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Prison Reimagined: CT Prison Creates German-Style Program to Mentor and Rehabilitate Inmates

(TRUE mentor Isschar talks with CBS News about the True program. Photo: YouTube Screenshot)

Nicknamed ‘the Rock,’ Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional Institution is making a radical attempt to reform and rehabilitate 18 to 25-year old prisoners.

Four years ago, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy toured Germany’s prison system while visiting the country. Inspired by what he saw, he returned home and introduced a similar program at the Rock, using a former solitary confinement wing as a haven for self-improvement. The two-year-old program is founded on mentorship and therapy for prisoners between 18 and 25.

Inmates must apply for the T.R.U.E. program, which stands for truthful, respectful, understanding and elevating to success. Currently, about 50 prisoners known as mentees (incarcerated for crimes such as drugs and assault) are involved in the program, which uses the mentorship of staff members and older, reformed prisoners known as mentors who have been sentenced to life without parole.

Science shows that the human brain is still developing until age 25, or possibly even later. In fact, at age 18, the brain is only about halfway finished developing. According to Mental Health Daily, “all behaviors and experiences you endure until the age of 25 have potential to impact your developing brain.”

In the U.S., the recidivism rate is double what it is in Germany, where prison systems are focused on rehabilitating prisoners. Although two years is not enough time to tell whether the T.R.U.E. program will affect the recidivism rate, CBS interviewed prisoners and officers at the Cheshire Correctional Institution to see how the experiment is going so far.

Prisoner Profiles from the TRUE Community

The Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that works to improve justice systems to “ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities,” featured articles from several mentees (the young men in the T.R.U.E. program), mentors (people serving life sentences who live and work with the mentees) and staff members on their blog series, Dispatches from T.R.U.E.

Shyquinn Dix was incarcerated for felony check fraud at the Cheshire Correctional Institution when he was 22 years old. At Cheshire, there are short-termers, serial killers, and everyone in between. Violence is not uncommon in the general population, where dangerous convicts must wear yellow uniforms. Like many of the other prisoners, Dix was confined to his cell for 22 hours a day, with just an hour in the morning and evening for recreation.

When Dix ended up in the T.R.U.E. program, he was initially just glad he was not confined to a cell all day. But later, he realized that the correctional officers were genuine – they actually cared about the mentees. “The correctional officers and staff here care about you. You get a second chance at life if you take it serious,” Dix said in an interview with CBS.

When Corrections Officer James Vassar took an interest in Dix and told him he would help him pursue his dream of playing college basketball, Dix did not believe him. After Vassar spent months contacting college coaches from around the nation, Dix realized that he was serious about his promise. One day during a group discussion, a college basketball coach walked in to talk to Dix. He was dumbfounded.

“It was the most emotional day of my life!” Dix wrote. “I swear I thought Vassar was selling me a dream. Why would he want to help me… he’s a cop and gets paid to lock me up basically. Man, when I saw that coach’s face and he walked up to me and shook my hand… words can’t explain how I felt. It was as if a 10-million-pound rock fell off my shoulder.”

There were still many hurdles to cross, Dix still had to get accepted into the college and Vassar had to get a judge to approve Dix’s sentence modification. In spite of the odds, Vassar worked tirelessly to help Dix achieve his dreams, convincing Coach Kane to take a chance on the young inmate. Dix could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

For other mentees, however, the light at the end of the tunnel was further away. At age 22, Festim Shyqeriu was sentenced to 13 years in prison for robbing a bank and multiple convenience stores. Shyqeriu told CBS that he had been “selfish” and “violent,” and that spending 22 hours a day in a prison cell made him feel like a “caged animal.”

But the two hours a day that Shyqeriu spent with other inmates in the general population was even more terrifying than being confined to his cell. “It’s really scary at first,” he said. “And so you put on a front and you act like you’re tough and I’m hoping people don’t see how scared I am and just the mess that’s going on inside.”

Shyqeriu was skeptical when Warden Scott Erfe selected him to apply for the T.R.U.E. program. At this point in his life, he cared nothing about other people or improving his own life. Much like Dix, he simply wanted to escape his cell.

After some intensive counseling and guidance from both mentors and staff, Shyqeriu has a new outlook on life. He now goes to work each day in the prison shop and often enjoys time with his family when they visit. He said that he has shed many tears whenever he thinks about how much he has hurt his family.

“The problem with awareness and understanding the pain you’ve caused people is that you realize how much pain you’ve caused the people that love you and once you have to face that and look at yourself in the mirror, that’s tough,” Shyqeriu told CBS.

Although Shyqeriu still has to serve the rest of his sentence, he has a hope that he never had before. “I feel like everybody has a basic human decency. It’s just that it has to be nurtured. To bring it out,” he said. He continued that in the T.R.U.E. program, that is what happens, “if you let it.”

Mentors of the TRUE Community

While the T.R.U.E. program was started to rehabilitate young prisoners, it has also given some of the program’s mentors a new purpose in life. After undergoing a competitive application process, 10 men serving life sentences were selected to live with and work among the mentees. These mentors attended an eight-week course to prepare them for their new roles, receiving training from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Connecticut Department of Correction and the Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA).

