Gov. Ned Lamont (right) visits the T.R.U.E. unit with then DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook in February, 2019. (Courtesy CT DOC)

Several inmates in the nationally acclaimed state Department of Correction T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire Correctional Institution were placed in restrictive housing last week after a search revealed they had marijuana, according to agency officials.

An investigation is underway as to how the inmates obtained the contraband, DOC officials said. Inmates in state prisons have not been allowed to have face-to-face contact with visitors since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.

The marijuana was discovered by facility staff last Wednesday, Karen Martucci, the agency’s director of external affairs, said. “The discovery has launched an investigation to determine the origin of the drugs and has since resulted in the placement of several inmates in restrictive housing,” Martucci said. “The majority of those inmates were mentees from the T.R.U.E. unit.”

Martucci declined to say if any staff members were under investigation as part of the incident or what repercussions the inmates could face as a result of the discovery. “At the conclusion of the investigation, decisions will be made about the status of those deemed culpable,” Martucci said.

Martucci said she could not give further details due to the fact it may interfere in the criminal investigation into the “serious breach” of prison protocols. The state police have been contacted, Martucci said.

Between a dozen and 15 inmates were placed in restrictive housing, according to sources.

The unit is known for its curriculum which pairs mentors who are doing long or life sentences with young men in the hopes of encouraging them to rehabilitate. However, the programming and mentoring have essentially been put on hold during the pandemic, family members of those in the unit said.

“This is what happens when you lock people up for 22 hours a day and take away programming, mentoring and family engagement for nearly a year. And how does contraband get in during a pandemic?” asked Deb Martinez, whose brother Isschar Howard serves as a T.R.U.E. mentor. “This goes to show that when the T.R.U.E. unit is in operational status, it works.”

Howard and 60 others in the unit were not implicated in the discovery of the marijuana.

“Someone at Cheshire is bringing in drugs and taking advantage of the position of those who are incarcerated and recovering from addiction,” Martinez said. 

Through Martinez, Howard said that mentoring and programming needs to resume in some fashion. “Mentors have been saying for months that mentees are struggling and need the program to get back up and running even in a modified form,” he said.

The discovery of the contraband has rocked family members of the young men incarcerated in the unit who want to know how the drugs got into the facility.

The news comes about 10 days after the success of the unit was highlighted by a judge’s decision to modify the sentence of Clyde Meikle, an inmate serving 50 years who was granted an early release in 2022 based on his good works and stellar record of seeking educational opportunities at every turn.

Meikle is one of several “lifers” who mentor young inmates in the T.R.U.E. unit in the hopes of encouraging them to rehabilitate. The specialized unit opened in 2017 with the support of then-DOC Commissioner Scott Semple and Gov. Dannel Malloy as a program specifically designed to give inmates ages 18 to 25 the tools for rehabilitation and success in the community when they are released.

Meikle and other mentors helped shape the program which gives the young inmates intensive therapy and support to make better decisions through learning opportunities and incentives. The unit was featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” as a beacon of hope that could lead to the transformation of incarceration.  

The name of the unit, “Truthfulness, to oneself and others, Respect, toward the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here and Elevating to success” describes the curriculum of the program, focusing on character development and the tools for success through mentorship.

“It is disappointing to see an incident such as this unravel in this specialized unit,” Martucci said.

The unit has had both stunning successes and sobering setbacks in the four years since its inception. Meikle was hailed as a founding member who went on to receive his bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. He will be released after serving 28 years of a 50-year sentence.

Shyquinn Dix, a former inmate who was featured on “60 Minutes” was arrested in August following an alleged assault. Dix was able to get a sentence reduction and go to the University of Maine at Presque Isle based on his record as a graduate of the unit. The assault case is pending, according to the Judicial Branch website.

In the meantime, Dix is at school in Buffalo, New York, and doing well, his attorney said. “Shyquinn continues to truly excel and thrive,” Attorney Matthew Maddox said. “He continues to be a leader amongst his peers and a model both academically and athletically.”