Andrius Banevicius / Connecticut Department of Correction
DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook and Gov. Ned Lamont speak with Ray Boyd, Abbas Mohamad, and James Davids III in the T.R.U.E. Unit (Andrius Banevicius / Connecticut Department of Correction)

CHESHIRE, CT — As he entered the series of locked doors at Cheshire Correctional Institute, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday’s prison visit was his first.

Newly nominated Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook joked: “We’ll make sure you get out.”

It was the sixth state agency visit Lamont has done over the past three weeks.

At the end of his tour Monday joked with a group of inmates that he’s only been governor for less than 30 days so they can’t blame him for anything yet.

On a more serious note, Lamont told the group that he was impressed with the work they’re doing to re-enter society.

“Whatever happened in the past I want to make sure you are going to have an amazing life,” Lamont said.

But Lamont was talking to an elite group of inmates who were handpicked for an experimental pilot program called T.R.U.E.

Part of the reason he wanted to visit Cheshire Correctional Institute was because that’s where the T.R.U.E. Unit is located. The program was created following former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and former Correction Commissioner Scott Semple’s trip to Germany where they got a glimpse of new rehabilitation models.

The program was designed for 18- to 25-year-old-offenders whose brains are still developing.

However, unlike the German system where the rehabilitation programs were run by staff, Connecticut’s program is largely run by older inmates serving longer or life sentences. Cook, who led the correction system in Utah, said that’s the biggest difference between this program and others.

Cook’s willingness to expand on therapeutic prison programming is one of the reasons Lamont nominated him to the post following a national search.

Andrius Banevicius / Connecticut Department of Correction
Gov. Ned Lamont (Andrius Banevicius / Connecticut Department of Correction)

There are 21 mentors and 64 mentees in the T.R.U.E. unit, according to Cheshire Warden Scott Efre.

There were 1,276 inmates total at the prison Monday.

Ray Boyd, one of the mentors in the program, said they were already mentoring some of the younger inmates in the general population, but the program gives them more focus because they all get to live in one dedicated unit under the same rules.

“It’s a gated community,” Boyd joked with Lamont.

Aside from being in a prison, the program is not an easy one to get into and the mentors were screened and interviewed for the job.

Boyd said they developed the curriculum for the program that compliments a 10-point re-entry syllabus.

Cook told Lamont that they are working now on developing mentors on the outside and working to get more businesses to come in and offer the inmates jobs before they even leave prison.

Erfe said LAZ Parking and Walgreens have been cooperative.

Lamont said he was meeting with Alan Lazowski, chairman and CEO of LAZ Parking, Monday and planned to thank him for hiring ex-offenders.

Boyd showed Lamont a certificate on a computer screen that they planned to give Lazowski for participating in the program.

The unit has a study room, meditation room, barber shop, and a computer room with two computers that don’t have Internet access.

Abbas Mohamad, one of the mentee inmates who is in the final stages of the program, said he uses the computer to type papers for classes he’s taking at Wesleyan University.

“It’s sad I had to come to prison to get a college education,” Mohamad told Lamont, who agreed.

Andrius Banevicius / Connecticut Department of Correction
Gov. Ned Lamont shakes hands with DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook (Andrius Banevicius / Connecticut Department of Correction)

In addition to connecting the inmates to mentors and work opportunities on the outside, they are looking for more housing opportunities.

“Housing is often an issue,” Efre said.

Most offenders have “burned all their bridges” with family and friends, and even if they do have a job when they get out, their status as an ex-offender still prevents them from finding housing.

How successful has the program been?

It’s hard to say because the program started in 2017 so there are no “graduates” yet.

However, Correction Lt. Ashley McCarthy, who supervises the unit, said she tracks the number of incidents in the T.R.U.E. unit and compares them to the number of incidents among 18- to 25-year-olds at Cheshire and other prisons across the state.

“The numbers are off the charts,” McCarthy said.

Overall 18- to 25-year-olds are responsible for 25 percent of the incidents behind bars, but just 0.5 percent come from the T.R.U.E. unit.

She said the population has a tendency to be impulsive because their brains haven’t fully developed.

In the T.R.U.E. unit, McCarthy said the inmates are more likely to receive tickets for not participating in a program or if their cell is out of compliance. She said they are much lower level incidents than those experienced in the general population.

She said the discipline following an incident is also relevant to the behavior.

For example, one of the inmates was rude to a person facilitating a group discussion, so their punishment was to lead three group discussions.

Boyd said the motto in the unit is “33 percent and a third.” He said the reason the program works is because the mentors, mentees, and staff each contribute “33 percent and a third.”