25 Investigates: Exclusive access inside the only Mass. prison unit dedicated to young fathers

CONCORD, Mass. — Young fathers taking parenting classes, learning life skills, working with mentors. It’s all happening at a Massachusetts prison. Now, 25 Investigates is giving you an exclusive look inside this prison unit that’s the first of its kind in the country.

Boston 25 News anchor Kerry Kavanaugh and Photojournalist Erling Moe went inside Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord to see firsthand how the unit is challenging stereotypes and trying to redefine what happens behind bars.

Opened in 1878, MCI-Concord is the oldest prison for men in the state. But the old facility is trying something very new.

It’s called the B.R.A.V.E. Unit or ‘Building Responsible Adults through Validation and Education’ and it’s dedicated to young fathers ages 18-26.

25 Investigates was the first news crew granted access inside.

“I’m not just living for myself no more. I’m living for my kids,” said Jeremy Cintron, 25, of Fitchburg, who’s incarcerated in the Brave Unit.

“I’m trying to be a better father, but to be the father, you have to first learn how to be a good man,” said Tyrell Pina, 26, of New Bedford, who’s housed there as well.

Inside the B.R.A.V.E. Unit they’re learning life skills, cooking their own meals, doing their own laundry.

They also learn emotional coping skills.

“We also have a lot of other classes that go on the unit, such as criminal thinking and violence reduction, where it kind of helped me to evaluate why I did some of the things I did,” said Pina, who says he’s incarcerated for a second time after gun-related charge.

And all the young dads have must take a weekly parenting class.

But perhaps most significant is the B.R.A.V.E Unit family visitation room complete with children’s books, board games, even a tea set.

“We can actually interact with our kids, play games with our kids,” Cintron said.

They can embrace their kids in this unique visitation space, something they can’t do in any other visitation room.

“It’s actually my first time holding my daughter was in this room,” said Pina whose daughter is 2 1/2 years old.

“What was that like?” Kavanaugh asked.

“I cried when I got back to my cell. I cried like a baby,” Pina said. “I used to think little things like I don’t even know what she smells like, I don’t even know how heavy she is. I’m getting a little choked up thinking about it right now.”

“I’m working towards being of a father that I want to I want to be and a father that I didn’t have growing up,” said Cintron who also has a baby girl. A baby he met for the first time in the B.R.A.V.E. visitation room.

“I look at her, and it gives me hope.”

This unit launched in August of 2021. So far, the program has served 36 men. State officials says it was modeled after a similar program in Norway. And it’s partly rooted in science. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security [EOPSS] says there is growing research on neurological development indicating brain development, specifically the prefrontal context, continues until around the age of 25. Younger individuals, they say, may be susceptible to impulsive decision making and behaviors that, in extreme cases, may lead to incarceration.

And that’s where the mentors come in. The young dads live among each other along with some older mentors, who have been serving for a longer time.

“I try to show them, you know, you can do better. You’re better,” said mentor Sammy Garcia.

Garcia is serving a life sentence for a murder when he was a young gang member. He was originally sentenced to 20 years, but says his behavior on the inside when he was first incarcerated lead to the life sentence. He says this mentorship gives his purpose behind bars.

“I’m grateful for, for this opportunity, you know, because it’s like another way of me giving back,” Garcia said. “I don’t want these young men to come back or go out there and do something and regret it.”

Garcia says he’s trying to help the young dads turn things around now so eventually they can return home and stay there.

A lot of that work happens in a large sitting room. They invited Kavanaugh in to see how the mentors and mentees will daily hash out their struggles and share moments of joy and accomplishment.

“Every time people come in, it gives us a chance to all come together and try to make each other feel comfortable with the next person feel comfortable. Build with somebody new,” Pina said.

Building a community that will hopefully encourage and empower these young men for years to come.

“These young people on the streets right now, what would you tell them,” Kavanaugh asked.

“Don’t give up on yourself. There’s a lot of opportunities out there,” Cintron said.

“I say there’s hope. No matter the circumstances, no matter you have hope,” said Garcia.

In terms of success rates, EOPSS say recidivism is measured by a 3-year post release recommitment, so outcomes for this program do not yet exist. 25 Investigates will follow up.


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