BOSTON (AP) — Tykeam Jackson's soft voice and warm smile give little hint of how the 21-year-old spent his youth: in and out of juvenile detention and jails, leading a life in Boston's mean streets centered on gangs and guns.
"I was always having guns to protect myself. I just kept getting caught," he said. "I was hanging around the wrong crowd, being in the wrong areas, getting into the wrong activities."
Over the past year, his outlook has changed. Even as a pending criminal case looms over him, he's slowly gaining confidence that he can break the cycle that has entangled him — with the help of a unique organization called Roca.
"They've gotten me in the right direction," he said. "Since I've been with Roca, my whole life has done a 360."
Roca is a nonprofit that seeks to steer hundreds of Massachusetts' highest-risk young men away from a return behind bars, using a distinctive blend of relentlessness and patience. Even the most troublesome participants are exhorted to persist with its multi-year education and job programs; Roca is loath to give up on any of them.
If its unorthodox approach works — and private investors are betting millions of dollars it will — it might show a path forward for other states and cities grasping for ways to bring down stubbornly high rates of re-arrest and re-incarceration.
"It was hard staying out of jail before I got with Roca," Jackson said. "It's because I didn't have a voice. I was just another kid going through the system who everybody just wanted to brush off."
With more than 2.1 million people held in America's prisons and jails and the annual bill around $80 billion, according to a Brookings Institution study, there has been bipartisan action on many criminal justice reforms, from scaling back some mandatory sentences to routing more nonviolent offenders to diversion programs.
But there's been no breakthrough on recidivism.
Within five years, 77 percent of ex-prisoners in a 2014 federal study were arrested again, and more than half went back to prison. The study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, tracked outcomes for 405,000 inmates released from prisons in 30 states in 2005.
Recidivism rates were highest for inmates who were 24 or younger at release — the age range of the young men that Roca works with in the tough neighborhoods of greater Boston. Nearly all of them have arrest records; the vast majority are high school dropouts involved in street gangs.
They are, in Roca's own words, young men "not ready, willing or able to participate in any other program."
"My guys are not going to be Boy Scouts," said Jason Owens, a Roca assistant director. "It's Last Chance University for them. It's either Roca, or jail, or death."
Roca's program, with its pledge to investors that they'll be repaid for its success, is unusual in many ways, and yet it reflects changing attitudes in the U.S. penal system. Politicians and corrections officials are increasingly vocal about stopping the revolving door back to prison, whether for fiscal or humanitarian reasons.
"It used to be that public officials couldn't even pronounce recidivism," said Mike Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments' Justice Center. "Now you'll see governors include a whole plan to deal with it in their State of the State address."
Many prison systems have intensified efforts to better prepare inmates for release. Innovative job-training and education programs have been launched behind bars, including college courses offered through a federally funded pilot program. Several Western prisons teach inmates to train wild horses; a program in some Florida prisons teaches poetry, play-writing and other skills.
"Gone are the days when prison folks didn't care about how many times you came back through the front gate," said Fred Patrick of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based think tank.
Nonetheless, Patrick said, there are obstacles — from the reluctance of many legislators to pay for re-entry programs to the fact that ex-inmates face barriers to obtaining jobs, driver's licenses and public housing.
"People say, 'You did your time, come home, get a job and move on,'" he said. "And yet you can't get a barber's license, even if you did that in prison."
Then there is the problem of "technical violations" of parole and probation terms; many former inmates go back to prison not because they committed a new criminal offense, but because of breaking a rule.
That's what sent Scott Rich back to New York City's Rikers Island prison. After two stints behind bars, he says he was on track to put that way of life behind him and succeed with a $15-an-hour job when he was apprehended for violating his parole-imposed curfew last year.
"My girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and I was out past curfew just moving her car from one space to another when I was pulled over," he said. "In that instant, that's when everything just crumbled — everything I was working for, obtaining this job, staying out of trouble all that time."
Rich, 23, dropped out of school in ninth grade and was arrested at 16 for armed robbery. He served 23 months at Rikers, then was arrested again in 2013 and served nine months in prison.
His first post-prison employment earned him only $150 a week, he said, because two weekdays were taken up with parole-related appointments. Eventually, he landed the $15-an-hour landscaping job, only to lose it due to the curfew violation.
Looking ahead, Rich would like to be a self-employed entrepreneur, but he is realistic about challenges he'll face after his release. And he's grateful that programming at Rikers to assist inmates with re-entry is "10 times better" now than during his first stint.
"Just get me up to the point where I can get my foot in the door," he said. "Don't just throw me out to the wolves."
How does Roca, which operates only in Massachusetts, help ex-offenders get their feet in the door to a new life?
It begins with dogged recruiting by its outreach workers, who sometimes make pests of themselves with a dozen or more face-to-face pitches at the homes and hangouts of their targets. Once a recruit agrees to give the program a try, there's a phase called transitional employment. The newcomers are assigned to work crews and paid minimum wage for tasks such as landscaping and snow removal in parks. To advance to more sophisticated job-training, they must work 60 days without an absence — a goal that sometimes takes a year or more to achieve.
"Our guys come in with no skills — we have to show them how to work," said Aaron Bray, the transitional employment coordinator. "We expect them to fail sometimes."
This outlook contrasts with many other programs that are selective about whom they recruit and oust participants who are uncooperative.
"The cops hated us when we first started — they saw us as a 'hug a thug' program," said Owens, the Roca assistant director, a burly extrovert who served prison time himself before joining the staff 10 years ago. He is a first-name basis with police and troublemakers alike in Chelsea, where Roca's headquarters is based.
