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9 Yards: An experimental approach to prison reform

Incarceration Nation
By PHILIP EIL  |  February 20, 2014

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OPENING DOORS An image from the 9 Yards documentary.

There are 15 participants in the first-ever 9 Yards program. Eight of them have a history of addiction involving cocaine, crack, heroin, or alcohol. Zero of them have high school diplomas, though 11 have obtained a GED. Seven show a sub-seventh grade math level, while 11 show a sub-seventh grade reading level. Eleven of them have at least one violent felony on their record. Five have been convicted of robbery; four, of felony assault; four, of larceny or breaking and entering; and two, of drug delivery. (Candidates convicted of murder or sexual offenses were screened out.)

The program takes place inside the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility at the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, just a short drive from the restaurants and boutiques at Garden City. And its goals, plainly stated during a YouTube fundraising video, are ambitious: “The 9 Yards experiment is a controlled study that will scientifically test our ability to decrease future prison and crime.”

While that premise may sound like something out of a science fiction flick, “It’s not rocket science,” says Nick Horton, program coordinator and policy specialist at OpenDoors, the reentry-focused nonprofit behind the initiative. “Everyone in the field, down to the correctional officer that’s working with these guys, knows what’s going to happen when they get out and knows what’s necessary to keep them from coming [back].”

The solution — or at least the hypothesis OpenDoors is testing with this program — boils down to one word: investment. By investing an additional $10,000 -$12,000 per year in each of these men (on average, it costs $58,000 to host an ACI inmate), Horton and others are looking at whether an intense regimen of counseling, job training, mentoring, addiction treatment, education, family therapy, and post-release employment and housing support might break the patterns that bring so many inmates back to the ACI. “It’s an investment in potential,” Horton says. For participants, it can mean six days of classes per week.

The program officially began last summer, after OpenDoors obtained funding from the Governor’s Workforce Board and the City of Providence. Horton then approached 15 medium-security inmates between 23 and 34 years old who had at least nine months left on their sentence. “Our pitch,” he says, “was, ‘If you take part in this program, we guarantee you a job when you get out, part-time, minimum-wage. . . We guarantee you a place to stay, subsidized, for at least six months. And counseling. And transportation. And we guarantee that you’ll have extra educational opportunities while you’re in prison, and basically you’ll have someone looking out for you to try to support you.’ ”

So is it working?

We won’t really know until the participants face parole this spring and are monitored for progress during the months and years after their release, when some of 9 Yards’ most intense support kicks in. But you can head to AS220 on February 26 and ask Horton questions about a program he says has a “lot of potential to persist and grow and. . . have a larger footprint.”

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