VIDEO: Reforming Criminal Justice to Help Inmates Live a Life of Dignity, not Dependency

Once I got into the music program, and this was the game changer for me.  The incentive to participate in the concert was what I needed to keep focused.  I wanted my friends and family to see me graduate and perform. 

This week ALEC Public Affairs Director Catherine Mortensen and ALEC Criminal and Civil Justice Task Force Director Nino Marchese sat down with former Massachusettes inmate John Wayne Cormier, Jr. of Worcester County to talk about how the innovative programs at the jail that helped him turn his life around and live a life of dignity, not dependence.

Nino Marchese:  Two weeks ago, we spoke with your sheriff Lou Evangelidis about some of the innovate program at the Worcester County jail.  Before  we get into the programs, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, the story behind what led your incarceration?

John Cormier, Jr.: Thank you so much for having me on. It’s an honor and a privilege. I really think that these are the kinds of conversations that are going to make changes, when organizations like you are reaching out to the little guy and asking his perspective, that’s kind of  communication is really going to changes things.

I had gotten tangled up with drugs and alcohol for the better part of my adult life. And if you can imagine for a moment what it would be like to be completely segregated from the people that you love. And everything you do is based around finding ways and means to get more drugs. It became that way, for the better part of the decade, I was almost heartless, helpless and hopeless trudging through the streets of Western Massachusetts until I was given what we call a “Gift of Desperation,” and that is an acronym. I was then brought into custody for a masked armed robbery, because I was to the point where I was so desperate to get the cash in the drawer. I had no rational way to go about making myself feel better. And so I did that. I ended up going to jail. And when I got there, the problem was it was a normal thing for me to go to jail.

I had been in and out for quite some time in my experience as an alcoholic and an addict. And when I got there, it was just a same run-of-the-mill routine for me. it was like okay guys, here we here I am. And this time it was a masked armed robbery. And that is a big deal. So they put me on a high profile unit. And on that high profile unit, I was I was with other inmates who were looking at life in prison. And I had a realization that almost every guy that sat at my table had killed someone who had taken human life or multiple lives. And what occurred to me in that moment was that these people while they had taken human life, at their core, they were just alcoholics and addicts who had done something desperate in a moment. And then they lost their life and have to live with it. And that was the moment for me where I realized I had to make some changes, that I still had a chance.

And so I started doing everything I could in the jail to improve myself. I got myself into the Short S.T.O.P. program, which is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. What happens when you’re there is that you’re separate from the rest of the general population. And I think that’s important because now you’re separated from the guys who want a new way of life. And the guys that didn’t have a care they would just they’re kind of going through the motions to kind of separating the wheat from the chaff kind of deal. I started to really buckle down and have some self reflection and find ways and means to cultivate a better life for myself. And during this time a music program was offered. It was a brand new program. It had never been released before and I’m a musician, I’ve always been a musician and artist and and I find a lot of relief in creating music and it’s therapeutic. And I think we all know that innately. But once I got into the music program, and this was the game changer for me.  The incentive to participate in the concert was what I needed to keep focused.  I wanted my friends and family to see me graduate and perform.

Nino Marchese:  A lot of these criminal justice reform ideas are designed to ultimately reduce recidivism. They can definitely sound good on paper, but I’m interested in hearing from you what exactly about the programs you were in worked to ultimately get your life back on track?

John Cormier, Jr:
It is all about incentives and community. You want to be a part of something, when you feel alone, that is trouble.  The opportunity has to outweigh the obstacle. If the obstacle is being in jail, or the obstacle is addiction and alcoholism, then what’s the incentive? You know, what is the opportunity? Here you have the OpporTuneity program. In terms of community, our sheriff was always very present. He was there and that made a huge difference in building a sense of community. I knew he had a busy schedule,  but he went to every singe graduation, and we have a graduation every three months. And I was in that program for over a year I stayed on as grad support. So I had a chance to actually get to know the sheriff a  little bit. He was present. And that, in my opinion, is the difference that makes a difference. If there’s other politicians out there that are wondering how they can make a difference in their communities, its is by simply being there.  It’s by being an intimate part of the structure. They have to be there physically and also believe in us.

To watch the full inteview click here.