Can jailtime change a person for the better?
I recently toured the Arlington County Detention Facility, accompanied by a committed manager of inmate programs and a self-made inspirational instructor.
College professor Sly Young told me his tale of how the few hours a week he spends in the jail educating the incarcerated has helped turn his own life around — the changing for the better works two ways.
Arlington’s modern 11-story jail on Courthouse Road takes a progressive approach to providing security, discipline and services. While not pleasant for arrestees, the set-up aims at rewarding those who behave and commit to a relevant program.
The inmates – who stay as long as three months – are carefully classified, said my guide Kristen Cane, a former sheriff’s deputy who now runs the jail’s programs. “We don’t house DUI people with people who killed someone,” she said.
In this “campus,” video cameras trained on all rooms are monitored non-stop, and Cane tells me she never fears for her safety. The plain cells with a utilitarian toilet and two bunks contain nothing movable.
The common areas for well-behaved inmates offer TVs, a commissary for snacks and pay phones (free for attorney calls) — a list of bail bondsman’s phone numbers is posted. “It’s a no-contact facility,” Cane says, meaning visitors, including attorneys, cannot as much as shake the inmates’ hands.
She is proud of the positive offerings: county staffers who provide English language training, special education, chaplain and library services. Some 150 volunteers add such services as addiction treatment and tutoring.
That’s where Young comes in. The near-high-school-drop-out-turned-corporate consultant was brought in four years ago to employ his personal testimonial teaching style. “We need an instructor who motivates inmates, or they won’t come” to sessions, Cane said.
Young, 48, speaks mellifluously about his transformation from a flunking schoolboy to graduate of American and George Washington universities with an MBA. His years as corporate financial consultant, however, left him feeling derooted from largely minority high-risk youth. He wanted to give back.
So he leapt at the chance to teach Arlington inmates life skills and critical thinking in addition to his business classes at Northern Virginia Community College and Marymount University. Young created his own materials using the Socratic method for his nonprofit Saving Our Communities at Risk Through Educational Services (Socrates). So far he has worked with some 300 inmates, 100 earning a certificate. He has self-published 14 books.
“I credit the men in Unit 9A for helping to give my life a renewed significance and meaningful purpose,” Young wrote in his Huffington Post blog. “The connections I made in the jail are based on my willingness to be vulnerable, my proven ability to resolve life challenges, and the authenticity of my stories.”
During his early jail rounds, he spotted an old junior high classmate among the inmates and “realized that those people are no different from people I already know.”
Young, however, suffers from depression. There was a day in 2014 when he was on the verge of suicide. “I’d made the [final] call to my brother,” he said. But he now credits the invite from Arlington’s jail for being “the wind beneath my nonprofit’s wings.”
What really changed his life, Young said, is when the inmates made clear “that I meant something to them.”
The Washington Redskins have deep roots in Arlington. Back in August 1938, just after the championship team’s move down from Boston, the team practiced at the old Ballston stadium (at today’s N. Glebe Rd. and Randolph St.).
The players’ drills on grass in front of a hot dog stand were captured by a Life magazine photographer and on movie film for Universal Newsreel.
Eric Dobson of Preservation Arlington steered me to the online footage copyrighted by Gerry Images and Reston-based CriticalPast.com.