Jail, Sweet Jail

This has been excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New Haven Advocate.

James Griffin wears a kufi fitted snugly on his head, a big gold cross draped around his neck and a quick and easy smile that can twist into a smirk. He folds his hands together. Occasionally he crosses his arms, then uncrosses them as he listens to my every word, nodding in understanding. When he's pondering an answer, sometimes he'll straighten himself in his plastic stackable chair, leaning forward. Mostly he's relaxed, as if he's sitting on a chaise lounge at a sunny resort.

He doesn't use a lot of slang; his speech is clear, direct, no umms and aahs. At 21, he lights up, like a lot of other young brothers, when he talks about rap music. He likes to watch The Source All Access, a hip-hop TV program, on a 13-inch television that cost him close to $300. His favorite rapper is Jay-Z, but he likes Biggie and Tupac and even some R&B, like Ray J.

During his free time, he writes poetry, raps and prays at least once every day. He keeps his mind busy playing chess, passes the time with poker and keeps fit playing basketball and lifting weights.

"What it Takes to Be a Man" -- Sweetalk

Griffin's clearly the type of brother you seek out when you're having a bad day and need to vent. He's the one who stays calm when everyone else is losing their mind, tossing kernels of self-taught knowledge into the fray. "You have to be your own God," he tells me with resignation. "Every day you have to renew your history." Maybe it's the kufi that gives him an aura of wisdom and peace. The brother's positive with a capital P. He's his own "soul patroller."

His latest endeavor is obtaining his GED, tough for someone who, at 11 years old, threatened the mailman with a gun to prevent him from delivering a poor report card. He dropped out of school in sixth grade. He has no delusions of college.

Yet he finishes every sentence with a 100-watt smile. His motto is "it's great to be me." He says it smiling from ear to ear, leaning back like a king sitting on top of a pile of gold.

But he's sitting on a hard beige chair like me. We're in a small room with a glass window, and we're being watched. Closely.

This is Cheshire Correctional Institution, where Griffin has spent the past five years. I'm visiting him to talk about his life as a kid who was tried and sentenced as an adult in Connecticut. I want to know how these kids are doing and what they have learned about the system, about themselves, about life.

Connecticut law changed in 1995, allowing children as young as 14 to be tried as adults for certain crimes. (Previously, defendants under 16 were tried in juvenile court, regardless of the crime.) Six years later, the first batch of those 14- and 15-year-olds is entering adulthood and adult facilities. And some are thinking about walking away from prison as free men. (The one young woman tried as an adult in 1995 is no longer in the system.)

I wrote to 20 youths who were convicted as adults and interviewed -- without interference or monitoring by state Department of Correction brass -- the six who responded. Five were optimistic about their future, and spoke surprisingly positively about their prison experiences.

For Griffin, for other young men and teens I met in jails across the state, prison life is no picnic. But, it seems, it may just beat life on the outside.

"I wrote to 20 youths who were convicted as adults and interviewed -- without interference or monitoring by state Department of Correction brass -- the six who responded. Five were optimistic about their future, and spoke surprisingly positively about their prison experiences."
Almost all of them say they prefer prison to the streets glorified on TV and in movies. A couple were even grateful for the chance to redirect their lives.

In Connecticut, kids who are tried and sentenced as adults are housed in juvenile facilities, with more focus on rehabilitation and counseling than in adult jails. Kids with longer sentences are sent to the big house of adult prisons as young as 18 years old. There, young men are housed with older men, and, according to experts, the potential for bad influence increases.

All but one of the six people I interviewed are black or Hispanic. (Black and Hispanic kids are less likely than white kids to have private lawyers and more likely to be tried as adults, more likely to be sentenced to adult prison time.) Some of those I interviewed had a long history of juvenile detention and began their arrest records as young as 9 years old. After being convicted of murder, robbery or conspiracy, all had been through Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, most graduating to a series of prisons.

