Across the road from the Vietnam Veterans Park in Billerica, the Middlesex House of Correction and Jail sits on a hill surrounded by coils of barbed wire. Inside, officers scan the belongings of visitors before a door that reads in bold capital letters, “Authorized Access Only. Secured perimeter. No weapons beyond this point. No cell phones beyond this point.”
The door slides open with a loud clang. Assistant Deputy Superintendent Scott Chaput and I enter a small atrium and the door shuts behind us with unmistakable certainty. Another door in front of us clangs open, and we step into the main section of the building and start walking up a ramp. Along the way, we pass the doors for C pod and D pod, cell blocks for inmates who have already been sentenced.
“We’re on ‘Main Street’ right now. This ramp connects all our pod buildings and dorms together,” Chaput says.
The Middlesex House of Correction is a medium- to maximum-security facility, housing both individuals awaiting trial and inmates serving short sentences. The new unit we’re heading to is on the top floor. It used to be called F Pod. Now it’s the P.A.C.T. unit, which stands for People Achieving Change Together. It’s part of a new initiative designed specifically for 18- to 24-year-old inmates, a population with high recidivism rates. In Massachusetts, over half of young adult men released from correctional facilities go back within three years.
P.A.C.T., opened in February, was born out of a collaboration between Middlesex County and the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit research group based in New York City. The premise of the unit is to reflect life on the outside. Inmates there have more freedom. Cell doors open at 7:30 a.m. and stay open until 9 p.m., sometimes later.
Chaput, who’s worked in the jail for 32 years, says he’s seen a lot of changes over the years. But when Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian introduced the idea of a young offenders unit to the team, he was initially opposed to it.
“I thought they were totally crazy,” Chaput recalls. “This age group is very tough to deal with. Most of our discipline [problem] is with that age group. The fighting, just refusing to do things. They are usually not very cooperative and extremely moody at times.”
But Koutoujian wanted to shake things up. He was tired of seeing the same people cycle in and out of his jail.
“You will get to know them over many years of their lives,” Koutoujian says. “And then, sadly, you’ll get to know their children and grandchildren.”
Koutoujian says he wanted to open a unit specifically for young adults because of scientific research that shows brain development continues well into the mid-twenties, indicating an inclination towards riskier behavior among 18- to 24-year-olds. He can relate.
“I like to say I’m a recovering young adult. I’m a guy that made a lot of mistakes, and I didn’t end up becoming involved in the criminal justice system, but I made poor choices in my life that I realized when I was 25,” he confesses. “I learned late but I was able to correct my path. And this is the way that I want to help these young men.”
In the P.A.C.T. unit, this means inmates attend mandatory check-ins every morning and night, wherein everyone gathers in a circle and rates how they’re feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 and addresses any issues on their mind. It also means going to anger management meetings, sessions with therapists from McLean Hospital and daily work assignments, whether it’s as a librarian or working the graveyard custodial shift — a major departure from the norm.
“It was an uncomfortable process to go through for us. We’re having more out of cell time here, more of their own responsibilities, more privileges,” Koutoujian says. “These are things that are uncomfortable in corrections because you always have to be careful about security.”
Living in P.A.C.T. is voluntary, but there is an application process. There are now 23 inmates in the unit, with another 20 on a waiting list. The idea is to phase in about six people at a time. Medford native Eric Darden is 22 and has been living in P.A.C.T since it opened. He’s wrapping up a two-year sentence for armed robbery and assault and battery. Aside from having his own cell, he says the atmosphere is distinctly different from the rest of the jail.
“It’s more relaxed because you don’t have to worry about looking over your back. If you have a situation, you talk about it instead of someone trying to hype it up because you’re in your cell all day,” Darden says.
On average, inmates at Middlesex spend an average of 18 hours in their 80-square-foot cell with a cellmate. Darden says in the P.A.C.T unit, the unspoken rules of jail politics fall by the wayside. Inmates and corrections officers have casual and friendly relationships. Koutoujian says that shift in dynamics is all part of a plan.
