Louis L. Reed, executive justice fellow (left), and Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian spoke to participants as they took part in the national Frederick Douglass program inside the Middlesex House of Correction and Jail. (JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF)

‘These Are Human Beings’: Douglass Project Comes to Mass., Bringing Community Leaders and Inmates Together

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By Ivy Scott

NORTH BILLERICA, Mass. (Boston Globe)  — Chris hadn’t always been much of a talker, particularly around people he didn’t know, and especially in jail.

But sitting opposite a local police chief and a former town manager in the gym of the Middlesex County Jail, he decided to take the risk of opening up, and watched their faces fix on his, smiling and without judgment.

“I’ve always been an introverted person, but I talked and listened to a town manager and a police officer for 35 minutes and nobody was better than anybody,” he said. “They ain’t better than I am, I ain’t better than they are, we’re all the same.”

This fall, Chris was one of 23 people to participate in the Massachusetts launch of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, an initiative to destigmatize incarceration already active in seven other states around the country. The Project, founded by Georgetown law professor Marc Howard in 2019, brings business, political, and religious leaders together with roughly a dozen inmates for weeks of candid conversation, focused not on criminal justice reform or public policy, but just about life.

Douglass, a prominent 19th-century abolitionist, escaped from slavery in Maryland and went on to advocate fiercely for the rights of freed slaves. A longtime Massachusetts resident, Douglass made it his mission to dismantle stereotypes that Black Americans were intellectually inferior to whites, and incapable of contributing to society outside of forced labor.

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“Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of his era. He had his photo taken over 160 times …[because he] felt that it was important for people to see a free Black man, and to see a success,” Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian told the group about the inspiration behind the project.

Howard, who led the session, added that the project’s focus was for community members to humanize inmates, since the majority of the country’s incarcerated population is expected to return home.

“These people … are not monsters, they’re not the mugshots you saw on the news,” Howard said. “They’re human beings who make mistakes, who are paying a steep price, but who are almost certainly coming home. And we want them to succeed.”

Koutoujian said he selected the 13 participating inmates with the goal of representing a “diverse mixture of charge classifications, men and women, with different experiences and crimes,” ranging from inmates serving several months at the jail for drunk driving to men awaiting trial for murder. He hoped this diversity would allow residents to cultivate empathy for a variety of incarcerated persons while giving inmates from various backgrounds exposure to the local community.

The three-hour event, scheduled to be held once a month until the end of next year, features a large-group introduction, a casual dinner, followed by several smaller breakout groups and a time of reflection at the end. While the visitors are different each session, Howard said the goal is for the inmates to remain the same, maximizing their opportunity to connect with a wide range of residents on different topics pre-release.

“These are meant to be humanizing questions,” Howard said, handing out slips of paper with a short list of discussion prompts. “We don’t care about your crime or your time, we just want to know who you are.”

The Globe is not identifying the charges of any of the individuals at the request of the sheriff’s office, which alongside the Douglass Project aims to focus on the inmates’ humanity, not their criminal history.

Starting in a circle, folding chairs facing one another, inmates and visitors alike shared only their first names and the towns they grew up in, along with “one thing you’re interested in that would surprise most people.”

Several said music, one person said tattoos; former Arlington town manager and Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Adam Chapdelaine drew oohs and ahs when he mentioned he makes his own maple syrup. As people spoke, Millie the emotional support dog sniffed her way around the circle, setting the room at ease.

On his turn, Chris hesitated a moment before saying, “I used to not have too many interests … [but] today, I really enjoy life and everything that’s coming at me.” And politics, he added: “I love politics.”

True to his word, after grabbing his sandwich and a bag of chips from a table near the front of the room, Chris inched his chair over to Chapdelaine’s corner of the gym.

“You don’t have to answer, but can I ask you a question? You know what I’m gonna ask, don’t you?” he said. “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Chapdelaine laughed and after a brief pause, said he was a Democrat. Immediately, Chris’s face lit up: “Me, too!”

As they swapped policy ideas, the pair were joined by Billerica police Chief Roy Frost and another inmate, Mario, whose maroon jumpsuit signaled his role as a mentor for some of the younger inmates in the jail. The smaller group was given three new discussion prompts, but Howard encouraged participants to go where the conversation led them — and for this group, it quickly turned to inmates’ dreams for the future.

“I’m interested in building and leaving a legacy for my children … and especially a business for my son to take over,” said Mario, who grew up in Dorchester and said he ran a trucking business prior to his arrest. “I worked all my life,” he added, and it’s only through the jail’s partnership with Merrimack College that he’s been able to take his first college classes, which range from a Survey of American Music to Intro to Christianity.

Chris, who grew up in South Boston, said he had a different experience.

“I’ve spent most of my life in prison, never had a job in my life before this,” he said, balancing his sandwich on one knee of his green jumpsuit, which indicated his participation in the jail’s work release program for inmates who have already been sentenced, and are preparing to return to the community.

“Not everyone who comes to jail is bad beyond the point of redemption,” he said. “Give us the tools to at least start the change, and many of us will. And this place helps us do that.”

For more than five months, Chris has maintained steady employment at a family-style restaurant in Woburn. He proudly shared that he’s saving up to support his transition back home once he’s released, and “just broke $10,000 with my most recent paycheck!”

Frost, the police chief, then asked both incarcerated men what advice they would give to teenagers and young adults struggling to make good choices today. Neither inmate minced words, stressing the importance of honest conversation and helping kids find constructive outlets for their energy and free time.

“It’s important to get to kids when they’re really young. Let them know how hard life is,” Chris said, gesturing to the high walls around him. “Getting in here is easy, but once you’re in, you can’t just get out.”

As the night wrapped up, Howard called the full group back into a circle to share reflections. Several business owners voiced interest in hiring the inmates they met, while one inmate joked of his interaction with Frost that “this was probably the longest conversation I’ve had with a cop in my life!”

For his part, Frost said he marveled at the wisdom of Chris, Mario, and the other inmates, “guys who have had these experiences but are now so mature.” He added: “Now I’m wondering, how do I get their message out in a more efficient way?”

This, Koutoujian said, was exactly the reaction he’d hoped the project would generate in Massachusetts: community leaders who felt encouraged to set an example of empathy in their neighborhoods, and inmates who felt empowered to prepare for the world to which they would soon return.

“This is not a castle on a hill, we’re a part of a community, and if we don’t participate in that community, then we’ve failed and society will pay for that,” he said. “Today, we look into each other’s eyes and see each other’s humanity.”

(This story appeared in the Boston Globe on December 27. Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com.)

 

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