District of Columbia

Young Men Emerging: Inside the DC Jail's Experiment to Prepare Inmates for Freedom

After more than 20 years behind bars, Joel Caston could be months away from freedom.

But at the D.C. Jail, where he’s being housed as he awaits final hearings on his request for early release, Caston said he’s already getting a glimpse of what his future life could be.

“Here, I don't feel like I'm in prison,” said Caston, who has bounced between federal prisons since he was convicted as a teen for murder in the 1990s. “This is the closest thing that I have for a community, and it’s in straight contrast to how it is in the [Bureau of Prisons].”

Caston, 43, is talking about Young Men Emerging, a mentorship program D.C. Jail officials are testing that pairs longtime inmates like him with the newly incarcerated. Started in 2018, the program offers group counseling, one-on-one mentoring, job training and educational programs — all to help prepare the participants for their potential release from custody.

“Every day I'm mentoring ‘younger me;’ other individuals who were confused, couldn't see themselves out of a dark corner,” Caston said. “I think that the work that I'm doing here, it provides me the platform to right my wrongs.”

The program has expanded in size and importance as an increasing number of longtime inmates like Caston are transferred back to the jail to seek early release through D.C. courts.

Under D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, or IRAA, people convicted of violent crimes before the age of 18 and who have served at least 15 years can petition for a reduced sentence.

The D.C. Council is considering expanding that measure to allow people who committed crimes before the age of 25 and who have already served 15 years to apply as well.

Supporters of the proposal, dubbed the Second Look Act Amendment, say it addresses historic mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affected young people of color.

But it’s been met with opposition from the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, among others, who say it would traumatize victims’ families and risk increasing crime.

None of the roughly two dozen men granted early release so far through the program have reoffended. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates hundreds more could become eligible if the latest measure is approved.

D.C. corrections chief Quincy Booth didn’t wade into the debate during a recent interview with News4, but said there’s a noticeable difference in attitude among longtime offenders coming to the D.C. Jail through an IRAA petition.

“They’re now able to be connected with their loved ones, their families, as well as … the resources that they actually need,” he said, adding: “They show up ready and they show up committed.”

At a recent group session, the crowd of male inmates and a handful of corrections officials talked about heady social issues as toxic masculinity and feminism, as well as more practical matters such as fiscal responsibility and budgeting.

“A lot of us are coming from traumatic environments, coming from traumatic households,” mentor Michael Woody, 43, acknowledged to the group as he explained the overarching mission of Young Men Emerging.

“We understand the street culture, which is, a lot of times, reinforced in incarcery spaces,” he continued. But “in order to change our mindset and to change our mentality, we needed a safe space, a therapeutic environment in which we can do that.”

The program may also help ease tensions inside D.C.’s jail complex, which houses a mix of populations, including longtime offenders, newly convicted inmates and pre-trial offenders. An internal D.C. government watchdog review of the corrections complex said that combination can be problematic, especially for those applying for early release after decades behind bars.

The February 2019 report by the District’s Corrections Information Council, or CIC, indicated some returning inmates reported a “stressful” environment in mixing with the newly incarcerated, who are unaccustomed to life behind bars or could be suffering from drug withdrawal.

The report indicated some of the returning inmates feared being targeted for assault, because they would be disinclined to defend themselves, lest it risk their chances at freedom.

Particularly for those housed at the central detention facility, “the impression received by the CIC from the interviews depicts a volatile environment that creates an unnecessarily stressful process for individuals to ‘stay out of trouble’ given the unique IRAA factors, which ask the Court to consider various factors, including disciplinary history,” the report stated.

But some who participate in the mentorship program, which is offered at both the correctional treatment facility and the central detention facility, said they’ve been shielded from some of those problems.

“In the Young Men Emerging Unit at [the central treatment facility], I haven’t faced any of the safety challenges,” the report stated.

Caston said participants in Young Men Emerging are cognizant of the terms they use in addressing each other. Specifically, they’ve eliminated the use of the word “inmate” during group and private discussions.

“It does something psychologically. As I observe the behavior of those who are in this space, when you call someone a word and give him that label, you will respond accordingly,” he said. “When I call my mentees a mentee or returning resident or returning citizen, then he will begin to behave and think like a citizen.”

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