Who's Who

 

Dr. John Inzerillo  - Class of 1972

Dr. Inzerillo is the author of two books: 

Passion Beyond Pain:  A Mindful Approach to Living a Life of Balance.  This book was accepted by the Lilly Pharmecutial Company for distrubution to the health care professionals.

Pictures of Health which is available through Amazon. 

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Felix Rodriguez - Class of 1994

Felix is the author of DAD, ME AND MUHAMMAD ALI  (A Father and Son Story).   This book is available at most book stores.   Felix is also a Waterbury Board of Education member.

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Albert Chestone - Class of 1940

Albert is the author of the book " What America Means to Me".    After graduating from Wilby, Albert earned his bachelor's degree from Ohio University and his master's from NYU.   During WWII he served in North Africa and later in Italy with the 15th Air Force.  He retired as an FBI agent specializing in counter intelligence.    Albert hopes to "reawaken" America, especially the young, about the importance of decency, respect, morality, honesty, and patriotism, and to enlighten them about the meaning of freedom.   The book is available through Amazon.com and www.bn.com.

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Awista Ayub - Class of 1997

Author of the book, "However Tall the Mountain, a Dream, Eight Girls, and a Journey Home".  Awista visited her parents homeland in 2002 and saw how the women were confined to their homes and subjected to violence under the Taliban.   She caputured the struggle of the Afghan women in this book and about the brave girls who risked proscecution under the Taliban. to pursue the dreams of ordinary childhood, doing what they loved most - playing soccer.    Awista was born in Afghanistan and immigrated to the US in 1981.   She founded the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange in 2003.    From Febrary 2005 to January 2007, Awista served as the Education and Health Office at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.  Awista received her Bachelors of Science in Chemistry frm the University of Rochester in NY and received her Master of Public Administration from the University of Delaware. 

The book is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders.

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Daisy Lord   

Who is Daisy Lord.   Every year the Daisy Lord Award is given the the highest ranking male and female in the senior class.    Daisy Lord was born and educated in Waterbury.   She taught salesmanship in Wilby since 1918.  The students loved her school spirt and enthusiasm.   She was more than a teacher, she was also a mother to her students.   She passed away suddenly in 1941.   Her  passing was a shock to the students,staff and community.    In a trubute to her dedication to Wilby and students an award was named in her behalf. 

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Marcus Allen - Class of 2001

Marcus "The Allen Boy" Allen, producer, musician and songwriter, half of the Grammy award winning production team the Heavy Weights (Rihanna, Ne-yo, Heather Headley).  He and his partner Joe "Jojo Beats" Sparkman were signed to R&B superstar Ne-Yo's record label Compound Entertainment.

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B. Jay Cooper - Class of 1968

B. Jay served as deputy White House press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, also as director of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce under Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, and as director of public affairs at Yale University.  B. Jay recently co-authored a book with Chris Black "Mac Baldridge: The Cowboy in Ronald Reagan's Cabinet".   A book launch was held at the Courtyard by Marriot in Waterbury and was attended by Baldridge's daughters Molly and Megan Baldridge. 

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Brittany Parker - Class of 2005

Brittany is the coach of Women's Basketball at Niagara University

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Will Blandon - Class of 2002

Will is the coach of Football at Nichols College

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Christina Ruiz - Class of 2006

Christina while attending Bay Path College in Massachusetts performed with the College in Prague, Czech Republic.  They performed for local residents and visitors at Lichtenstein Palace, Hlahol Concert Hall, and St. George's Basilica.   She was also nominated for the 2010 Who's Who among Students, a recognition conferred upon students by a long standing national honors program.   

