DOC launching unit for young inmates who are fathers

Similar efforts in counties show improved recidivism rates

THE MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION is planning to open a special unit for incarcerated fathers between the ages of 18 to 24, with the goal of helping them straighten out their lives and become better parents while in prison and once they are released.

Similar units have been launched at some of the county jails, but this is the first time the state prison system has decided to separate young fathers, who account for about a quarter of inmates ages 18 to 24, from the rest of the prison population.

Correction officials say targeting young male fathers makes sense because they are more likely to engage in risky behavior and have difficulty controlling their emotions. Their children, in turn, are at higher risk for involvement in criminal activity and are also more likely to face adverse educational and behavioral effects.

“An important part of our population is males between the ages of 18 and 24 who will one day be released. We have an obligation and an opportunity to take steps that bolster their chance of parenting success after they leave our custody,” said Carol Mici, the commissioner of the Department of Correction in a statement.

Rhiana Kohl, research director for the Department of Correction, disclosed plans for the special unit at a Monday meeting of a task force trying to decide whether people older than 18 should continue to be treated as adults or instead be sent through the juvenile justice system.

As members of the task force went around the room recounting what they had learned over 10 months of work, Kohl said the evidence seemed to show that younger inmates had “significant differences” from the older inmates, but she didn’t endorse raising the age for juvenile offenders higher than 18. Instead, she said, some of the inmates in the 18 to 24 age range should remain in adult prisons but be separated from the older prison population. Then she mentioned the Department of Correction’s plan to create an “emerging adult father unit.”

Map of Massachusetts state correctional facilities. (Courtesy of the Department of Correction)

The state applied for and received $675,000 in federal funding from the US Department of Justice to launch the unit, which is being called the “Prison Parenting Initiative for Young Adults.” With the grant money, correctional staff will receive specialized training to understand the developmental needs of incarcerated young adults.

The state program will encourage interaction between fathers and children using video conferencing, emails, and possibly even texting via phones. The state will also help cover the cost of transportation for children to make in-person visits to prisons.

The department issued a statement saying it will pilot a “special housing unit to foster a community supporting the needs and challenges of young men. …Lessons learned from this pilot program will be applied to an expansion within the DOC and, authorities believe, serve as a model nationally.”

No decision has been made yet on which state prison will host the initial young father unit, with department officials saying they are early on in the planning process.

The jails in Suffolk and Middlesex counties already offer young adult offender programs, and state officials visited those units to study how they work. These units are not specifically geared toward fathers,  but do include inmates who are parents.

At the P.A.C.T. unit in Middlesex, employees from McLean Hospital hold cognitive behavioral therapy sessions free of charge for inmates. Other organizations like UTEC and Roca offer programming pro bono.

Correction Officer Peter Gavin and P.A.C.T. participant Raphael Parkinson (third from left) give State Representative Paul Tucker (center) and Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville Bard (second from right) a tour of the barber shop inside the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction’s People Achieving Change Together (P.A.C.T.) unit as Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian listens. (courtesy Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office)

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian is so pleased with the results that he is thinking about expanding the program. “We were taking a risk,” he said. But in his eyes, the trainings for correctional officers and the different approach toward inmates is paying off.

Over 135 young men have gone through the unit since it was founded in spring 2018, with about 60 percent being held prior to trial and the rest sentenced. Koutoujian said disciplinary incidences have been much lower, and the one-year recidivism rate of 9 percent is “just remarkable,” compared to a former one-year recidivism rate of over 28 percent.

Koutoujian said the state is doing the right thing by opening a young adult father unit. “Everyone should be doing something like this unit, whether you’re in jail or prison,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked on this population.”

Inmate advocates are lauding the state’s move and hoping it will have an impact beyond the prison walls. In Lowell, UTEC provides education and workforce development support to formerly incarcerated youth. Much of its program takes a whole-family approach, including providing services to the children of younger parents.

“The emphasis on young fathers represents a really unique contribution to the field,” said Gregg Croteau, chief executive officer of UTEC. “It has the capacity to truly advance a two-generational and anti-poverty approach.”

Leon Smith, executive director at child welfare nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice, thinks the DOC move is a positive step. “We are encouraged by the stories of anecdotal successes that we have heard, but await data on outcomes for young men in these programs, not just during their time in the program, but their outcomes once they leave the confines of the unit,” he said.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

However, Smith, a member of the emerging adult task force, believes initiatives such as emerging adult units can be paired with an increase in the cutoff age for the juvenile justice system.

“Raising the age for older teens and better supports for young adults are not mutually exclusive premises,” he said. “I think they should, ideally, be deployed together to improve outcomes for young people and public safety.” In Vermont, 18 and 19-year-olds can be part of the juvenile system. Experts involved with implementing that change spoke to task force members in recent months.