Out of prison and then back in: This unique US programme aims to break the cycle

Participants are assigned to work crews and can only advance to more sophisticated job training if they go 60 days without an absence.

Rodrique Ngowi / AP Rodrique Ngowi / AP / AP

TYKEAM JACKSON’S SOFT voice and warm smile give little hint of how the 21-year-old spent his youth: in and out of juvenile detention and jails, leading a life in Boston’s mean streets centred on gangs and guns.

“I was always having guns to protect myself. I just kept getting caught,” he said. “I was hanging around the wrong crowd, being in the wrong areas, getting into the wrong activities.”

Over the past year, his outlook has changed. Even as a pending criminal case looms over him, he’s slowly gaining confidence that he can break the cycle that has entangled him — with the help of a unique organization called Roca.

roca2 Young men in the Roca programme join hands during a peacemaking circle session in Boston. Charles Krupa / AP Charles Krupa / AP / AP

“They’ve gotten me in the right direction,” he said. “Since I’ve been with Roca, my whole life has done a 360.”

Roca is a nonprofit that seeks to steer hundreds of Massachusetts’ highest-risk young men away from a return behind bars, using a distinctive blend of relentlessness and patience.

If its unorthodox approach works — and private investors are betting millions of dollars it will — it might show a path forward for other states and cities grasping for ways to bring down stubbornly high rates of re-arrest and re-incarceration.

“It was hard staying out of jail before I got with Roca,” Jackson said. “It’s because I didn’t have a voice. I was just another kid going through the system who everybody just wanted to brush off.”

Recidivism rates are highest for inmates who were 24 or younger at release — the age range of the young men that Roca works within the toughneighbour hoodsof greater Boston. Nearly all of them have arrest records; the vast majority are high school dropouts involved in street gangs.

They are, in Roca’s own words, young men “not ready, willing or able to participate in any other program.”

roca7 Derrik Pannesi, right, bags leaves as part of his job training with the jail alternative program at Roca. Charles Krupa / AP Charles Krupa / AP / AP

“My guys are not going to be Boy Scouts,” said Jason Owens, a Roca assistant director. “It’s Last Chance University for them. It’s either Roca, or jail, or death.”

Fred Patrick of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based think tank, said there are obstacles to these kinds of programmes.

“People say, ‘You did your time, come home, get a job and move on,’” he said. “And yet you can’t get a barber’s license, even if you did that in prison.”

Then there is the problem of “technical violations” of parole and probation terms; many former inmates go back to prison not because they committed a new criminal offence, but because of breaking a rule.

Staying out of trouble

That’s what sent Scott Rich back to New York City’s Rikers Island prison. After two stints behind bars, he says he was on track to put that way of life behind him and succeed with a $15-an-hour job when he was apprehended for violating his parole-imposed curfew last year.

“My girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and I was out past curfew just moving her car from one space to another when I was pulled over,” he said. “In that instant, that’s when everything just crumbled — everything I was working for, obtaining this job, staying out of trouble all that time.”

Rich, 23, dropped out of school in ninth grade and was arrested at 16 for armed robbery. He served 23 months at Rikers, then was arrested again in 2013 and served nine months in prison.

roca3 Scott Rich in Rikers Island prison in New York.

His first post-prison employment earned him only $150 a week, he said, because two weekdays were taken up with parole-related appointments. Eventually, he landed the $15-an-hour landscaping job, only to lose it due to the curfew violation.

Looking ahead, Rich would like to be a self-employed entrepreneur, but he is realistic about challenges he’ll face after his release. And he’s grateful that programming at Rikers to assist inmates with re-entry is “10 times better” now than during his first stint.

“Just get me up to the point where I can get my foot in the door,” he said. “Don’t just throw me out to the wolves.”

Transitional employment

How does Roca, which operates only in Massachusetts, help ex-offenders get their feet in the door to a new life?