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Mariam Diaz (Gilbert) - Class of 1977

Mariam is a Theology Adjunct Professor at Neumann University, Asten, PA.   She is the author of "English for Pharmacy Writing and Oral Communication"  (2008) which can be purchased at www.lww.com.   She is a veteran of 9 Marathons and 4 Ultra-marathons (50 plus miles).   Montour 24 Hour Endurance Run 2014, Danville, PA, Around the Lake 24 Hour Endurance Run, Wakefield, MA  2012 and 2013, Philadelphia 100 Mile Ultra in April 2011, and Beast of Burden 100 Mile Ultra, Lockport, NY August 2011

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Michael Matzkevich (Shane Michael Taylor) - Class of 2000

Born with cerebral palsy and a quadriplegic, Michael released  his country album "I Will Stand" with the hit single "Warrier Cowboy".   The song, penned by Michael and two other Nashville songwriters, was inspired by him seeing a news segment showing the struggles, courage, and sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and the battles they face when they return home.  A video of the song was also released.     Mike is also a motivational speaker an author of "Living this Rodeo: A Journey from Fantasy to Reality".

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Raymond E. Snyder, Sr. - Class of 1925

Five term mayor of Waterbury from 1948 - 1955.   Formally an undertaker and owner of Snyder Funeral Home (the home was the former residence of  actress Rosalind Russell) on Willow Street.

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John Fusco -1970's

Hollywood writer and producer.   Author of novel  "Paradise Salvage".   Writer and producer of 10 major motion pictures including Crossroads, Hidalgo, Young Guns, Young Guns II, The Forbidden Kingdom, Thunderheart, and Spirit: Stallion and the Cimarron.  In 2014 he created the epic "Marco Polo" for Netflix.  His current screenplay producion is Netflix's "The Highwaymen".

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Shirley Grey - 1919     

Shirely (Agnes Zetterstrand) was an actress in the 1930's.   She began her acting career with Sylvester Poli's stock theater company, The Poli Players, in 1921 and performed in more than 45 films during her brief movie career from 1930 to 1935. 

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Ryan Gomes - 2000

Basketball player with Boston Celtics and  Los Angeles Clippers

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 Carl Cicchetti - 1947

Chick Hetti (stage name) along with Donald Claps, and Maury Cohen formed the band "The Playmates".   In 1958 they made Billboards Top 5 with "Beep Beep" their novielty song about  a race between a Cadillac and little a Nash Rambler.

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Eileen Thomas - 1963

Eileen was a member of the Radio City Rockettes and peformed over 1,400 shows including the Christmas Shows and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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Pedro DeBrito - 1977

After graduating from UConn where Pedro put the Univeristy on the national soccer map, the team won the National Championship in 1981 when he scored five goals in the tournament, tying a national record.    He was a two time All-American at Connectict and he still holds the school record for assists in a season with 20.    In 1982 he was a first selection draft pick in the North American Soccer League draft by theTampa Bay Rowdies shere he earned NASL Rookie of the Year honors and he was drafted onto the U.S. Men's National Team.  He played professionally until 1983 and that included two seasons with the New York Cosmos.  He was a Major Indoor Soccer League champion in 1987 with the Dallas Sidekicks.  

He moved to Miami in 2001 and worked at Drew Estate Cigar Co. for 13 years.

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 Royal A. Merwin - 1919  

Remember singing the Wilby Alma Mater at Graduation.  This was written by Alumni Royal Andrews Merwin.

Royal was born in Woodmont, CT on June 10, 1899.   He showed an interest in music at an early age when he began to pick out tunes on the family parlor organ.  The Merwin's moved to Waterbury when Royal was 13 and at that time he joined the choir at St. John's Church, ringing bells in the belfry and also served as an organist at All Souls Church.   After Wilby he matriculated at the Yale School of Music, graduating in 1923.  He completed a five year course in four years, winning the Kellogg-Osborne Prize in   While at Yale, he conducted the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in playing his own composition "Theseus" which won the Steinert Prize.   He coached the Yale Banjo Club for two years and conducted a fifteen piece student's orchestra in the Yale Dining Hall.   In 1924, he accepted a position as organist and choirmaster at St. John's Episcopal Church in Waterbury, resigning to collaborate with Nathaniel Shilkret of the Victor Talking Machine Company in the presentation of radio programs.  He wrote several vocal and orchestral arrangements and became assistant conductor.   In 1928 he became accompanist for the International Singers with whom he filled a position as piano soloist, composer, and arranger.  Following a period of greater leasure devoting more time to composing, he accepted a position of master of music at the Hill School in Pottstown, PA.  This period of teaching and composing lasted up to the time of his death in 1935.  

