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Youthful Offenders Program Reduces Violence at Max
By Michelle Alexandre, Adult Counselor, Maximum Security, RIDOC
Published: 01/24/2011

Student Rhode Island has one of the oldest operating men’s prisons in the nation. The Maximum Security prison opened in 1878 with a capacity of 252 inmates. Today more than 400 men are housed at Maximum Security. Over the past 100 plus-years of operation many different issues have arisen ranging from flooding and power outages to facility riots. The culture, backgrounds, and crimes of the men incarcerated have changed drastically over the years as well. Today an influx of young men, the majority of whom are serving sentences for gang-related crimes ranging from illegal hand gun possession to murder, has created a new set of challenges for prison staff.

In early 2008, a distinct change in the climate of the inmate population was noticed. Over half of the bookings in the previous year were of a violent nature and being perpetrated or incited by inmates under the age of 25. This subgroup of the inmate population (termed Youthful Offenders) was attacking staff and each other with increasing frequency, ganging up on each other with multiple attackers, and increasingly using homemade weapons in these attacks. Most had serious histories of disobedience, fighting, and gang affiliation.

Fights involving the youthful offenders were increasing in frequency and causing general unrest among the overall inmate population at Maximum Security. Once an inmate fight is controlled by Correctional Officers, a facility lock down is imposed until an investigation can be completed. This causes inmates to remain in their cells unable to receive visits, enjoy recreational time, participate in programs, or go to work to earn their monthly wages. Due to the increased violence of the youthful offenders, lock downs were going up in frequency and causing discontent within the prison’s general inmate population.

The escalation in fights and lock downs was noticed by many staff members at Maximum Security. One Lieutenant, Carl Burt, took the initiative to run reports focused on violent disciplinary actions. By comparing types and numbers of disciplinary actions from recent months with disciplinary actions from a year ago, he noticed the trend of youthful offenders being the perpetrators of numerous acts of violence against inmates and staff. This issue was brought to the Warden’s attention who determined a new type of intervention needed to occur to stop the escalation in violence. Simply giving segregation time for bad behavior wasn’t working to change the behavior of the youthful offenders. Once out of the Segregation Unit they continued to cause fights.

A multi-disciplinary board was set up to determine a resolution to the problem of increased violence incited by the younger inmates at Maximum Security. Members of the board included the Assistant Director of Rehabilitative Services, the Warden, and Deputy Warden of Maximum Security, the Clinical Director of Mental Health Services, Mental Health Clinicians, and the Adult Counselors of Maximum Security.

Two goals were established:
  1. Decrease violent incidents (short term)
  2. Increase the individual coping skills of the youthful offenders so they wouldn’t resort to violence to resolve problems (long term)

To accomplish these goals it was necessary to determine what made these inmates different from their counterparts. Those individuals most involved in the fighting were studied, and it was learned that the majority were under 25 years old, had spent most of their adolescent years in the Training School, had ties to gangs, lacked family support, were not involved in programs or educational opportunities, and spent almost all of their time in Segregation.

The Youthful Offenders Program (YOP) was created to target these individuals. This program consists of three separate classes: Self Change, Nonviolence, and Anger Management/Cognitive Restructuring. The classes are each 12 weeks long and cover material on nonviolent solutions, conflict resolution, impulse control, cognitive change, and building positive social networks. The entire program lasts between nine and ten months. The selection and enrollment of inmates is handled by the Lieutenants and Adult Counselors at Maximum Security.

One of the challenges in creating this program was recruiting and organizing three separate entities to provide the classes. Following up on their interest in working inside the prisons with young gang members, The Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence was approached by members of the multi-disciplinary board and asked to provide expertise in addressing issues of violence at Maximum Security. They offered to facilitate a 12-week program focused on conflict resolution skills. They also provided a facilitator who had previously served time at Maximum Security. Having a former inmate return to prison to help incarcerated individuals is not a normal practice at the RIDOC and is a revolutionary step for the facility. This facilitator has been able to establish helpful connections with group participants, giving them a positive role model and living proof that if they work the program, a brighter future is possible for them.