Often, kids charged with crimes have had "no guidance, no love, no connection, no engagement with life," and in prison they find individuals who care about them, observes former New Haven police chief Nick Pastore, who now runs the Connecticut office of the Washington, D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Even if the caring is simply that they need to be in their cell in 15 minutes. "They're so disconnected, even the harshness and treatment in the system is better," says Pastore. "It's a sad commentary on family life, parenting and the absence of the extended family. We still must do everything we can to keep them out of the system," he says. He doesn't believe treating them like adults is the answer.

In responding to my letters seeking interviews, the inmates seemed ready to talk, to let others know, and maybe to gain some notoriety and fame within their cell block. These kids committed serious crimes. Comparing their experiences with those of other young men I know, I could see how thin the line is between being a bad-ass kid and being a criminal. For young people with little guidance, criminal doings equal status and bring notoriety. One bad, bad judgment, one impulsive decision, one desperate attempt to be large can change a kid's life forever.

This is how their lives have changed.

Each cell block has only six showers for 60 inmates, James Griffin says. They take turns. Even when he was put in segregation more than two years ago for fighting, he was allowed an hour each day to shower. It broke up the monotony of staring at the walls.

Even though the commissary prices are inflated, he can choose from among Ivory soap, Dove, Irish Spring, Tone and--the most expensive at $3.21--Neutrogena. But no soap-on-a-rope; that has to come in a care package. The joke is not a myth; it's a reality. People do get raped in the shower, and inmates try not to drop the soap.

Inmates can order everything from an afro pick to thermal pants, shower shoes to BBQ corn chips from commissary. There are medical supplies, stationery, skin care and hair care products, candy and what Griffin describes as cheap electronics, "like Walkmans that burn out easily."

He orders rap CDs through commissary, but it takes three weeks for them to arrive. Griffin also complains that his personal mail is opened, read and the staples removed before it even reaches him.

On Wednesdays he does his own laundry with soap and bleach instead of having the service launder his clothes for him. "You can get crabs that way." After a while, he says, you learn these things.

In another life, before this happened, Griffin tells me, he would have been a music producer. Arrested at age 16, Griffin is five years into a 45-year sentence for felony murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery.

I can tell immediately that Griffin is uncomfortable discussing the crime that landed him here. I ask how he maintains his mental state during the drudgery of prison routine. Despite his efforts to stay positive, Griffin harbors no illusions about life behind bars.

The catch-22, he says, is that "Clinton got rid of the grants. There are no more free college tuitions. What I'm a do? Get my GED and then rot. I feel it's degrading pushing food carts through the hallway or fixing bikes," the only jobs he says he can get in prison with a GED.

Griffin does have moments of doubt. "I feel like I have no future. All my friends left me. I don't get no visits. Mail slows down." It's taught him to appreciate his family so much more.

When Griffin entered the system he was sent, like most juveniles in New Haven, to the Whalley Avenue detention center. "You get treated with respect at Whalley. Not here. Here, they treat you like shit," he says of the staff at CCI. He was sent to Manson Youth Institution until his 19th birthday, when he joined the adult population at CCI, a low-security prison.

Housed with other adults who are slicker than most, Griffin keeps his guard up. He's young, but insists he's not vulnerable. "I been on the streets. I knew everybody -- thieves, baseheads, dope fiends, thugs, murderers, rapists."

Griffin offers this advice to other young people who find themselves in the clink: Keep your inmate number to yourself. It's like the prison Social Security number -- your identity broken down into six numbers. If other inmates get your number, they can steal your identity, order stuff in your name.

Still, Griffin says, "You can live a real simple life in here. But on the streets you have to take care of business."

Miguel Zea: Making Plans

Twenty-one-year-old Miguel Zea and I don't have a long time to talk. And I might have to memorize everything he says. After I pass through three remote-controlled steel doors into a user-friendly waiting room, the female corrections officer behind the bulletproof glass does not want to let me bring in my pen and pad. She has me wait on the benches under a towering potted plant until she can get approval. Occasionally a CO brings an inmate through, his legs and hands chained. Black orbs stuck in the ceiling let me know that we are being watched. A glass case to my right displays official DOC uniforms, jackets, hats, even towels emblazoned with the state's symbol.