It begins with dogged recruiting by its outreach workers, who sometimes make pests of themselves with a dozen or more face-to-face pitches at the homes and hangouts of their targets. Once a recruit agrees to give the programme a try, there’s a phase called transitional employment.

The newcomers are assigned to work crews, and paid the minimum wage for tasks such as landscaping and snow removal in parks. To advance to more sophisticated job-training, they must work 60 days without an absence — a goal that sometimes takes a year or more to achieve.

“The cops hated us when we first started — they saw us as a ‘hug a thug’ program,” said Owens, the Roca assistant director.

Chelsea Police Captain David Batchelor said his department now views Roca as valuable ally.

“Most programs, if you violate the rules, you’re out,” Batchelor said. “Roca’s the only one I know of — if you break the rules, they’ll take you back. These kids have issues, and just yelling at them is not going to get it done.”

Behavioural therapy sessions help Roca participants with anger management and conflict resolution. And, given that virtually all are high school dropouts, they’re encouraged to take academic courses that could lead to a General Education Development diploma.

They are also encourage to take part in what are known as ‘peacemaking circles’ to help deal with anger issues or to share their troubles.


“The first time I saw someone shot, I was in the third grade,” Ray’shawn Mohammed confided at one. “I was forced to grow up quicker than usual.” He talked about getting shot in the leg last year in a gang-related incident and faces possible incarceration on a gun charge.

“This place teaches you patience — and to be humble,” he said.

Trust no one

Indeed, Roca’s staff — for all the pride they take in their program — know it’s not foolproof.

Back in January, they introduced a visiting journalist to Derrik Pannesi, a poised 22-year-old who credited Roca with getting him on track after an adolescence filled with gang activity and multiple stints behind bars. Although the message tattooed on the back of his hands read, “Trust No One,” he acknowledged Roca was beginning to gain his trust.

Charles Krupa / AP Charles Krupa / AP / AP

“A lot of people, when they see someone like us, they lock their door or roll up their window,” Pannesi said. “At Roca, they’re not going to turn their back and walk away.”

Pannesi grew up in Cambridge, home to Harvard University but also to some gritty neighborhoods and gang activity. When he was 7, his father was shot dead while “running the streets,” he said. Within five years, he was mixed up with a gang himself.

It’s not too late,” he said in January. “I’m not in state prison; I’m not in a coffin like my dad. Now that I’ve got the chance, I’m going to take it.

But in late February, Roca had dismaying news — Pannesi was back in jail, re-arrested after police lodged gun- and drug-related charges against him.

He’s been locked up twice since he first enrolled in January 2015, and he was ousted from his work crew at one point before being readmitted.

Yet Shannon McAuliffe is impressed that Jackson has stuck with the program despite facing charges in a carjacking case and despite being targeted recently by a volley of gunfire from a gang rival that left him with an injured leg

“He might go to jail, yet he’s still showing up. He still has the fire in him,” McAuliffe said. “I’ll say, ‘You don’t have to be here,’ and he’ll say, ‘If I’m not here, Shannon, I’m going to die.’”

With its motto “Less jail, more future,” Roca aims not just to save young people from wasting their lives but to save taxpayers from wasting their money.

At the heart of the initiative is the high cost of incarceration compared to programs that curb recidivism. According to Roca, the annual cost of incarceration in Massachusetts is about $53,500 per person, while Roca’s program costs about $26,000 per person for four years.

“No business would be allowed to run as poorly as our prison systems are run in this country — the costs and the outcomes are abysmal,” said Molly Baldwin, Roca’s CEO and founder. “Some people maybe get to it for humanitarian reasons, but I think the country has begun to change over the past few years literally because of money.”

“It’s not magic, it’s not 100 percent. But we’re on to something,” said Baldwin “We don’t really care if you like us or not. It’s about, how do we get to know you — how do we stay on it with you until you’re’ ready to make the changes that we believe you really want to make in your heart.”

Associated Foreign Press
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