March 14, 2017 12:18PM
By Jesse Buchanan
CHESHIRE — There’s a different atmosphere in the newly opened young adult unit, according to Clyde Meikle, a Cheshire Correctional Institution inmate serving a life sentence for killing his cousin with a shotgun in 1994.
Meikle is among 11 convicts serving life sentences who act as mentors for more than two dozen 18- to 25-year-old inmates in the unit. It’s part of a pilot program by the department and touted by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to lower recidivism as well as create a model that may be expanded.
Young inmates from Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven who were accepted into the pilot program said their schedules are busier than in other prison blocks. There’s no time for napping with the number of classes and programs that are part of their routine.
The two-story block has cells as well as rooms marked expression space, spiritual space and study room. There’s more camaraderie and less violence, according to young offenders and mentors.
“It’s more a therapeutic atmosphere,” Meikle said.
He’s been in and out of jail since 1991 and started serving his term for murder in 1998. Meikle wants to impress upon young offenders who will return to normal life that there’s a better way.
“My objective is that these brothers can participate in the security rather than participate in the violence” in their communities, he said.
Malloy, correction officials and leaders of the Vera Institute of Justice toured German prisons two years ago and said during Monday’s dedication that they could hardly believe what they saw.
“People had keys to their cells, they wore their own clothes, they cooked their own food,” said Nicholas Turner, president of Vera and an adviser on the project. “The facilities were safe. Fights almost never happened.”
“People left better off than they came in,” he said.
Cheshire’s prison was founded as an institution for inmates 16 to 24 years old. Malloy said that 100 years ago, officials realized the 16-24 age group should be treated differently from the general population.
“We lost our way,” he told a crowd of prison officials, guards and state leaders on Monday. “We decided to treat all offenders as one type of offender.”
Young offenders need to learn skills for their return to their communities, Malloy said, skills they failed to acquire before their incarceration. Lowering this age group’s recidivism rate will mean safer cities and towns and less spending on prisons, he said.
When touring German prisons, Malloy learned they have more social workers than guards.
“We need that. People come to us broken,” he said.
Scott Erfe, the warden in Cheshire, said education programs involve an inmate’s family and include how to deal with impulsivity and adversity.
“They’ll even learn how to balance a checkbook when we’re done with them,” Erfe said. “Although this unit is in its infancy, it has the potential to be something special.”
Inmates were chosen from those who completed a questionnaire.
Andrew Dickson, a 25-year-old convicted of shooting a man over an ATV sale in 2012, said the youth unit has different rules but also the expectation that inmates will show up on time for programs.
“You’ve got to make your bed,” Dickson said. “It’s getting accustomed to being treated as a responsible adult.”
Len Suzio, a Republican state senator from Meriden, has been a strong critic of some of Malloy’s criminal justice efforts but said Monday that he and the Democratic governor were in agreement on this latest program.
“I like the idea of isolating (young inmates) and keeping them away from the hardened, veteran criminals,” Suzio said. “I think this is something that’s worth trying and seeing how it works out.”
While those convicted of serious crimes such as murder and rape shouldn’t get a reduced sentence based on their age, Suzio said, younger offenders did offer a unique opportunity for rehabilitation. That should be a goal of the prison system and not just punishment.
Changing the mindset of some inmates, particularly those who were raised in violent homes, won’t be easy though.
“It’s hard to turn that around but if there’s a chance, the earlier the better,” Suzio said.
The first batch of prisoners entered the unit in January. The effort, which included special training for guards, cost about $500,000, according to Malloy. It has support from correction department officials as well as guards — something the governor said isn’t always the case for new prison initiatives.
If successful, the program may be implemented with an older population or in other prisons.
Turner said his New York-based organization has been helping with the research and ideas that underpin the new unit. He was encouraged by Connecticut’s willingness to put those ideas into action.
“What we saw here today is not just a model for this great state but for the entire country,” he said.