This is Oz -- Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers. It is huddled with a group of prisons just north of Hartford, where Zea lived on the streets before he was arrested at age 14 on charges of conspiracy and murder. At the time of the arrest, he understood that he was in deep trouble. It wasn't the first time. As a Solidos gang member, he retaliated against a Twenty Love gang member who'd killed one of his friends. His lawyer was able to get everything dropped except for the conspiracy charge.

Zea and I sit directly across from each other. Occasionally I hear waves of Puerto Rico in his voice. In 1989, at age 9, he says, he was picked up for the first time for criminal mischief -- shoplifting. His mischief quickly accelerated to guns and heroin by age 14.

At MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, one of the state's highest-security prisons, Zea's "celly" was a 30-year-old man who killed his wife and kids. "When I left MYI, I thought the adults would be smarter, but no. They're idiots. You can see why they're in prison." Zea soon discovered he had nothing to learn from them and pursued a different path.

"I'm a Muslim now," he says, sitting up, making his chest bigger. "Yeah -- for two years now."

He must have read my face. "There's Puerto Ricans and whites who are Muslim, but they're stereotyped as black."

He says he was with Los Solidos for 16 months while in prison. Then his best friend was killed in a gang squabble during the Puerto Rican Day parade. "It was a young punk trying to prove himself in the gang," says Zea of the killer. That's when he decided to quit the gang. "When you wake up, you wake up."

Zea woke up and earned his GED in 1998 and a year later began taking college courses looking to gain business experience. Right now, he tells me he's into real estate, but he's reading books on accounting, marketing and interpersonal skills too. He's currently reading Real Estate: When You're Broke and Bankrupt.

"Clinton got rid of the grants. There are no more free college tuitions. What I'm a do? Get my GED and then rot. I feel it's degrading pushing food carts through the hallway or fixing bikes," the only jobs he says he can get in prison with a GED.
With only two and a half years to go on his sentence, Zea has no plans to return to the streets. No plans to return to jail. "I seen so many people turn back. I was a knucklehead. I was arrogant, thought I knew it all," he says in our last moments together.

His advice for inmates approaching their release date: "They need an individual. When a plan goes wrong, you need someone to hold you up." That's why, now, he's in touch with mosques in the area. When there are guests during services or lectures, he introduces himself, makes contacts, for life outside.

Miguel Rodriguez: The Manson Routine

Corrections officers filter into Manson Youth Institution with insulated lunch bags slung over their shoulders. They're chummy with each other, not as grim as the officers at the other institutions. Rows of chairs face a concrete wall with a big clock and the all-seeing black orb I'm getting used to.

I wait for some time before meeting Miguel Rodriguez, who at age 14, with his brother and cousin, robbed a Subway in North Haven. A worker was killed, and the boys were on the lam for four days before they were caught. Now he's 20 years old, serving time for conspiracy and accessory to robbery in the first degree.

Rodriguez is tall, with glasses and a head full of dark curly hair, pulled back. The first thing I notice about him are his long and clear fingernails. He's pale, with a shadow of facial hair. Wearing a beige jumpsuit like all the inmates here, Rodriguez also wears plain white sneakers with laces. He's just finished taking a culinary arts program.

From the beginning, Rodriguez makes it clear that the attitude of the inmates at MYI has changed since a strict new female warden came aboard. Group counseling is mandatory. It's harder to get parole. Inmates are more nervous.

Rodriguez says he doesn't mind so much. He went through the new VOICES (Victim Offender Institutional Correctional Education al Services) program, which focuses on awareness of and sensitivity to victims. "Your victims are not the only victims," says Rodriguez. "You are, too. It helps when thinking about the consequences of your actions." Victims of actual crimes come into the facility and talk about their pain and loss to groups of about 15 inmates. Instead of revenge, counselors discuss other methods of dealing when a loved one gets hurt.