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Ed Cavanaugh - 1947

During his playing career at Wilby, Ed was named All-City, All-NVL, and All-State.  He went on to play for Duke University before embarking on a long coaching career in both college and the NFL. 

He coached for four years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, three of those years he was head coach.   Cavanaugh never beat Navy while at Army.   As head coach he had two defeats and a tie.

He was inducted into the Republican American's Red Zone Hall of Fame. 

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Edward "The Mad Hatter" Maglio - '60

During his senior year at Wilby, Ed was the class president.  After graduation he found his career in radio working for WWCO, WNVR AND WWCO AM radio in Waterbury in the late 60's and 70's going by the name the Mad Hatter.   Do to his outlandish broadcasts he was known as the Wolfman Jack of Waterbury.    Ed was also known for his personality and his stunts such as broadcasting suspended from a crane over a building, on top of buckets of ice, and his 51 hour marathon from McDonalds on Thomaston Ave to help raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.   He always ended his show with the song "Daddy's Home".    During the 60's he managed the Sunburst Teen Dance Club on Lakewood Rd.   After radio, he owned the Mad Hatters Tea Party and Hat's Place.   Sadly, the same day Ed passed on April 18, 2004, his sister Deborah Maglio Kaplan '72 died within a hour of her brother.   Deborah worked as a club DJ going by the name Sister Hat.   It was a sad day in Waterbury.

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Alex Rozum - class of 1973

Musician and artist.   Alex released an album entitled "Lost to the Street" which was written up in Rolling Stone Magazine. 

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Kenny (KJ) James - class of 1971

Kenny is a singer, songwriter, actor, and international entertainer who had an unprecedented 13 wins on the hit show "Star Search".   He recorded the award-winning album "Target".   He is also the author of his auto-biography "BEFORE THE SPOTLIGHT".

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Chris (Big Dog) Davis - class of 1978

Music producer and musician.  At the age of 10, he conducted the Yale Symphony Orchestra.  He produced Maysa's "Quiet Fire" which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance.  Chris performed every instrument in the song.

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Philip Fitzell - class of 1957

Author of a fiction book "On The Brink: A Trio of Genres" Available on Amazon.   Also inducted into the Industry Hall of Fame (PLMA - Private Label Manufacturing Association).

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Gemma Acheampong - class of 2011

Olympics 2016, Rio de Janeiro.   Gemma represented her country of Ghana in the 4x100 relay.   She was a former class M state champion.  She was a track sensation while at Wilby.  In her senior year 2011, she was an NVL indoor champion when she ran the anchor leg for the 4x400 relay.  In the outdoor season she won the NVL 100 meter dash in 12.61 and then the state 100 title in 12.49.  In her senior season at Boston Univ. she won Patriot League indoor titles in the 60 and 200 meters.  In the outdoor season she again won the 100 (11.49) and 200 (23.92) and she won the 100 meter title in the IC4A/ECAC championships in 11.56.  She raced but did not medal for Ghana at the 2014 Commonweath Games in Glasgow, Scotland.  She competed with Ghana at the African Championships in Durban South Africa in the last week of June.  She earned her trip to Rio on the Ghana's 4x100 relay in July in the Cape Coast, Ghana. She placed in the record book as Ghana's fastest ever woman's 4x1. 

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Larry Rifkin - Class of 1970

Larry was a long time programming executive for Connecticut Public Television until his early retirement in 2009.

