Dressed in olive drab jerseys and pants, and hard at work inside a makeshift classroom, seven young jail inmates focused on the day they are free again.
Some, like Marvin, 18, slide T-squares along graph paper to finish architectural sketches of homes both real and imagined. Others, including Khalid, 18, who aspires to be an audio engineer, work on resumes and fine tune graphic arts skills on computers. And Anthony, 17, hopes to parlay skills he is learning into a college degree and a career as a chef.
"I want to do good when I get out," Anthony said.
That attitude was typical of the group of teens, who spoke during a recent class in the Suffolk County jail in Riverhead. Newsday agreed to not identify them by last name.
The large correctional facility may seem an unlikely place for teenagers to learn critical skills. But they, and the architect of the pilot program for youthful offenders, want to use it to turn their lives around.
"This has been my dream since when I first became sheriff," said Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who created the Youth Tier that helps transition young people from drug dealing, theft and gang violence to the pursuit of productive lives. The participants range in age from 16 to 19 and are serving time for offenses including drug possession, burglary and robbery.
"We can't just warehouse kids," DeMarco said. "We think what we are doing is right. This is unique in a county jail setting."
Program follows trend
The tier, established in September 2011, is the central component of a more holistic, less punitive philosophy of correction for youth. It is voluntary and taps the resources of a broad range of local social service and law enforcement agencies.
The program follows a national trend in states such as Missouri, Louisiana, Washington and California as well as New York, where juveniles are increasingly steered toward programming that helps them acquire skills to lead them away from a life of crime.
Unlike other programs, DeMarco's exists inside the adult jail.
The special tier in the Riverhead jail houses about 10 young men who receive life skills training, mentoring, gang prevention education, substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment and educational services including high school equivalency courses, said Kristin MacKay, director of public relations for the sheriff's department.
Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and a former correctional reform advocate on Long Island and in New York City, said Suffolk County is one of the first to incorporate social services while young people are still in jail.
"I think this approach is catching on nationally because the evidence is showing that it's far more effective," said Kaplan. "In places that have made a commitment to really investing in more counseling and job training, recidivism rates have been lowered and young people who exit those facilities have a much higher rate of success."
After being released, the Suffolk jail inmates can find temporary lodging at the nearby Timothy Hill Children's Ranch in Riverhead, which is building a home for them. Others will be housed at a shelter run by Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.
"It's a negative experience being in jail, but this is helping them refocus on what's important," said Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano (D-Brentwood), who recently toured the program. "These young men are not likely to return to jail based on the reinforcement they got while there."
Lower recidivism rate cited
As many as 73 young people have been cycled through the tier so far, and officials say they are impressed by their results. As of November, only five of the first 51 young men placed in the program in the first year had been charged with new crimes after release, a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent, MacKay said. A similar study of youthful offenders in the jail's general population showed that 101 of the 490 released inmates were re-incarcerated after a year, a recidivism rate of nearly 21 percent, MacKay said.
Some of the muscle behind the program is the Youth Re-entry Task Force, a group of 30 county agencies that DeMarco coordinated to support his vision. They include the Department of Social Services; United Way/YouthBuild; the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council; Suffolk County Probation, Education and Assistance Corp.; and Family Service League.
Most step in to provide transitional help to the young men embarking on life after jail, from pre-release planning to post-release assistance.
Roshawn, 20, was on the tier from September 2011 through July 2012. He was released from state prison several months later. He credits the Youth Tier for his ability to cope in state prison and for his success afterward. "It helped me control my anger," he said. "It gave me a purpose. I don't want to go back to jail."
The program is of little to no cost to the sheriff's department, DeMarco said. Nonprofit organizations donate time and resources, and some are soliciting grants to fund projects.
The young men in graphics arts class, for example, work under the tutelage of Talia Mochicliffe of Eastern Suffolk BOCES Brookhaven Technical Center, which funds the educational component through the Riverhead school district and derives funding through state school aid formulas.
"We want to give them their next connection to a career or a job," she said of the course, which includes graphic design, trademark design and even calligraphy to provide marketable skills to use at the moment they're released from the facility. "We try to create that link for them."
Marvin said the program has changed his life and he wants to pursue a career either as a pilot or a cruise ship captain. And he vows never to be behind bars again.
"I don't ever want to come back to jail," he said. "This opened my eyes to the reality of the world."