Sheriff’s Office Gives Youth An Inside Look at Life in Jail

The Daily Holden
By Daniel Castro

“I’ve lost everything I’ve ever had for wanting to have everything,” said Vincent, who is 24 years old and one of 1200 inmates in the Worcester County Jail and House of Corrections.

Speaking to students touring the facility, Vincent sketched a portrait of the childhood that led him to a life of crime — which was not necessarily the background that usually springs to mind.

Growing up, Vincent said, he always had the best shoes, the best clothes, and his mother worked hard to make sure he wasn’t deprived. Yet he was also told to “never get punked down” or let himself get bullied, and through the years, a series of assault and battery incidents and drug charges eventually put him behind bars.

As for the life he had built for himself on the outside — the quick money from drugs, his nice apartment and car, the girlfriend who said she would wait for him, and even his 5-year-old daughter — within six months jail-time, it was all gone. The visits stopped. The short cut to the good life came to a quick end.

As harsh as living in prison is, Vincent said what really bothers him is that his family is suffering.

“That to me is worse than anything,” he said. “When I get out, I’m afraid of how it’s going to be with the people that I love.”

Vincent was among four other inmates who told their story inside the jail on Tuesday to a group of students visiting from Reed Hillman’s Introduction to Criminal Justice class at Mount Wachusett Community College.

Mike, 22, saw promising basketball scholarships fall apart after he “got deep into the game” of drug-dealing. While he had liked the street life, even its dangers, he now thinks about his 2-year-old son that he can’t be with on the holidays.

“This will be the second Thanksgiving that I’ll miss, the second Christmas, because I wanted to sell crack,” he said.

Dave, 35, said if people looked at the family he came from, they wouldn’t think he would have ended up in jail seven times. Getting involved with the wrong people, his first arrest was for carjacking at the age of 17. Since then he has been in and out of prison for drug dealing, and says an addictive personality and continued drug and alcohol use has caused him “to grow into the monster that I am.”

Josh, now 22, was only in eighth grade when he and his fellow gang members were caught with seven guns. Continuing down the wrong path for its momentary benefits, he remembers driving around in a bright flashy Cadillac with “snowballs of cocaine in bags” as an 18-year-old drug dealer.

In jail, however, it’s the little things he misses: yogurt, soda, sleeping on a nice mattress. He can’t even use the bathroom in privacy.

“This place isn’t worth it,” he said.

Each man came from various backgrounds, facing different challenges and having a slew of chances and opportunities. But while all of their stories differed, they all found themselves in the same place, wishing they had done things differently.

Now, however, the men have been working to maintain sobriety and toward getting time off their sentences through good behavior, work release programs, and by volunteering to speak to tours of students and at-risk youth.

While Tuesday’s guided tour of the facility was focused on giving kids with an interest in criminal justice an inside look at the world of corrections officers, Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis recently announced that the Sheriff’s Office will be offering its own version of the well-known Scared Straight Program as well.

In both versions of the tour, youths are escorted by Officer Robert Ovian through the prison to see first-hand what life is like behind bars. After going through the facility, they see a presentation by a hand-picked group of inmates who share their stories on how poor choices led them to incarceration.

In the Scared Straight! program, the main focus of the presentation is on how bad decisions and criminal behavior leads to serious consequences and impacts their families.

“We will take any family, individual, or person in need, and give them a tour to help straighten them out,” said Evangelidis. “We’ve heard tremendous stories of kids that have come in here heading down the wrong path, and within a semester, their grades have improved and their behavior is changing. So I think the people are realizing that life choices have consequences.”

Since the documentary “Scared Straight!” first aired in 1978, states have made use of the program in order to dissuade youths from turning to a life of crime by introducing them to prisoners and the world of a prison system.

Ovian, who gave the tour on Tuesday, explained that while the Scared Straight! programs that have been shown on television often “go way over the top,” he tries to tailor every presentation depending on the kid.

“I talk to the parents first,” he said.

For instance, if it is for a decent kid who has made some poor choices, but is respectful to his parents, the presentation is made less dramatic. The youths still get an unwatered-down glimpse of how tough prison life is, but Ovian’s interaction with them leans more toward fatherly advice.

Yet when a kid is disrespectful, and the situation calls for it, Ovian does get more face-to-face.

For instance, he explained how sometimes when the kid walks into the room where the prisoners will be sharing their stories, he has the inmates surround them, just to intimidate.

“How do you feel about that?” He asks them, and typically, they say they don’t like it.

“That would be what your first day in the block is like,” he tells them, helping them understand what might await them.

Running the tour since January, Ovian said that he has already heard about the successes of the program. The officer recalled a letter he had received from one troubled youth’s grandmother, telling him that after the kid left the presentation, he started to turn his life around and came home with a report card filled with A’s and B’s.

While nationally, there has been criticism over whether the program is effective, Evangelidis said “you have to look at a program like this and say, first of all, it can’t hurt, and some kids are ripe for this message.”

Evangelidis said there are kids who may not have thought through how every daily decision could affect the course of the rest of their lives.

“You hear inmates say they started off smoking marijuana, and they thought it wouldn’t go anywhere, but then you can see how it can lead to here,” said Evangelidis. “I just want parents or schools who have early high school kids who they think are heading down the wrong path, to maybe try to find a way to wake them up a little bit. And from what I can tell, the message is received by many that come through here.”

Furthermore, as tours can be modified to accommodate groups of students that may be interested in the criminal justice field as well, the impact of the presentation is far-reaching.

“They can be either educational, or they can discourage people from making bad choices,” said Evangelidis. “I can’t imagine anyone walking through the gates and wanting to come back, ever. And if you can relate to any of those inmates, one of them might just get through to you. And hopefully anyone that was considering making some bad choices would think twice after they’ve been here.”

The WCSO tour coordinator will work with school faculty, administration or a parent to set-up a group or individual tour that will fit their needs. Those interested in learning more about this program or setting up a tour are encouraged to contact Annie O’Toole at (508) 854-1801 or aotoole@sdw.state.ma.us.