Chelsea Police Capt. David Batchelor said his department now views Roca as valuable ally.
"Most programs, if you violate the rules, you're out," Batchelor said. "Roca's the only one I know of — if you break the rules, they'll take you back. These kids have issues, and just yelling at them is not going to get it done."
Jessica Iovanna, Chelsea's assistant chief of probation, said Roca has made her job "a lot easier," explaining that young men in the program are likely to get two-day jail stints, rather than months-long confinement, for common violations of probation. "There's going to be slip-ups," she said. "We try to take little steps to change their behavior."
Behavioral therapy sessions help Roca participants with anger management and conflict resolution. And, given that virtually all are high school dropouts, they're encouraged to take academic courses that could lead to a General Education Development diploma.
The GED classes are individually tailored and taught one-on-one by volunteers, often using a university library, a hospital cafeteria or the kitchen at the student's home. In Boston, with its complex web of gang rivalries, it's deemed too dangerous for large numbers to attend classes at the Roca building.
"Any rival might kill them on sight," said Roca's Boston director, Shannon McAuliffe. In fact, in February 2015, 21-year-old Kenny Lamour was working with a Roca snow-clearing crew when he was shot dead by an 18-year-old adversary.
The scent of burning sage rose from a centerpiece as a group of young men gathered in one of Roca's peacemaking circles, based on North American Indian rituals. Joined by staff members, they shared thoughts about the challenges they face and ideas for addressing them.
"The first time I saw someone shot, I was in the third grade," Ray'shawn Mohammed confided. "I was forced to grow up quicker than usual." He talked about getting shot in the leg last year in a gang-related incident and faces possible incarceration on a gun charge.
"This place teaches you patience — and to be humble," he said.
Indeed, Roca's staff — for all the pride they take in their program — know it's not foolproof.
Back in January, they introduced a visiting journalist to Derrik Pannesi, a poised 22-year-old who credited Roca with getting him on track after an adolescence filled with gang activity and multiple stints behind bars. Although the message tattooed on the back of his hands read, "Trust No One," he acknowledged Roca was beginning to gain his trust.
"A lot of people, when they see someone like us, they lock their door or roll up their window," Pannesi said. "At Roca, they're not going to turn their back and walk away."
Pannesi grew up in Cambridge, home to Harvard University but also to some gritty neighborhoods and gang activity. When he was 7, his father was shot dead while "running the streets," he said. Within five years, he was mixed up with a gang himself.
"It's not too late," he said in January. "I'm not in state prison; I'm not in a coffin like my dad. Now that I've got the chance, I'm going to take it."
But in late February, Roca had dismaying news — Pannesi was back in jail, re-arrested after police lodged gun- and drug-related charges against him.
Tykeam Jackson's relations with Roca also have been checkered. He's been locked up twice since he first enrolled in January 2015, and he was ousted from his work crew at one point before being readmitted.
Yet Shannon McAuliffe is impressed that Jackson has stuck with the program despite facing charges in a carjacking case and despite being targeted recently by a volley of gunfire from a gang rival that left him with an injured leg
"He might go to jail, yet he's still showing up. He still has the fire in him," McAuliffe said. "I'll say, 'You don't have to be here,' and he'll say, 'If I'm not here, Shannon, I'm going to die.'"
With its motto "Less jail, more future," Roca aims not just to save young people from wasting their lives but to save taxpayers from wasting their money.
At the heart of the initiative is the high cost of incarceration compared to programs that curb recidivism. According to Roca, the annual cost of incarceration in Massachusetts is about $53,500 per person, while Roca's program costs about $26,000 per person for four years.
"No business would be allowed to run as poorly as our prison systems are run in this country — the costs and the outcomes are abysmal," said Molly Baldwin, Roca's CEO and founder. "Some people maybe get to it for humanitarian reasons, but I think the country has begun to change over the past few years literally because of money."
When Baldwin started the organization in 1988, it focused primarily on teen pregnancy prevention, then expanded into such areas as outreach to refugees and HIV/AIDS prevention. Over the past 10 years, its work has shifted heavily to a focus on reducing recidivism among high-risk young men.
"It's not magic, it's not 100 percent. But we're on to something," said Baldwin "We don't really care if you like us or not. It's about, how do we get to know you — how do we stay on it with you until you're' ready to make the changes that we believe you really want to make in your heart."
Does Roca's approach really work? So far, the signs are positive. Of the young men who've been with the program at least two years, 91 percent have not been re-arrested and 85 percent have held a job for at least six months.
But a more definitive judgment will come in about two years, when outside evaluators assess whether Roca has succeeded in saving taxpayers' money by curtailing the amount of time that its participants are incarcerated. The outcomes of the roughly 1,000 Roca participants will be compared with those of a control group of other high-risk young men.
If Roca can reduce the number of prison bed days by 40 percent compared to the control group, the state — having saved on incarceration costs — will repay private investors who provided Roca with more than $18 million in grants and loans. If Roca reduces prison time by 60 percent, the state's savings will be huge, and the investors will get "Pay for Success" bonus payments.
At best, according to Roca, the investors will get $27 million, and the state will spend $45 million less on incarceration. At worst, the state will pay out nothing.
Meanwhile, participants like Tykeam Jackson look toward their personal future. He's completed a training course in forklift operation, but he'd like go to community college, maybe out of state, to study business and accounting.
"When I got to Roca, I felt, 'Take the chance,' because I messed up so much... I felt it was my last chance," he said. "Now I feel this program just changed my life all around."
Associated Press writer Rodrique Ngowi in Boston contributed to this report.
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