A prison experiments with the young, reckless and neuroscience

Cheshire — Scott Erfe, warden of the 113-year-old Cheshire Correctional Institution, is a muscular man with a shaved head, intense dark eyes and a certain blunt eloquence. To a 20-year-old inmate with a habit of assaulting prison classroom staff, Erfe once asked, “What is your malfunction?”

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Warden Scott Erfe is hosting the experimental new Young Adult Offenders unit.

His professional world is divided among program and custody staff. The former are responsible for readying inmates to go free. Erfe (rhymes with Murphy) is the latter, a custody guy. Over 28 years, he’s been honing protocols and tactics for keeping staff and inmates safe and secure — and for taking back a prison when things go awry.

Despite all that, or maybe because of it, Erfe is Correction Commissioner Scott Semple’s choice to host a pilot project to test the notion that pretty much every 18-to-25-year-old inmate has a malfunction: A brain whose frontal lobes, so crucial to executive functions like planning and impulse control, are not fully mature.

A conclusion reached by scientists after brain imaging studies, this is not news to parents of adolescents. And it wasn’t shocking to the Connecticut Department of Correction. Inmates in the age group comprise less than 10 percent of the prison population, but Semple says they are responsible for a quarter or more of all disciplinary incidents.

“When you ask the staff to think about this age group, and I’ve been asking those questions for over a year now, they get it,” Semple told officers on their first day of a three-week training course for what’s been christened the Young Adult Offender program. “They get it — easily manipulated, very impulsive, problematic at times. We’re looking for something different.”

Graduation is Friday for the first 25 correction officers and counselors who volunteered to staff the new unit in the north block of Cheshire C.I. Originally a reformatory, Cheshire has expanded over the years and now is a maximum-security prison with a history of violence, a tight-knit staff and an unoriginal if evocative nickname: Erfe doesn’t just oversee a prison; he is warden of The Rock.

There is no precise blueprint for what they are trying to do. A few states segregate inmates up to age 25. Connecticut already houses most of its youngest inmates at the Manson Youth Institution, also in the town of Cheshire. The Young Adult Offender unit is intended to be a therapeutic community, mixing counseling, structure, and a measure of self-governance.

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Commissioner Scott Semple, a tissue in each hand, got out of a sick bed to address the first class.

“Your job is to develop some level of trust. Your job is going to be to create an environment. And your job is to change behavior. This is not going to be easy,” Semple said. “And what we are trying to do is give you these tools.”

One of the tools will be mentors, carefully screened lifers assigned to every group of 14 young adult offenders. Most are doing time for crimes committed when they were 18 to 25.

Semple says a better way to handle this demographic would make for safer prisons and a lower recidivism rate. With the support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who appointed him two years ago, Semple has taken advantage of a falling crime rate and prison population to introduce a series of initiatives to lower recidivism.

He opened four community reintegration centers that set a higher standard for intensive programming to prepare inmates for freedom, yet exposed the limits of what the rest of the system does to rehabilitate and educate inmates who often come to prison with little education or job skills and histories of addiction, abuse and mental illness.

Semple came back 18 months ago from a tour of German prisons, including one for inmates age 18 to 25, with the idea to dedicate an entire prison to the age group, not just a housing unit in one cellblock. The state’s fiscal crisis intervened, limiting his ambition.

“The budget thing comes into play,” Semple told the training class. “We cut over $72 million out of our budget, and there was no reasonable way that I could repurpose an entire facility and to invest in the training you need in order to be successful. So we went back to the drawing board, and we downsized.”

Training is being funded with a $346,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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James Vassar, right, says they need to stop the revolving door.

In a system with about 1,200 inmates in the target age range and 500 who meet the program’s criteria, the pilot involves only 70 inmates, who will live in five groups of 14. They are to arrive in phases, the first on Jan. 30 and the fifth in April. To make a difference, the pilot will have to be expanded after a period of experimentation and evaluation.

“Three things can happen. It’s a rousing success, and we celebrate. More likely, we launch, and we have to make adjustments,” Semple said . “Or it doesn’t work, and we have to scrap it. I think this will work, and I think the reason you’re here today is you think it’ll work.”

They are borrowing ideas from other prisons, in the U.S. and overseas. They are taking advice from researchers. One of the instructors is Alexandra Frank of the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal-justice reform group In New York City that has found a willing partner and laboratory in Connecticut.

“Connecticut is blazing a trail,” said Frank, who has been working in the field for a decade. She has a master’s in social work and says her initial view of young offenders came from the wrong side of the bars while she was a teen.

A petite woman with round eyeglasses, whose ear piercings are visible when she pushes back her hair, Frank held the class’s attention with statistics about the target demographic that probably did not surprise the officers, some of whom have 22 years on the job.

