Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Middlesex Jail & House of Correction will include a young adult offenders unit as of February.

A unit specially designed for young adult offenders will open in February at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction, with existing space repurposed for people 18 to 24, Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said.

“The approach we’ve taken historically with this population is not working,” Koutoujian said in a Nov. 22 press release. “It’s not in the best interest of our communities, these individuals or their families to continue down this path. New approaches – based on scientific research and proven practices – are required for us to break the cycle of incarceration these young adults find themselves trapped in.”

As part of a review of the state’s justice system last year, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found 18- to 24-year-olds released from Massachusetts correctional facilities were more likely than older offenders to commit crimes again, with 52 percent of those released from houses of correction and 56 percent of those released by the department of correction re-incarcerated within three years.

Nationwide, 18- to 24-year-olds make up 10 percent of the population but account for 21 percent of all people admitted to adult prisons each year.

Over the coming months, staff members selected to work in the unit will undergo specialized training, a process will be established to identify and screen participants, and a finalized design for the unit will be completed, Koutoujian said. The facility, which is in Billerica, houses around 1,100 men, including those who once would have been held in the East Cambridge courthouse due to become a mixed-use building.

The Middlesex Sheriff’s Office is designing the unit with UTEC, a community-based program for young adults with histories of incarceration, and the Vera Institute of Justice, which recently creates a 70-bed young adult unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution with the Connecticut Department of Correction.

Koutoujian said the Middlesex County unit was “truly reimagining corrections. We believe this will be an innovative, cutting-edge unit that will change lives for the better.”

Middlesex includes more than 50 communities, stretching from Metro Boston cities such as Cambridge and Somerville to towns such as Ashby and Hopkinton in North Central Massachusetts. It encompasses some 1.6 million residents and more than a half-million households. And it includes Lowell, which has 13.8 square miles of land to Cambridge’s 6.4, but a similar population size, and has driven some of the current focus on young adults at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction as well as the coming changes.

Since 2012, members of UTEC’s Streetworker program have been a constant presence at the facility, meeting with young adults preparing to return home to Greater Lowell. When the unit opens, its initial focus will be on young adult offenders from Merrimack Valley communities served by UTEC.

But the impact of the changes will be widespread, officials said.

“This project goes beyond simply improving living conditions for young people and seeks to transform facility culture for everyone who lives and works in their facility,” said Alexandra Frank, senior program associate at Vera. “The Middlesex Jail & House of Corrections is transforming the current correctional culture to promote equity, accountability, restoration and healing – a goal we should all applaud.”

This post took significant amounts of material from a press release.