He is best know for bringing Barney the Dinosaur and UConn Women's Basketball to television  Throughout the course of his tenure, CPTV developed a national reputation for quality programs, including national series like "Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda, how-to-programs, concert specials like Carole King in Concert, and a range of children's programs.    For the local programs CPTV developed under his leadership, nearly 50 EMMY Awards were bestowed upon the station and he was named to the Boston-New England Emmy Silver Circle in 2006, which is the regional television Hall of Fame. 

Since his retirement, he returned to his first love - radio - and has been the host of 1320 WATR's Talk of the Town, bringing his public broadcasting sensibilities to a regional talk program.  He has attracted major national authors and guests  as well as political figures from across the state. 

He recently vacated the broadcast chair at WATR after seven years.  He will not devote his time to podcasts on U.S. Political and Social Trends and volunteering for CRIS Radio, a news reading service for the blind, as well as assignments for WATR.    

Mr Rifkin is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Connecticut and has a master's degree in Cororate and Political Communication from Fairfield University.

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Arista L. Johnson - Class of 1985

Supterintendent of the Bridgeport School System.   Prior to Superintendent, Arista taught Science at Kennedy High School in Waterbury and was later an Instructional Leadership Director in the district.   Teaching was a second career for her.  Her first career was as a pharmaceutical chemist which she attributed to having an amazing chemistry teacher at Wilby.

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Ivory Carr Jones - Class of 1980

Ivory published a novel "Feeling His Passion".  It is under the name CJ Jones.  It is an adult romance novel and it can be purchased at Amazon.com in paperbook and eBook.   Ivory's webiste is www.cjjonesauthor.com.   Ivory served in the U.S. Navy as a Data Processing Technician.   She and her husband Bear, also a published author, live in Washington State.   

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Richard DeRosa - Class of 1965

A graduate of Hartt School of Music and Julliard School of Music, Richard worked as a musical director,  voice coach and piano instructor.   He worked as musical director for the Academy of Performing Arts (Miss Elaine) for more than 30 years.   He directed at Coachlight Theater for 10 years and 7 Angels Theater.  His many students went on to Broadway and motion pictures.  He produced, wrote, and colaborated musicals  along with Dan Calabrese including "Fold Spindle and Mutitlate, "Aches and Pains" and "Mad Bomber".

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Stuart Scott Semple   1981

CONNECTICUT CORRECTIONS COMMISSIONER

How Scott Semple Helped Turn Connecticut’s Prisons Into a Nationally Recognized Laboratory of Reform

In the summer of 2015, Scott traveled to Germany to learn how their prisoners were treated.   He found that the prisoners cooked their own meals, don't wear uniforms and live in a private room with a private bathroom.  It focused more on rehabilitation.   The system appeared to work.  There are fewer inmates in prison than the US and those that get out are more less likely to return. 

Upon returning home Semple and Gov Malloy would try to create a prison form ermrging adults based on the European system.   They opened the TRUE unit in 2017 with 20 men. The men sign an agreement to leave all gang affiliation behind and are mentored my other inmates to set them on the right path.

Scott retire January 2, 2019. 

The full article is in the June 2019 Connecticut Magazine and also on our Wilby HS Alumni facebook page. . 

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Scott Semple, the former commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, turned Connecticut prisons into a nationally watched laboratory of reform.

Scott Semple has told the story many times. Even so, there’s still a glint in his eye as he talks about the trip he took to Europe that changed the course of his tenure as Connecticut’s correction commissioner, and might just change the U.S. prison system.

In the summer of 2015, Semple traveled to Germany to learn about the way prisoners are treated in that country. It is a system focused more on rehabilitation than punishment. The trip was sponsored by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice and included corrections officials from other states as well as Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. What they saw astonished many on the trip.

