Two days ago, I received an article entitled quote, “How Scott Semple Helped Turn Connecticut’s Prisons Into a Nationally Recognized Laboratory of Reform,” end quote, which was posted @wwdotconnecticutmag.com. I had just come back to my cell after my last college class, when I began to read the article. Halfway through the article, I got so excited, I almost couldn’t finish reading it. I started to write several letters to people I wanted to tell about the article. I felt the need to take action, but I forced myself to finish the article and to think.
What had me so excited is that in 2017, the Connecticut Department of Corrections, working with Vera Institute of Justice, started a pilot program dedicated to creating a better prison environment for young prisoners. Cheshire Correctional Institution was selected as the spot for the program, which is called the TRUE unit, an acronym for: truthfulness to oneself and others, respectfulness toward the community, understanding ourselves and what brought us here, and elevating into success.
The TRUE unit opened with fewer than 20 men. What’s remarkable about TRUE is the fact it uses older prisoners as mentors for the younger prisoners on the unit. TRUE’s success is reported to be due to this mentorship aspect, because the younger prisoners relate better to the older prisoners than they do to the guards. I’ve known this for 20 years. It has been my vision since 2008 to create such a program here within New York state prisons. This is why I founded UFD back then.
In 2018, I sought official recognition and approval of UFD. In my proposal I wrote quote, UFD will implement a mentoring program. Older members will be recruited as positive role models, mentors, and big brothers, especially former gang members, like the writer, who will advise, counsel and instruct younger members. These older members will work with facility staff to make sure younger members participate and complete their mandatory programs and to mediate potential problems between younger members and others, end quote.
At the time I wrote this, I haven’t heard about TRUE. In fact, on my own, I have been acting as a mentor to several young prisoners through UFD since 2008, pre-dating TRUE. The New York State Department of Corrections and Communities Supervision rejected my proposal partly because I recommended that young- younger participants in my program be housed together with their older ment– their older mentors. I’m gonna say that over. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision rejected my proposal partly because I recommended that younger participants in my program be housed together with their older mentors. They said my recommendation quote, raises a level of concern for inmates to make such a request, end quote.
What I recommend is what is done in Cheshire Correctional Institution, where younger TRUE participants are housed together with their older mentors as well. In two years, there hasn’t been a single fight on the TRUE unit, and virtually no other incidents. And the program has now been expanded at Cheshire and other States have launched pilot programs modeled after TRUE. UFD was ahead of its time. And New York is passing up a perfect opportunity to decrease prison violence by giving UFD and I a chance. UFD is the original TRUE.
Prison officials in New York may not want to acknowledge that a mere prisoner beat them to the punch, but I’ve been working to mentor younger prisoners and steered them right for years. And I am the first to recommend, in New York, a program like TRUE, before I even knew TRUE existed. My question is, if New York is so progressive, then when will its prison system catch up with the rest of the world?
This is Dontie S. Mitchell, better known Mfalme Sikivu, reporting to you from Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York. Follow me on Facebook @freeDontieMitchell. Thank you for listening, and God bless.
(Sound of a cell door closing.) These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.