“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 that, quite honestly, is supposed to replicate life more on the outside than a jail does,” he explains.
The unit includes a game room, library, barber shop and even a meditation room. These were once cells that the inmates have painted and decorated over the past six weeks. It also means more phone call privileges and, for the first time in 25 years, contact visits with family members. When 19-year-old Yasin Birgun, who’s serving an 18-month sentence on drug charges, hugged his mom, it was a defining moment.
“It was pretty awesome. I didn’t think it was going to make a difference. I thought it was only going to be like, ‘Oh, my mom’s going to love it or whatever.’ But when I actually hugged my mother, it was so different. It makes me want to hug her when I get out of here. She wouldn’t let go,” Birgun says.
In Bristol County, this kind of relaxed unit with more freedom and privileges is unlikely to be granted. There Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who announced last year that his jail would replace in-person visits with video conferencing, says his county is often cash-strapped and he’d rather see resources go toward early prevention with at-risk youth.
“I think it’s great that this experimental unit is being tried,” Hodgson says. “But I do believe, I believe if we want to stop this cycle of recidivism and increased dysfunction, it takes a lot more time to change people who are so far down the road, versus getting to these kids before they get through the front door and having them take a detour toward a more productive path in life, and I think that’s really what our goal ought to be in this country.”
The Vera Institute looked to Germany’s prison system as a model, which places great emphasis on rehabilitation and socialization for reentry. In Germany, inmates wear street clothes and prepare their own meals. They report to jobs off-campus. It’s a philosophy director Alex Frank is hopeful more prisons in this country will try out.
“They’re able to visit with their loved ones on the outside, and that’s a presumption rather than a privilege,” Frank says.
One of the other principles in Germany is a right to privacy.
“Their cells don’t have toilets in them. They have a separate bathroom. Officers have to knock on their door before walking in,” she notes.
This priority on dignity can be traced back to Germany’s constitution, which was drafted in 1949. The Basic Law emphasized human rights and human dignity — an effort to redress and prevent the Holocaust from happening again. Decades later, the country passed the German Prison Act, a bill that prioritized rehabilitation and socialization for reentry.
Frank says the United States’ criminal justice system could learn from Germany’s historical lens and apply that lesson to mass incarceration in this country.
“We haven’t done that with our history of slavery. It’s not part of our narrative and our history. What are we doing to prevent it from happening again?” Frank says. “How are we talking about and learning about that history when we think about prison reform in particular?”
It’s a philosophical question that the Vera Institute is tackling with its partners. In the meantime, some may argue that offering this much freedom to inmates is too lenient. But Frank says it works.
In Connecticut, which launched its own young adult unit in the Cheshire Correctional Institution over a year ago, Commissioner Scott Semple says there have been no discipline issues since the unit opened and corrections officers and inmates have mutual respect for each other. Officers now refer to inmates as “mentees.”
“It’s worked out quite well for us,” Semple says. “It’s not uncommon for me to show up at that facility in that particular unit and the staff would be engaged in some kind of program or playing a board game with a mentee.”
Semple said he won’t know the impact on recidivism rates until the next report comes out in three years, but in the meantime, he plans to open two more young adult units, including one for women at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic.
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, inmate Eric Darden and Corrections Officer Stephen Hall.
The Vera Institute is teaming up with other jurisdictions across the country, including South Carolina, to develop similar units. Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers have started to take up a compromise criminal justice reform package, which includes language that supports establishing young adult units.
In Billerica, corrections officers and outreach groups are working closely with inmates in providing support once they leave. It’s a learning curve for the Middlesex sheriff’s office, and Koutoujian knows the future is uncertain. But he’s hopeful that other jurisdictions are watching and will learn from Middlesex County’s experience.
“I’m really hoping people watch and see what we’re doing right. See what we’re doing maybe wrong. See what we’re doing to correct and then use some of those experiences,” Koutoujian says. “And what I’m really hoping for, most of all, is that this type of unit can be replicated across not just Massachusetts, but across the nation in jail cells.”