In Germany, prisoners cook their own food and don’t wear uniforms. They live in their own rooms with private bathrooms. In some instances they can even leave for work or weekend getaways. As one reporter wrote for The Marshall Project, “except for the razor wire,” the prison “looks like a liberal arts college.” And the system appears to work. Far fewer people are imprisoned in Germany than in the U.S., and those who get out are less likely to return.

During his visit, Semple was particularly impressed by Neustrelitz Prison, a German farm designed to house “emerging adults,” those between ages 18 and 25 whose brains are still developing.

“They started talking about brain development and neuroscience and that this particular population has a tendency to be more impulsive and easily manipulated,” Semple says one morning at his Connecticut home. When he got back from Germany, he studied the 18-to-25 population imprisoned in Connecticut and found there were 3,200 people in that age group incarcerated within state prisons. That amounted to less than a fifth of the state prison population at the time, but it accounted for a quarter of all disciplinary incidents.

Both Semple and Malloy decided they would try to create a prison for emerging adults based on the European model. “The goal was to improve the overall wellness for the staff and offender population. To encourage a cultural shift,” Semple says.

Budget concerns made devoting a facility for 18- to 25-year-olds an impossibility. Instead, they settled for a single cell block that was initially designed to house about 50 people. It seemed small compared to the lofty goal of a dedicated facility, but Semple says, in retrospect, starting small was a blessing in disguise, because it allowed them to get it right. The TRUE unit opened in early 2017 with fewer than 20 men. Even so, it was the beginning of something big.

Scott Semple, then Connecticut's correction commissioner, at a German prison in 2018. After using the rehabilitation-focused European model to reshape Connecticut's system following a 2015 trip, Semple returned to Europe to show other U.S. officials about the system and to share strategies.

Over the past few decades a revolution has occurred within Connecticut prisons. In 2008 the state had more than 20,000 people imprisoned and now has just more than 13,000. Since 2013 alone, the population of state prisons has decreased by about 4,000, or more than 20 percent. The TRUE Program has been profiled on 60 Minutes. As a whole, Connecticut’s prison system has become, to borrow wording from 

The Connecticut Mirror, “a nationally watched laboratory of reform.” Simultaneously, violent crime in the state has dropped more than 19 percent since 2012, a decreasing crime rate that is second only to New Jersey.

For the past four years, Semple, who stepped down as Connecticut’s correction commissioner in January, has been at the center of much of this positive change in the state’s prisons. It’s a surprising turn of events for a man who in 2014 was ready to retire. In August of that year, after Correction Commissioner James E. Dzurenda departed, Semple, who had been deputy commissioner, was promoted to interim commissioner. However, neither Semple nor Malloy expected the position to be permanent. For one thing, Semple is a Republican. For another, Malloy wanted to go with an outside candidate. On top of that, Semple wasn’t even interested in the job. He had worked in corrections in the state since the 1980s, was already eligible for his pension and felt his career was winding down.

Then tragedy struck Semple’s family.

Semple and his wife Christa’s only child, Matthew, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Matthew was 15. Initially this made Semple even less interested in the commissioner position. “I really just wanted to focus on the health of our child and my family,” he says.

But Malloy was increasingly impressed with Semple. The governor’s top adviser on criminal justice, Mike Lawlor, knew Semple from their time in the General Assembly, and recommended him to lead the Correction Department. “I talked to the governor and said the perfect guy to run the Department of Correction would be Scott Semple,” says Lawlor, now an associate professor at the University of New Haven. “He’s very well respected by the rank-and-file correctional staff, and by the union, which is very important.”

As Semple’s son received treatment, his wife encouraged Semple to keep his job, as did Malloy. “He was ready to retire and leave employment and I prevailed on him to take as much time as he needed to address his family needs, but come back when he was ready,” Malloy says. “I basically told him I wouldn’t let him retire.”

However, it wasn’t the governor who convinced Semple not to retire. It was his son. “Essentially, he said you don’t like being bossed around so you might as well be the boss. That inspired me to take this on,” Semple recalls.

