By: Melissa Hanson @ MassLive
Jose Nieves has been in and out of jail since he was 11 years old. But now, through a program that has taught him about how to handle his anger among other skills, he may not come back again.
“I’ve got to say, it’s been a long journey,” Nieves told counselors, Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis and more than a dozen of his peers. “Before I came to this program, I didn’t know anything about core beliefs.”
Nieves, 41, said that nearly everyone in the program grew up in a tough environment, many in broken homes, and followed a path that led them in the wrong direction.
But being in the STOP program has helped Nieves put himself in the shoes of others.
“It changes your outlook on things,” he said.
The group of inmates in burgundy jumpsuits nodded silently as they listened.
STOP, the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction’s Substance Treatment Opportunity Program, gives prisoners who have put in their time and are near release a high-intensity series of counseling and workshops.
The residential, medium-security program is housed separately from the main jail and holds 36 inmates. With the help of three clinicians, the inmates go through a schedule of classes and counseling that focuses on targeting substance abuse issues and criminogenic behaviors.
For inmate Shawn Jordan, STOP made him realize that his decisions affect more people than just himself.
“All these classes really opened my eyes,” he said. “It really opened my eyes to stop being being so selfish.”
The goal is to help the prisoners stop addiction, learn anger management skills, realize their crimes have created victims who carry a fear of the world around them, and most of all, to prevent them from going back to jail.
Data shows that the program is doing just that.
Director Peter Kosciusko said the recidivism rate for STOP graduates is only 29 percent.
Evangelidis and leaders of the program handed out certificates on Wednesday to members who had completed two of the STOP steps: Anger management and victims’ impact.
As each inmate’s name was called and they walked up to shake hands and grasp their certificate, the cinderblock walls of the small room echoed with enthusiastic applause.
“These guys, I’m proud of them,” Evangelidis said. “We would meet anybody halfway who was willing to put in the work.”
All inmates of STOP go through the anger management and victims’ impact groups. They also have the chance to work with the Education Department to earn their GED or other certifications.
“Both groups are equally important, equally tough,” Andrea Weiss, one of the STOP substance abuse counselors said. “I know you guys put in the work and that gets me excited to keep showing up.”
Inmate Thomas Gray told the group that this time in jail, he made his way to STOP.
“I have more hope this time,” he said.
The anger management group meets once a week for 10 weeks with a mix of psychoeducational and structured group counseling. With curriculum on the relationship between anger and aggression as well as learning their triggers, the inmates learn how to control their anger.
In the victims’ impact group, inmates listen to various guest speakers who explain how becoming the victim of a crime affected their lives. It focuses on property crime; assault; robbery; hate and bias; gang violence; sexual assault; child abuse and neglect; domestic violence; drunk and impaired driving; and homicide. By the end, organizers hope the inmates will be more aware of the victims their crimes created and take responsibility for their actions.
“I hope I don’t see you again, at least not in here,” said David Tuttle, the jail superintendent.
“I look forward to seeing you out there,” Evangelidis added.
When previously touring a plastic factory in Leominster, a former inmate told Evangelidis that STOP was the reason he had his job.
STOP has been going at the jail for more than 10 years, with programs like anger management added over time.
Only four inmates decided to speak up after getting their certificates.
One of them offered a simple, but poignant, message to the leaders: Thank you.