A program that houses long-term incarcerated individuals together with younger ones offers an alternative model of incarceration centered on education, personal growth, and transformation, and has helped foster an unprecedented “culture change” in the Washington, D.C. jail, according to a recent report issued by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI).
When the program began in February 2018, it was one of just nine programs around the country targeted at “emerging adults” in the criminal justice system – a population aged between 18-24 who are considered at high risk of recidivism.
In the Young Men Emerging (YME) unit, the individuals serving longer terms mentor the emerging adults, rehabilitate and empower them, help them navigate the criminal justice system, and, in the process, prepare them for their next steps – whether it be returning to the community or being placed in a federal facility.
The unit provides emerging adults with individualized education, financial literacy and budgeting classes, paid jobs within the facility, and even barbering training, according to a report on the program issued by JPI.
“The YME made us feel human,” one mentor was quoted as saying in the report. “It gave us a full sense of dignity and it showed that people can have this tremendous sense of love.”
Tyrone Walker, a former YME mentor and one of the report’s authors, told The Crime Report that unlike in the rest of the Washington, D.C. jail, “the doors don’t lock on the YME.”
This meant that “our mentees had 24/7 access to us. Even in the middle of the night, mentees had bad dreams…because of being traumatized early on in life. They would knock on our door. We talked to young men at 2:30 in the morning.”
The report, believed to be the first of its kind to be authored by currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, was also written by Michael Woody and Joel Castón, both of whom remain incarcerated. Walker is now an associate at JPI.
All three men helped found the unit over two years ago.
The experience offered at the YME unit is starkly different from what the majority of young adults face while in the facility.
For example, mentors and mentees have been able to advocate for reform to the criminal justice system. They participated in a March 2019 hearing held by the D.C. Council on sentencing legislation, and a stakeholder meeting in November 2019 on D.C.’s Youth Rehabilitation Act Strategic Plan.
According to JPI, the unit “added a critical voice to the policy conversation that too often has been ignored.”
In the unit, mentors stress “people-first language,” using “community” instead of “unit,” “team members” instead of “correctional officers,” and “mentees” instead of “inmates.”
Staff and mentees can choose to wear non-prison uniforms, the walls are painted with bright colors, and mentees can personalize their rooms with photographs, art, and messages.
A second report, issued simultaneously by JPI, painted a bleak picture – noting that not only are emerging adults disproportionately represented at all stages of Washington, D.C.’s criminal justice system, but the population of justice-involved emerging adults is disproportionately comprised of people of color.
One in 18 District of Columbia residents are Black young adults, yet they account for a striking one in five arrests and one in three individuals sentenced to prison.
Even worse, “there are seldom opportunities for the age-appropriate services and supports that have been proven to deliver better returns than mere incarceration,” according to the report.
The traditional approach in D.C. has produced negative outcomes for justice-involved individuals, is inconsistent with science, and is punitive on young adults “beyond any public safety benefit,” the report said.
“We could hardly do worse,” Marc Schindler, executive director of JPI, said of D.C.’s justice system in an interview with The Crime Report.
In contrast to D.C.’s current approach, YME participants were given a sense of empowerment, as demonstrated by two stories that Tyrone Walker shared with The Crime Report.
First, the mentors advised staff that they should remove from the unit a disruptive mentee.
When the staff refused, Wanda Patten, deputy director of operations at the D.C. Department of Corrections, visited the unit.
Patten said the mentors knew best and that their decisions would govern.
In the second story, signaling the start of what Walker and others called a “culture change” at the D.C. jail, Patten and Quincy Booth, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, organized a roundtable discussion between themselves and the mentees.
Booth and Patten asked, among other things, which changes the mentees wanted to see in the YME unit.
“They sat and listened to everything,” Walker said.
Walker explained that after the first story, he knew that the mentors had a voice in the unit; and after the second story, he concluded that the mentees knew they had one, too.
Going forward, Walker wishes that more age-appropriate resources, vocational training, and educational opportunities will be available to emerging adults behind bars.
To this end, he is working to establish a unit similar to the YME in a jail in Maryland.
At the very least, Walker hopes his work in the YME unit has made clear that “we can do more for our young adults in the community than we can in any sort of prison or jail setting.”
Schindler told The Crime Report that he hopes the progress made in Washington, D.C. can serve as a model for the nation.
More of JPI’s research initiatives and deliverables can be accessed here.
See also: “A DC Jail Unit Challenges the Warehouse Approach to Corrections,” by Joel Castón and Michael Woody, The Crime Report, June 11, 2019
Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.