Cheshire — Isschar Howard was 20 the night he shot and killed two young men who challenged his right to sell drugs on a corner in New Haven. He’s a 37-year-old lifer now, recently trained as a mentor to young inmates. The governor of Connecticut dropped by his cell Monday, shook his hand and thanked him for his work.
In a century-old maximum-security prison with a grim history, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy glided through a cellblock once used for administrative segregation, a place where the violent and defiant once were placed in solitary. Since Jan. 30, the cellblock has been home to a new unit for the most disruptive demographic in prison, inmates ages 18 to 25.
It’s a pilot program the Department of Correction designed in a partnership with Vera Institute of Justice, modeled on a prison for young adults in Germany, research by academics and the ideas of correction staff. Using Isschar Howard and other lifers as mentors to young inmates was suggested by the warden, Scott Erfe.
The unit eventually will have 70 inmates — five groups of 14, each with two mentors.
Davon Eldemire, 23, who is doing 14 years for shooting a Bridgeport market owner in the leg, told the governor the new unit was beautiful.
“Beautiful?” Malloy repeated, puzzled.
“Beautiful. I use the word beautiful, because this is a big change. It’s a change of being me,” Eldemire said.
Correction Officer James Vassar, one of the first class of 25 officers and counselors trained for the unit, said Eldemire and Albert Dickson, 25, another inmate on the cell block doing time for a shooting, were from rival factions in Bridgeport, a bit of intel that in other circumstances might mean a different prison for one of them. Here they are cellmates.
“We’re working on a business plan,” Dickson said, smiling. Their idea is a dirt bike track for Bridgeport, a place for the ATVs that now illegally speed through the city streets. They have time to work out the details. Locked up since he was 19, Dickson has another 18 years to serve on an assault conviction for shooting and wounding a man.
Correction officials said the unit has not had a disciplinary incident in its first six weeks, a good start for a demographic that comprises about 10 percent of the prison population, but is responsible for 25 percent of the disciplinary incidents.
One of the metrics being tracked to judge the unit’s worth is disciplinary incidents. Commissioner Scott Semple believes a smarter way to handle young adults will reduce violence in the prisons, better for staff and inmates. Over the longer term, with intense days of counseling, classes and other activities, the hope is to reduce recidivism.
On Monday, Malloy helped dedicate the new unit in a brief ceremony in a dingy auditorium where the sun shone through the bars over high windows, the ceiling was stained with water and the paint peeled. Only the aluminum benches bolted to the floor were new.
Malloy mentioned that 95 percent of all inmates eventually go free, the statistic that he says makes the best case for making prison a place of rehabilitation.
“The mistakes that they have made in their lives should not be a permanent sentence for failure,” Malloy said.
Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told the audience that the Connecticut Department of Correction under Semple was one of the think tank’s great partners for finding better ways to prepare inmates to succeed once they are released.
By Malloy’s count, this was his 18th visit to a prison. He attended the opening of all four community reintegration centers Semple has opened in the past two years for inmates nearing their release.
After mingling with the inmates in the cell block, he sat down in the gym with John Pittman, 63, who has been in prison for 32 years after being convicted of killing his wife, and three of the young inmates Pittman and other lifers are mentoring: Dickson, Eldemire and Christopher Belcher.
“There are a lot of things I learned from this experience, this program,” Belcher said. “I learned to challenge my values. What do I really value in life — what’s good to value or not good to value?”
Pittman, who says the lifers went through rounds of interviews to be accepted for training as mentors, told Malloy the program is unlike anything he’s seen in prison: Staff and inmates are working in tandem on common goals, no longer us against them. He called it “the ability to be human, to put down their guard.”
The difference, he said, is evident in the small moments, the small interactions with correction officers.
“Shake your hand?” Pittman said. “That was unheard of back in the day.”