Inmate Thomas LaFrance says writing letters in his cell helps him meditate. He is seeking to enter the STOP program.
By Brian MacQuarrie GLOBE STAFF JUNE 25, 2016
WEST BOYLSTON — Antwan Stevenson has been behind bars, time and again, for a total of more than five years since adolescence. The 24-year-old has run with a violent Dorchester gang, several friends have been killed, and his father was shot dead in January.
“I have to change,” he said, sitting on a bunk in a 9-by-11-foot cell.
Finally, this father of three thinks he has found a way: an intense six-month program at the Worcester County House of Correction in which inmates confront the reasons they abused drugs or alcohol and the bitter consequences that followed.
The program is voluntary, its 36 participants must be screened and approved, and attendance is mandatory at daily classes that range from anger management to the architecture of the criminal mind.
No other county in the state has an addiction program as long as this one, jail officials said, and the support does not stop when these inmates walk free. Follow-up services are designed to make their progress more than a temporary change.
“I wanted to understand why I do the things I do,” said Stevenson, who was convicted of burglary. Only when he woke up in custody, Stevenson said, did he learn he had broken into a police officer’s home in a crime he did not remember.
“I don’t want to die the way my friends have died, in the way my father died,” Stevenson said.
For Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, the Substance Treatment Opportunity Program — or STOP — is designed to give inmates the mental and emotional tools to resist temptation when they leave this medium-security facility. By doing so, the thinking goes that their communities also will be safer.
“This is not about coddling anybody,” said Evangelidis, a former prosecutor and state representative. “But what we do is we meet people halfway.”
Results are encouraging.
The recidivism rate — which measures how many inmates are convicted again after release — is 26 percent for STOP graduates. For the facility as a whole, the rate is 40 percent after three years and 56 percent after five years, correction officials said.
“Enough is enough, you know?” said Edwin Ortiz, a 34-year-old from Worcester who is serving time for assaulting his girlfriend.
“I knew that I had an addiction problem, but I didn’t think I was an addict,” said Ortiz, who previously had been convicted for dealing heroin. “I have three daughters with three different mothers. In order to be there for them, I have to be in the right state of mind.”
That state of mind is being shaped in a stand-alone unit at the all-male facility, which houses more than 1,000 prisoners who have received sentences up to 2½ years long or have been detained until trial.
DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF
Inmate Edwin Ortiz said he takes the STOP rules seriously.
Although Ortiz’s cell has only a tiny sliver of natural light and a toilet without a seat, he and his STOP colleagues have more privileges than many other inmates.
There is more freedom of movement, for example, and there is a weight room. The inmates live in single-bed cells, instead of being double-bunked. But with those benefits comes strict responsibility. Classes cannot be missed, and instructors and other inmates must be respected.
Otherwise, a prisoner can be discharged from the program.
Ortiz said he takes the rules seriously. He pointed to a legal pad, where he had written this goal for the day: “Eliminate the negative and destructive people in my life. Just to keep my circle small and positive.”
The workload is daunting and immersive. Classes and meetings stretch over 12 hours — from about8 a.m. to 8 p.m. three days a week — and about eight hours on three other days. From discussions about anxiety, to coping strategies, to the framework of addiction, the inmates are exposed to the “why” of their behavior as well as the “how” of change.
At its core, the program insists on accountability.
Peter Kosciusko, the facility’s director of substance-abuse programs, said part of his job is to judge whether applicants truly want to change, and to weed out inmates who simply want better living conditions.
“I want to see the desperation and motivation,” said Kosciusko, who designed STOP in 2006.
David McCarthy, a Leominster hair stylist who completed the program and has been released, said he knows desperation.
“I was a miserable SOB,” said McCarthy, whose journey led him to crippling addiction and crimes to feed his drug habit. “The God’s honest truth is you have to be honest with yourself, but most people won’t do that. We don’t want anything jammed down our throats except for the poison.”
STOP changed that outlook dramatically. McCarthy said he remained at the jail for two extra months solely to complete the program. Its educational benefit is pivotal, he said, but so is the empathy that inmates receive.
“This is the first encounter they’ve ever had with an adult who didn’t tell them what a piece of crap they are,” McCarthy said.
The respect seems to be returned. At a meeting with Evangelidis, the inmates sat rapt and attentive as the sheriff asked how many believed they might relapse if they did not take the program.
DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF
Nearly all the STOP inmates in a discussion with group leaders raised their hands when they were asked if they had ever used heroin.
Every arm — white, black, brown, and most of them tattooed — was lifted.
“Being in this environment, everyone is considered family,” said one middle-age inmate who asked that his name not be used. “It’s one addict helping another addict. You realize you can tell your story, that you can shed a tear.”
Elsewhere in the jail, he said, “people will prey on that.”
Within the walls of the STOP building, the tough-guy persona has been softened with an acceptance that change is not only possible, but long overdue. It’s an attitude that means a former gang member like Stevenson, bespectacled and quiet, can lay back on his bunk and digest a self-help book by Dr. Phil.
There are no guarantees, but it’s a start.
“We can only give you the tools,” Evangelidis told the group, “and then it’s up to you.”
DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF
David McCarthy, a STOP program graduate, cut a customer’s hair in a Worcester salon.