Thinking for a Change: Inside Norfolk’s Jail

“I felt like the more you lock me up, the more drugs I’m going out to sell,” Demetrous Bowe said.

Like a pumped up athlete ready to get back in the game, Bowe described his determination to break the law again, as soon he was released. That’s what he did, over and over again. He’s been in an out of the Norfolk City Jail his entire life.

“I’ve never saw a reason to change. I’m going out to steal and sell drugs; that’s how I make a living. Now I’m thinking I’m 47 years old now; it’s time to change. Now I’m really starting to see it. There are a lot of programs out there, Second Chances, Step Up; I just never wanted to use them,” Bowe said.

This epiphany happened for Bowe while he was taking the newest class inside Norfolk’s Jail, called simply, “Thinking for a Change.” The classic concept is offenders can take control of their lives by taking control of their thinking. A class full of inmates in black-and-white jumpsuits fills up the room, engaged in self-reflection, considering the impact of their actions on others, and learning problem solving skills to address challenges and stress.

“Never wake up without a positive plan for each day,” inmate McKinley Scott said was his biggest lesson from the class. “I have also disappointed the people I love. Now I need to put this mess behind me. I have to use my tools to stop coming to jail,” Scott said.

Scott has been in and out of jail his entire life. His first time behind bars was at age 15, and now he’s 60 years old. As he shared his story, 20-year-old Terrence Barfield sat next to him, listening and hoping that his future would be different.

“Instead of thinking one way, I think will another. It will put me on a different path. I have a good support system at home. I always had a mother and father at home. It’s really all on me,” Barfield said.

Barfield spent his 20th birthday inside the Norfolk jail, and it’s his second time here for stealing cars. He says he graduated from Maury High school. “I look back on a lot of stuff I’ve done; I knew better. I’m not stupid. I got caught up being in the wrong place, trying to impress the wrong people,” Barfield said.

Just by sitting in one class, you could listen to inmates analyzing their actions, and taking responsibility for their past. But once they are released, will the techniques from this program really help prevent them from committing crimes again?

According to research, there is some hope. The National Institute of Corrections launched “Thinking for a Change” in 1998, and since then, it has become an evidence-based practice with dozens of studies nationwide stating the program reduces recidivism. In Virginia, the data shows a 27 percent drop in people reoffending, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

For the most part, only prisons have offered the program, where inmates have longer stays compared to the average jail stay of 58 days. Norfolk is standing out as a leader here, becoming one of the first jails in the Commonwealth to offer “Thinking for a Change.” The city’s courts, human services, probation and parole and the Sheriff’s office are all providing staff to teach the classes, and the curriculum is free. While it’s definitely positive teamwork between multiple government agencies, there is much room for improvement. What will it take to reduce the recidivism rate by 50 percent?

The Norfolk City Jail already offers a variety of programs to help inmates learn to make better decisions, become better fathers, connect with their spirituality, overcome substance abuse addictions, participate in work release jobs and even listen to Ted Talks.

Sheriff Bob McCabe believes that the biggest change will come from creating a greater network between the incarcerated and the community. He encourages community leaders (background check approved) to volunteer in jail, to help bridge that gap. Recently, teachers from the Governor’s School for the Arts led an art class, where they mentored talented, incarcerated artists and also told them about job opportunities in the growing Norfolk Arts District. There are also creative writing classes in the works, and weekly volunteer speakers to talk in jail about overcoming obstacles.

What if we all started “Thinking for a Change” too? Let us know what types of programs you would like to see in our city’s jail. Do you think we can reduce recidivism further and make Norfolk safer with a more holistic approach to criminal justice?



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