The programs make a difference, Rodriguez says. Manson offers programs in everything from anger management to culinary arts to auto repair. One rainy spring morning, I sit in on a drug rehab class where 13 young men (not including Rodriguez), sitting in what looked like large plastic toy chairs lining the edges of a trailer room, discuss what triggered their jones for weed. Most of them sit with their arms folded, shaking their knees, biting their lips. Besides their faces, the only thing different about them is their style of sneaker. Seeking the eye of the teacher, several of them raise their hands and throw out one-word answers.


"Smelling it."



Lisa, the teacher, exclaims over each answer, scrawling it on a chalkboard at the front of the room . Next to the chalkboard hangs a 3-foot-by-2-foot scroll of AA's 12 steps. The class discusses getting a sponsor, abstaining from romantic relationships for at least a year after sobriety and the importance of attending 90 meetings in 90 days. Some of the inmates aren't just recovering; they're learning how they affected others. One confesses he'd like to hang out with his grandparents more and tell them how much he loves them. Lisa presses him on why. He stumbles over his words at first, then spits out, "Because they cared about me."

Manson is remarkably clean and well-lit. Inmates are housed in units A through J, depending on their classification. Each unit has three wings, long halls with 12 cells each, six cells on each side. The hall is brightly lit though the buildings are aging, paint is peeling and the I-J unit has a leaky roof. Two inmates occupy each cell. It's a tight fit, especially for two strapping boys. The cells are about 10 feet by 12 feet, enough space to walk in, turn around and walk out. Two beds are attached to the wall, one over the other. Beds are made every day. The sheets are white. There is a stainless steel toilet on one end of the cell. There is no privacy whatsoever. Two trunks with property are stored under the bed, and also two TVs, one on a fold-out desk, the other on a shelf for the top bunk. A small stool is tucked underneath the desk. The window at the far end of the narrow room has horizontal bars. The door to the cell is operated electronically. Every inmate must keep his cell clean because of the close quarters. I'm told that all rooms are exactly alike. Once you've seen one, you've seen them all.

The entire unit has a circular common day room; the inmates eat meals there. A large banner over the room reads, "Helping Ourselves Through Every Day Living." Each wing leads to this large central room. Only one wing of inmates is allowed there at a time.

The unit eats in shifts. The room has cafeteria seating and smells of hot dogs, mustard and beans. A small kitchen on the right is where the food is prepared.

All new admissions are housed in D for orientation. Unit E-F houses general population level 4s -- high-security prisoners, including a couple of "lifers." A-B houses inmates who've been affiliated with gangs, with chronic problems, and segregated inmates. The really young kids, ages 14-17, are held in the G unit. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds are housed together in the same cells, but they can be in the same wing as 18-year-olds. Inmates who have not been sentenced yet share cells with other unsentenced inmates. Inmates with mental health problems are housed in unit C, while low-security inmates who have outside clearance (which means they take care of landscaping) live in the I-J unit. Those with addictions live in unit H. Once approved for a halfway house, inmates are classified as level 1s.

A typical day for inmates like Rodriguez: Wake up around 7:10 a.m., beds made by 7:30, on to morning meditation group to check in and organize the day. At 9 a.m. they split into separate group programs. The rest of the time they are working or in their cells. Rec time is from 7-9 p.m. Some of the inmates don't have to return to their cells until 11 p.m., because their job is to clean. Many of the inmates are grateful for the structure most of all. The group sessions provide a reason for them to get out of bed in the morning.

Some of these young men are fathers, and are learning parenting skills. They can sit and read to their children during visiting hours, giving their own kids the connection and guidance they may not have had. Even if they haven't seen their children for months, ask any of them what motivates them and they'll say "my daughter" or "my son."

Manson programs aim to get the inmates back on their feet and acclimated to the real world. In a small-engine class inmates rebuild a Kawasaki bike, a lawn mower and something resembling a plow. In carpentry class, where Gene Dufault teaches the basics of frames and small-box construction, they build a small house with electricity and a working kitchen. The culinary arts teacher ran hotel and restaurant kitchens. He tells the kids, "You're either going to be at the front of the house or the back of the house -- defined by the tattoos on your wrist."