Matthew died on Jan. 1, 2015. Three weeks later Malloy named Semple commissioner, removing the “interim” tag. The loss of Matthew made Semple more determined in his new position. “When the worst thing in your life has happened, you can’t hurt me,” he says. “So I decided that I was going to take a very bold approach and move quickly.”

Since Malloy became governor in 2011, he made criminal justice a priority. Marijuana possession was decriminalized (which alone led to about 6,000 fewer arrests per year). The age of juvenile jurisdiction in criminal cases was increased from 16 to 18. And one of Malloy’s signature pieces of legislation, the Second Chance Society Bill, loosened mandatory minimums for drug possession and made it easier for those convicted of nonviolent crimes to be granted parole.

Under Semple, prison reform would get an additional boost. As Malloy puts it: “I had three very good corrections commissioners who allowed the system, each in their own way, to evolve, although, quite frankly, Scott was a superstar.”

Almost immediately, Semple began introducing a series of reforms he’d come to refer to as “pillars.” One looked at release policies. “At the time you had 16 operating facilities, this was in the beginning of 2016, and [there were] 16 different wardens with 16 different perspectives on how to make appropriate determinations for release and what type of stipulations needed to be applied in order for that person to be properly managed in the community,” Semple says. “I thought that was problematic because different people have different perceptions of how to manage people.”

The department found that people with similar histories were being treated differently. “So we melded that into one unit,” Semple says. “So it was one-stop shopping and there was more continuity in decision making and assessment needs. Ultimately what happened was we are able to be more aligned to making sure that people with similar criminal backgrounds were managed in the same way. Not only did that happen, but because we put resources into one unit, they were able to review a lot more cases than had been previously reviewed.”

This led to a decline in incarceration numbers.

Another pillar was re-entry. An existing correction facility was converted to the Cybulski Community Reintegration Center, to help prepare offenders for re-entry into society. “We created a therapeutic milieu where the population was provided with re-entry skills and tools that they needed to be successful to go back out to the community,” Semple says.

Other pillars included reforming the state’s parole system and incentivizing prisoners to move from maximum- to lower-security prisons. Together these pillars helped state officials do a better job recognizing prisoners who should be released and those who should remain incarcerated.

Amid implementing these new policies, in the summer of 2015, Semple and Malloy took that influential trip to Germany.

Inmates in the TRUE unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution are a mix of mentors and mentees.

After Germany, Semple began working with the Vera Institute of Justice to open a pilot program dedicated to creating a better prison environment for emerging adults. Cheshire Correctional Institution was selected as the spot for that program, which would eventually be called the TRUE unit, an acronym for Truthfulness (to oneself and others), Respectfulness (toward the community), Understanding (ourselves and what brought us here), and Elevating (into success).

Cheshire is a level 4 facility that, in general, lives up to the toughness implied by its nickname, “the Rock.” The prison’s warden at the time, Scott Erfe, who is now district administrator within corrections, was initially skeptical of the concept.

“My first reaction was not that positive, to say the least,” Erfe says. Over time Erfe became a believer and had one of the defining ideas for the unit. “I started thinking about how we’re going to make this work. Because we wear badges — staff wears badges — we’re automatically the enemy.” He knew they’d need to break down this us-versus-them mentality. In the past he’d been struck by the impression that “lifers,” longtime prisoners with no end to their sentences in sight, had on at-risk youths. He wondered what would happen if they utilized lifers who had made positive changes while incarcerated as mentors. This was something that was not part of the German model, and after hearing the suggestion, it was Semple’s turn to be skeptical.

