. "It is also proof that the momentum for justice reform — which is driven by our states and local communities — remains strong. We are inspired by Governor Malloy's leadership, and proud to work with the Connecticut Department of Correction on this important effort to reimagine prisons so that they provide opportunity to their youngest residents, and ultimately, their families and communities."

k.florin@theday.com

 

Gov. Malloy talks to Devon Eldemire and three other inmates in the T.R.U.E. Program - which stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating, at the Cheshire Correctional Institution on Monday. The program is for young offenders ages 18-25 with the goal of making the facilities safer and preventing these young adults from returning to prison. (Lauren Schneiderman/Hartford Courant, pool)
Gov. Malloy talks to Devon Eldemire and three other inmates in the T.R.U.E. Program - which stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating, at the Cheshire Correctional Institution on Monday. The program is for young offenders ages 18-25 with the goal of making the facilities safer and preventing these young adults from returning to prison. (Lauren Schneiderman/Hartford Courant, pool)

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