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A DC Jail Unit Challenges the ‘Warehouse’ Approach to Corrections

People don’t usually think of the word “community” when they think of a carceral space, but that’s just what we’re building. It’s groundbreaking and we’re humbled.

We are two founding mentors of the Washington, DC Jail’s Young Men Emerging (YME) unit, which seeks to provide a rehabilitative and therapeutic environment for 18- to 25-year-old emerging adults (our “mentees”), and we are proud to make the unit a national leader in the effort to do better with emerging adults in the justice system.

The YME approach is in sharp contrast to the typical punitive and dangerous “warehouse” environment found in most jails and prisons, and sadly even in some communities.

Recently we made history when the D.C. City Council held a hearing inside the YME unit. Both mentors and mentees were given the opportunity to submit oral and written testimony, providing an important lesson and experience in civic engagement.

On Tuesday, Columbia University in New York City will host the Emerging Adult Justice Summit, to discuss innovative approaches to effectively engage this population. We are honored to be participating by live video feed from inside the jail, highlighting the work in YME and sharing our experiences.

Editor’s Note: The opening of the summit at 9:15 am (Eastern) can be accessed via livestream here.

Historically, the justice system has arbitrarily set the age of adulthood at 18. Responding to brain science, developmental psychology and research which show that decision-making skills continue to develop well into the 20s, and as part of a growing national movement, the D.C. Department of Corrections created YME to better serve emerging adults.

The YME unit enables mentees to undergo a mental paradigm shift within a safe space.

In a video produced by the Unchained Media Collective (co- led by Halim Flowers, a former YME mentor who is now released), one speaker puts it exactly right: “This is the future of corrections.” (The video was produced in collaboration with the Justice Policy Institute, Arnold Ventures and YME.)

By blending mentorship, counseling, trauma treatment, corrective behavior measures and, most importantly, love and care, our community has a lasting positive effect on both residents and guests.

When the opportunity was presented to reach this age group, we didn’t have to think twice.

We were called by a sense of duty. By virtue of the wisdom we have acquired through surviving in a carceral space, including during our emerging adult years, we are perfectly suited to provide our mentees with guidance to choose a different path than we did. Living on the YME unit, we have been able to create a healthy ecosystem, that has resulted in the creation of a harmonious, welcoming community.

The YME is distinguished by the collaboration of all team members, whether DOC staff or mentors. It starts at the orientation process, when both mentors and DOC staff interview candidates and determine who will be welcomed into our community.

We also developed a creative and fun way to teach life skills such as accountability and responsibility: a YME banking system which promotes financial literacy and fiscal responsibility.

Joel Castón

Joel Castón. Photo by Marc Schindler

YME also partners with a network of community leaders, ranging from government officials to community organizers to philanthropists. These individuals provide words of encouragement, and also serve as resources for mentees and mentors returning to the community.

Efforts are now underway to replicate the YME approach on other units in the jail, and we believe our work can set the standard for the nation. We also hope to expand on this work upon release, implementing a similar approach to reduce violence in our communities.

We are confident that the YME approach can be emulated and expanded in jails, prisons, and even communities, which will not only reduce recidivism but also promote community camaraderie to encourage formerly incarcerated people to be productive citizens at work, active in the community and responsible at home.

Reforms must happen both inside and outside of carceral spaces.

In addition to the YME model, we should be considering other reforms, such as raising the age of jurisdiction and sealing criminal records. Most importantly, we should be providing a robust continuum of age-appropriate services, support, and opportunities for young adults in the community so that fewer young people end up behind bars in the first place.

The District of Columbia is developing such a plan now, and we are committed to turning it into a reality.

Michael Woody

Michael Woody. Photo by Marc Schindler

The YME approach recognizes that people can change, especially with the knowledge that emerging adults are not fully formed until at least their mid-20s. Armed with the experiences acquired during a combined 50 years of incarceration, we are uniquely qualified to work with policy makers and reformers to curtail the violence plaguing our communities.

As certified credible messengers, the skills we have gained on the YME would allow us to play a vital role as violence interrupters in the crime prevention strategy in D.C.’s neighborhoods.

It will make everybody safer to have us on the outside working with at-risk youth, having a positive impact through healing, community building and mentoring.

We’ve developed the model on the inside. Now we need to build on it to prevent violence and promote healing on the outside.

Joel Castón has been incarcerated for 24 years, since the age of 18. Michael Woody has been incarcerated for 23 years, since the age of 20. Joel and Mike are founding mentors on the YME unit at Washington, DC jail, and proud natives of the District of Columbia. They welcome comments from readers.