“All the science tells you not to do that,” Semple says. But as he gave it more thought, he wondered if the science was inconclusive. “Although there’s a lot of science about brain development in emerging adults and things like that, there’s not a lot of information available as it pertains to incarcerated populations. I gave in and said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ ”

With inmates chosen through an application process, the unit opened in 2017 on a small scale. After a week there was no incident. After a month, no incidents. Three months, no incidents. In Germany they accept that this age group is impulsive and that incidents are unavoidable. Semple expected fights to break out. “I was kind of dumbfounded that we weren’t experiencing acts of impulsivity. I was waiting for the ball to drop,” he says. Two years later, it hasn’t. There have been no fights and virtually no incidents at the unit. It recently doubled in size to include an adjoining cell block and has inspired imitations at other prisons in Connecticut and beyond. In Niantic, the Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work (WORTH) Unit launched in 2018 at the York Correctional Institution. Out of state, pilot programs modeled on TRUE have been launched in South Carolina and Massachusetts prisons. Semple, who now works as a prison consultant, is hoping to expand the concept on a national scale, and expects 10 more jurisdictions around the country to implement similar programs in the near future.

Semple believes TRUE’s success is largely due to the mentorship program. “The only thing that we did differently from Germany was the mentorship piece, and I really believe that has a lot to do with why we were able to impact the rate of incidence.” Semple adds that the unit’s application process seeks out “people who are willing to be accountable to themselves. If we simply choose people who are not problematic, it would make no sense.”

In the fall of 2018, Semple traveled to Germany and Norway on a trip, once again, sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice. This time Semple was there to help teach other U.S. officials about the European prison model and to share strategies on how Connecticut had begun to implement it. He also told officials from Germany and Norway about TRUE. They were impressed. The unit’s low incident rate is unprecedented, even in Europe. “They were intrigued by some of the nuances we implemented. Specifically, the use of mentors,” Semple says. Shortly after the trip, prison officials from both countries traveled to Connecticut to see how the emerging-adult concept had been implemented here and what they could learn from it.

The TRUE unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution

Prior to visiting the TRUE unit this spring, I read many articles about it and watched the 60 Minutes segment. I also talked to several of those who had developed it, including Semple, at length. None of that prepared me for what it was like. Far from the grim atmosphere you find elsewhere at Cheshire, the TRUE unit is, in a word, chill.

The guards are relaxed. The prisoners are relaxed. The member of the correction department communications team who escorts me is relaxed, and I’m relaxed.

This is different from other prisons, both the guards and several men incarcerated here tell me. Different in a palpable way. “You feel less stressed,” says Amy Faraci, the unit manager. “You don’t feel like you’re always on the edge waiting for something to happen.”

 

Those who work in the unit receive special training, as do the mentors. The setup is as sparse as you’d expect for a prison, but that relaxed vibe still makes it feel more like a community center. The men incarcerated can go into and out of their cells as they please for most of the day. They are not limited in the time they have outdoors. They interact constantly with staff and have a say in what happens in the unit, which has its own economic ecosystem, with various jobs, job training and its own monetary system. This helps teach responsibility and rewards entrepreneurship. But something deeper appears to be happening here, something that goes beyond programs or policies.

Jaquarius Carter, 24, an inmate from Bridgeport convicted of armed robbery, says general population is a “big pie of division.” In the TRUE unit, everyone is working as a team. Before entering the unit, people must sign an agreement, which begins, “I agree to leave all gang or other group affiliations and loyalties at the door for the duration I am in the TRUE unit.”

Carter is mentored by Clyde Miekle, 47, of Hartford, and Isschar Howard, 40, of New Haven. Both men are serving long sentences for murder, and both hope to help Carter avoid the mistakes that brought them here.

“There’s nothing I learned here that wasn’t told to me before,” Carter says. But when he gets advice from his mentors, it carries more weight than it has from past teachers who did not understand his world. “You’re teaching me about Shakespeare and I’m worried about what I’m going to eat,” he says. He adds that his mentors “say something to me every day that gets me so mad, because they’re right.”