Young adults more likely to commit crime and be victims of crime than any other age group.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The first training class of 25 correction officers and counselors start with paperwork.

They are 21 percent of prison admissions, 28 percent of arrests and nearly half of all arrests for the most violent crimes. Their recidivism rate nationally for the demographic is 50 percent after one year and a dismal 78 percent after five years.

To work with them is to know failure, then try again.

“You’re working in this environment, you see it’s a revolving door,” said James Vassar, a correction officer at Cheshire. “You see a lot of the same faces. I’ve been doing this for ten and a half years. You look at it and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ There has to be a change.”

Vassar is one of the volunteers. He grew up in Waterbury, where he was an all-city shooting guard at Crosby High School, good enough to get a scholarship at Elms College in Chicopee, Mass., where he graduated with a degree in social work and became a C.O.

Frank asked the class why they volunteered.

Heidi Roberts, a counselor who used to work with pregnant teens at the Department of Children and Families, then counseled young men at Manson, has been working on risk classifications — a job reviewing files that left her wanting to resume direct contact with clients.

The new unit sounded like a worthy challenge, she said.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Alexandra Frank of the Vera Institute and Scott Erfe.

“I think it’s a long time coming,” said Lt. Ashley McCarthy, a correction officer at Cheshire.

Others in the classroom nodded, even if they were not entirely sure what they were volunteering to do.

“We had a lot of staff with a background in mental health, therapeutic communities,” said Kenneth Butrick, one of two deputy wardens who volunteered to work on the program. “We knew these would be the guys who jumped out front.”

There will be risk, some trial and error as they depart from standard protocols to deal with a population group that researchers say responds better to inducements than to punishment. Cell doors will be open during waking hours, a departure in a prison where inmates without jobs generally are out of their cells for only two hours a day for meals and recreation.

“It’s called The Rock for a reason,” Erfe said.

Erfe said no prison movie or TV show captures the monotony and menace of prison, especially a maximum-security institution with limited activities. The new unit will have programming from breakfast until lights out, with family members involved in programs, when deemed beneficial.

The warden said youth, confinement and inactivity is a volatile combination.

“I haven’t found a parent out there who says to their kids, ‘I’m going to lock you up for 22 hours a day. And those other two hours, I want you to be good,’ ” he told the class.

Erfe told them he’s heard the rumors about the unit. No, he said, they will not be working in khaki pants and polo shirts. They will dress in their black uniforms and carry standard gear, including handcuffs. But in a system built around a black-and-white rule book, the officers will have wider latitude on the inevitable disciplinary matters.

“We teach you to be black-and-white thinkers. It gives you a place to go when you are dealing with an emergency situation. You know how to handle it,” said Semple, a former Cheshire officer and academy instructor. “The 18-to-25-year-old population is a gray area in corrections.”

Their training includes the lessons learned about mental health at Garner, the maximum-security prison in Newtown with a special mental-health unit.  Semple and his predecessor as commissioner, James Dzurenda, each worked there as wardens.

An officer asked Erfe about the inmates, who will be chosen from a pool of applicants.

They are being screened for various risk factors, such as sex offenders and active gang involvement, but Erfe warned the officers that an extensive disciplinary jacket is not an automatic disqualifier.

“We didn’t want to take all creampuffs, wanted a little bit of everything,” he said. “That’s what we got.”

“What gets them kicked out?” asked another officer.

Any incident with a weapon, they are out, Erfe replied. But confrontations among the inmates will be judged as they happen.

“It’s going to be a case-by-case basis,” Erfe said.

The officers nodded.

Erfe personally chose the first inmate for the unit. He’s a 20-year-old with a record of assaulting prison classroom staff — the same one Erfe once asked, “What is your malfunction?”

The inmate arrived in the prison system with the designation of special education needs that meant he must be provided schooling until 21. He had told Erfe he felt pressured in classrooms, unprepared to take a GED exam being pushed by a teacher.

Erfe coaxed him to take it, and the inmate passed. The warden arranged a prison carpentry job for him, but the inmate then fought his cellmate, grounds for an automatic transfer to another prison. With the Young Adult Offender unit in the works, Erfe had him returned to Cheshire.

“This is your big opportunity,” Erfe said he told him. “This is what the unit’s going to be. I personally chose you. I think this is what you need.”

Semple thinks it’s what a lot of young inmates need. On Jan. 30, they will begin to learn if they are right, in of all places, a prison called The Rock.

You can reach Mark Pazniokas at mpazniokas@ctmirror.org or follow him on Twitter at @CTMirrorPaz 

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