Anger Management was already being provided by AdCare Criminal Justice Services, Inc. to all inmates at Maximum Security. This group is run twice a week for 12 weeks. We were able to select individuals to participate in upcoming groups and integrate their program into the Youthful Offender Program. Self Change is provided by the RIDOC’s counseling staff and meets once a week for 12 weeks. All the group facilitators and program providers meet once a month to discuss the progress of inmates participating in the program and overall progress of the program. The entire program lasts between nine and ten months. The interviewing of potential candidates for the program, following up with them if they are struggling, and one-on-one counseling is provided by the Adult Counselors at Maximum Security.

The most important difference in the YOP program from other programs at Maximum Security is the participation of inmates confined to the Segregation Unit. The targeted inmates were spending a huge percentage of their sentences in segregation for disruptive behavior. How could we help them if they couldn’t leave their cells to attend group? This dilemma was the catalyst for an unprecedented venture at Maximum Security - inmates housed in the Segregation Unit involved in the YOP program were and are allowed to leave their cells, cuffed and shackled, to attend group once a week.

The inmates who were targeted for this program had the reputation for being undisciplined, unruly, and difficult to manage. When approached and offered the opportunity to change by signing up for the YOP program, all 36 said yes. These young inmates all wanted change and most importantly, to be given a chance to change. The fact that they wouldn’t be dropped out of the program if they misbehaved impressed them. This may have been the first time in their lives that someone had told them that they wouldn’t be forgotten if they made a mistake; instead they would continue to receive help, rehabilitative services, and be able to attend the YOP groups.

The individual programs consist of 12 inmates each for a total of 36 inmates enrolled at a time. The inmates are selected based on their age and disciplinary history. Inmates under the age of 25 with multiple inmate/staff assaults are the target population for these groups/ classes. One of the groups takes place in Max’s Visiting Room so the participating inmates from the Segregation Unit can attend. Inmates participating in this group are shackled and multiple C.O.’s help to supervise the group (and even participate in the running of the group) when needed.

The implementation of the YOP program has illuminated a lot of important information about the thoughts and struggles of this younger generation of inmates. Some powerful insights into their state of mind and thinking patterns can be seen when reading answers from a simple assignment:

What Do You Believe?
-“I believe that life will never be easy.”; “I believe I‘ve totally screwed up my life by all of my crimes of dealing drugs and I may never rebound.”; “I believe every time I do something good in prison the bad always outweighs it.”

A focal point of this program is impressing upon the participants that change is possible, support is available, and that their future can be different from their past. While they are enrolled in YOP, they participate in a meeting with the Education Department Social Worker who helps with goal setting, class enrollment, and applying for scholarships. When they are approaching release, a Discharge Planner meets with them and helps to create a comprehensive discharge plan.

These young inmates have been falling through the cracks all their lives. The RIDOC is making every effort to establish a solid foundation of coping skills, cognitive change, and support networks for them. These efforts have already produced positive results; overall disciplines are down and violence against staff and inmates is 10 times lower than prior to the advent of the YOP program. We sincerely hope this trend continues as we work hard everyday to promote positive change at Maximum Security.

Editors note: Reprinted with permission from RI DOC


  1. MomCheng on 02/05/2011:

    Thank you very much for this report. My son with autism has decided to have a research topic on youthful offenders in community college. I like to learn with him. Everybody needs to have Hope. It is precious to learn “the thoughts and struggles of this younger generation of inmates” (This can be the same with people with development issues). I witnessed a couple of neighbors staying straight after difficult youthful years in a small town in a Western state. One told me that he learned from a residential mentor program at the age of 15. My assignment for the elderly there ended short, but I saw some residents with Alzheimer’s can benefit from being encouraged even if they could not necessarily tell clearly their thoughts. Freedom is from inside. I look forward to seeing more of these young and hopeful folks have opportunities to “establish a solid foundation of coping skills, cognitive change, and support networks for them”. I hope that they continue to open up to counselors and all kinds of good books. Thanks to hard working counselors.

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