Rodriguez doesn't have any tats on his wrist. He plans to work in food service when he's released. He also hopes to enroll in Naugatuck Community College, where he already has credits.

"I've done a lot here that I wouldn't have done if I was home," Rodriguez observes. He tells everyone: "Take advantage of the education they offer, because it's free and it will help you get ahead."

He says this so much, I think he must be brainwashed or working for the state. It's a far cry from where he was on the first day he entered Manson.

"My first day ... was kind of weird. It made me feel like a hardcore criminal. I felt like I didn't belong here." One of the hardest adjustments for him was treatment by the COs. He says they assumed he was "some young punk" and treated him accordingly. Once they got to know him and saw that he's not a troublemaker, he says, he got respect. He learned, "never let anyone take your material possessions, because once you allow one person to take something of yours, you will be labeled as a sucker."

The only fight Rodriguez says he had was four years ago. Someone wanted his sneakers and he wasn't giving them up. He had to throw 'bows to defend himself.

Jammie Mills: Been There, Done That, Doesn't Work

At 9 years old, he was arrested for arson. At 11 years old, he was arrested for robbery in the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven. He stole some kid's chain and sneakers. The older kids he hung out with taught Jammie Mills how to do it all.

Fast forward 20 years. Mills is now 31 and released from prison. He's a seasoned criminal looking to write his life story. He says he's been a "godfather" at prisons across the state. He was always housed in the gang unit.

The one-bedroom New London apartment Mills rents with his girlfriend is furnished with matching overstuffed chairs, loveseat and sofa. The coffee table is glass. The entertainment center is lacquered black. A CD stand shows his love for classic and new school R&B. He excuses himself for a minute and returns from the bedroom with folders of materials documenting his prison stay.

A New Haven Register article about his last crime (on the outside) at the age of 16 compared him to a "self-styled Rambo," shooting and running as he escaped after a spree of armed robberies. Like most of the other inmates I speak with, Mills didn't know what he was getting into at age 15.

"Jail is not a place for rehab," he says. "It's just a way to repay your debt to society. Only thing you learn is how not to get caught again." He says it took him a while to learn that "you're not going to beat the system. You're not gonna get caught every time but eventually, one day, it's going to catch up to you." He reminds me that one robbery netted him 20 years. He got away with many.

"What do you say about a 10-year gap on your application?" says Mills of the difficulties reintegrating into society. He believes the prisons are creating monsters. "There has to be another alternative to locking these kids up. People who get out want to come back in, because they can't function on the outside. You get accustomed to the routine."

To this day (he was released in 1999) he says he stays in the shower extra-long. That was one of the few freedoms in prison -- unlimited shower time. He washes his clothes in the shower sometimes, a remnant of his prison lifestyle. He uses toilet paper for everything. "In jail they would make picture frames out of toilet paper." And sometimes he has to flush the toilet "like, 30 times, out of respect for your celly."

Between gang riots, stints in segregation and conducting "hits" on other inmates, Mills said he made a name for himself behind bars. He never killed other inmates, he says, but he would stab them. He feels the system failed to intervene early on. "I was on drugs. Why didn't I get treatment? I needed a wake-up call. Why didn't they give me that chance?"

One time, he was released on parole. "Not thinking, I went back to selling guns. I was looking to make a profit. That's all I was looking to do."

Mills accepts responsibility for his crimes, but he says after a while it became a way of life, a subculture from which he couldn't pull out. He sees it happening to others. "Once they get out, it's hard to get a job, get back on track. A good percentage of them are not going to do what they say. I wish they could."

The studies support Mills' assessment. At least here in Connecticut, there is some effort to rehabilitate. But as I spoke with these kids, most of whom said they wanted to lead normal, crime-free lives, I wondered if, as Pastore suggests, early intervention could have prevented their desperate behavior. DOC officials say the answers are job skills, counseling and support. Yet, the trend among all states is to make it easier to try children as adults, as if punishment in lieu of a healthy childhood will save these inmates from a life of crime and can rid society of the fear.

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