A recent example: Carter was having a debate with a guard. “To me, I’m debating, but my body language is giving off all sorts of aggression.” Afterward, his mentors took him aside and showed him how threatening his body language appeared.

For the mentors, working with men like Carter is a profound chance at redemption, or some form of it. “You can see your life in theirs,” Miekle says.

Howard adds, “I did a lot of terrible things and nothing can ever change that.” But he says if he does good things through TRUE, nothing will ever change that either, and he can have the “narrative to say I did both.”

Semple says it’s too soon to see what effect the program will have on recidivism. “One thing we should keep in mind, a year from now the results may come back that recidivism may not be impacted at all,” Semple says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a failure. I think what you also have to look at, is to measure what harm looks like. The circumstances that get somebody incarcerated in the first place, more often than not, involve victimization [a crime that has a direct victim]. Maybe some people return and [their crime] doesn’t involve victimization. To me that’s also a success.”

The TRUE unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

Semple stepped down as commissioner this past January, days before Ned Lamont succeeded Malloy as governor. Lamont has promised to build on the social justice reforms of the Malloy administration, and Semple says his decision to step down had nothing to do with not wishing to work with Lamont, who, like Malloy, is a Democrat. Instead, Semple says he took the job initially because he felt he owed it to his son, but that debt has been paid. Semple went into the office for the last time on Jan. 1 to mark the anniversary of his son’s death.

Before Semple left, Lamont asked him to provide internal and external recommendations for a successor. Among the names he provided was Rollin Cook. The former executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, Cook, like Semple, is a nationally recognized prison reformer. In Utah, he earned the praise of the ACLU and the state’s Republican governor. In December, Cook was named Connecticut’s new correction commissioner.

Cook says he has long been impressed with the reforms enacted in Connecticut. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me to continue to push these progressive ideas,” he says. He adds that his philosophy in general is, “Being incarcerated is the punishment,” but the goal should always be “to help those folks rather than just warehouse people.” Cook and Lamont both toured the TRUE unit shortly after taking office, and Cook met with members of Connecticut’s ACLU and plans on meeting with them regularly.

Discussing what still needs to be done in Connecticut, both Cook and Semple separately use the same phrase: there’s no more low-hanging fruit. In other words, future high-impact reforms will require investments and further collaboration with the legislature.

This legislative session there were several proposed bills linked to prison reform, including one that would outlaw discrimination against people for employment, housing and in other areas based solely on their criminal record. Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut is supporting the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically expunge the records of people with nonviolent records after they’ve remained crime free for a number of years.

Semple says more needs to be done to help those with records succeed when they are released. “Society needs to change its perspective on how to deal with the stigma of incarceration,” he says. “I think the notion of ‘do the time for the crime and all is forgiven,’ really needs to apply itself. We need to give formerly incarcerated people some semblance of hope that they can move on with their lives post incarceration.”

He also believes education needs to play a bigger role in prison reform.

“If you have been in the system and have an eighth-grade education or lower, within two years, the likelihood of you to come back is around 72 percent. If you do have an education of ninth grade or above the likelihood of coming back within 24 months is reduced by 31 percent,” he says. Currently, Connecticut’s prison system has relationships with four community colleges, one of which has an association with Wesleyan. But Semple says educational opportunities need to be expanded.

He would also like to see U.S. prisons rethink the full-time incarceration model. “If you think about incarceration in this country, we only know one way. It’s seven days a week, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” he says. “What if we became more versatile in how we apply justice?”

He envisions a pilot program that would allow carefully screened, nonviolent offenders to work in the day and come back at night. “You would think, wow, that’s pretty unique. [But] it happens in Germany, it happens in other parts of Europe. It’s called the open-prison concept.” It also used to happen right here. “Connecticut did it in the early ’70s and ’80s,” he says. Even so, it sounds too outlandish for Connecticut or most U.S. states today. But then again, so did housing youth offenders in an open environment where they would receive guidance from older offenders. Or at least it did at first.

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University