A man named Isschar was one of the program’s first mentors. In a fight over drug turf, Isschar shot and killed two men. After being sentenced to life in prison, he assaulted both staff and other inmates before spending over five years in solitary confinement. The years spent alone gave him plenty of time to think, and Isschar decided that he wanted to lead a different kind of life.

“If there’s one thing I’m an expert in, it’s screwing up,” Isschar said in an interview with CBS. “I have a Ph.D. in consequences. I can tell you what tear gas tastes like. I can tell you what it feels like to watch your family see you get sentenced to life without parole. And I can tell you the decisions I made to get to that. After that the choice is yours.”

Isschar and the other mentors are like fathers to the mentees. According to Isschar, the greatest gift is meeting a new mentee whose life is a mess who refuses to change, and then witnessing that person’s transformation over the course of a few months.

Being a mentor gives Isschar redemption. “I don’t have to die a waste,” he said. “I tell these guys all the time they give me purpose to live. They give me something to leave behind.”

Another mentor known as James contributed to the Dispatches from T.R.U.E. blog, writing about the importance of the program: “T.R.U.E. program is unconventional, radical, and desperately needed. It is an opportunity to change how the country sees mass incarceration and create a new narrative for promising young men who are also convicted felons. The T.R.U.E. program is dedicated to the reclamation of moral integrity. Inherent in this mission is the recognition of the dignity of all prisoners in general, and the men in this unit in particular.”

Michael, another T.R.U.E. mentor, also wrote about his experience in a blog post. When he was a 15-year-old boy, he had dreams of becoming either a biomedical researcher or a surgeon. As a boy scout and an altar boy, Michael was a good kid who had never been in trouble. But just two months after he turned 15, Michael was arrested for murder.

When Michael turned 17, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison. He spent time in different correctional facilities before he ended up at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Due to overcrowding in Connecticut’s prison system, he was sent to a level six prison in Virginia. After six months, Michael was sent back to Cheshire, where he has been ever since.

Over the years, Michael found solace in books. At first, he read anything and everything, but in hopes that his sentence would be shortened, he decided to start studying medicine. As the years passed, he moved on to other subjects, such as philosophy, anthropology, business and math. Michael acquired so many books, that they would not fit in his allotted six cubic feet of space. When he ran out of room, he started to ship his books to his parents’ home, hoping to one day be reunited with his family.

“I spent so much time in those books they became my closest friends,” Michael wrote. “Their attention consumed my time and I was grateful for it. The years blurred into a series of topics, ideas, possibilities, new worlds, and different perspectives. It was always a tough choice on which books to send home and which ones to keep. I’m always finding myself in a situation where I wish I still had a certain book.”

Early in 2017, Michael was selected to be a mentor in the T.R.U.E. program. Along with the other mentors and staff members, Michael helped turn empty cells into different rooms. They created several rooms, including a computer room, a barbershop and a library. There was only one problem – the library was empty, and there were no books to fill the barren shelves.

But Michael had a solution. He spoke to his parents, who dug his many books out of storage and brought them to their son. He went through 15 heavy boxes, cataloging the books and putting them on the shelves. Michael wrote about that moment: “It brought back memories of different facilities and housing units, different phases of my life. I put them all on the shelves and sat back and thought how nice it was to see my old friends. How grateful they’ll be to meet my new friends in the T.R.U.E. Program.”

Michael’s wisdom and his multitude of books have been an inspiration to the mentees in the T.R.U.E. community.

Life After Rehab

When Coach Dan Kane from the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI) visited Shyquinn Dix in prison, he saw something in the young man. “I don’t judge. I don’t judge people off of their interactions with other people, just the interactions they have with me,” he told Dix.

After Dix finished his time in the T.R.U.E. program at Cheshire, he went from being inmate number 391175 to number 10 on the basketball team at UMPI. Not only is he one of the best players on the team, but he has also excelled in the classroom and is currently on the Dean’s List.

Just one month after being released from prison, Dix was back at Cheshire – not as an inmate, but as a visitor. An inspiration to the T.R.U.E. unit, his jersey now hangs on the wall at the institution.

Warden Scott Erfe told the young man: “Keep your grades up. Stay out of here, right? And don’t forget us when you get to the NBA.”

“My experience in the TRUE program taught me a lot,” Dix wrote, “but most importantly it taught me to never judge anybody based on their past or perception. That alone speaks on character. Change is hard, but it’s worth the struggle.”

For those questioning the TRUE program for fear it puts the corrections officers at risk, Warden Erfe told CBS News, “Not at all. Not at all. Numbers don’t lie. Our incident rate is a lot lower in T.R.U.E. than it is in general population.”

Others criticize TRUE claiming the program is too lenient and not focused enough on punishment. To that Warden Erfe said at first he “thought it was a little bit crazy, but these individuals are going to be getting out. And they don’t go to a special community just for ex-offenders; they’re all around us. And would you rather have a better product coming out or would you rather have a worse product coming out and living next to you?”

Although two years may not be enough time to tell how the recidivism rate has been affected, it’s enough time to know that the T.R.U.E. program has made a huge difference in the lives of the mentees, mentors and staff at Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional Institution.

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Leighanna Shirey

Leighanna graduated with a degree in English from Pensacola Christian College. After teaching high school English for five years, she decided to pursue her dream of writing and editing. When not working, she enjoys traveling with her husband, spending time with her dogs, and drinking way too much coffee.

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