People steered clear of 15-year-old "Marvin" after his arrival at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, Va. Bitter over his arrest on drug charges, the teenager hurled insults and threatened violence when others approached.
That didn't deter psychologist Jamie Berry, PhD--in his first corrections job after internship--from working with him. Berry saw Marvin as a confused teen who lacked the black male role models Berry once had in his uncles. Berry's father had always been absent, and he clashed with his stepfather, so it was his uncles that Berry asked questions of, modeled his haircuts after and spoke to about the opposite sex. Berry sought to do the same for Marvin, advising him to repair his broken relationships with his father and pregnant girlfriend, and to work hard in the prison school.
Though Marvin rebuffed Berry at first, he slowly warmed to him, ultimately making honor roll. That earned Marvin placement in a less restrictive zone, as well as Berry's praise. In fact, the pride Berry felt is the reason he entered juvenile corrections.
"In juvenile detention you have a chance to have a connection with someone, to give them hope or a new spark of life," he says. "I'm attracted to working with younger black males because they still have a chance to start over, and maybe I can help facilitate that."
Fueling his work are some grim statistics: About 12 percent of black men ages 20-34 years old are incarcerated--compared with less than 2 percent of white men that age--according to a recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Additionally, about one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, the report estimates. Berry has sought to combat that trend ever since his days as a "big brother" and substance abuse counselor to black boys in the early 1990s in Columbia, S.C.
"This was my generation--the 'hip hop generation,'" he says. "I grew up when the terminology developed, and I wanted to help."
But he decided he wanted to broaden that help beyond one-on-one interactions, so he pursued a psychology doctorate in program design at Bowling Green State University. There he built on his master's thesis findings on "reactionary masculinity theory." According to the theory, says Berry, "males who identify as hypermasculine tend to think that being violent makes you more of a man." Other characteristics include risk-taking and callous and degrading attitudes toward women.
Regardless of race, men with violent histories most often identify that way, Berry found. But because a disproportionate number of black men grow up with such histories, Berry created a program tailored to break them of the hypermasculine pattern.
Called MALE--Making Attitude Adjustments in order to Lead more Effective lives--the program teaches a proactive approach to masculinity as opposed to a reactive one. For example, the proactive man thinks about birth control before having sex; the reactive man thinks about it afterward.
"The whole idea is to slow down the thought process--anticipating consequences of choices made and accepting responsibility for the consequences of those choices," explains Berry.
In group therapy sessions, MALE participants discuss portrayals of men in rap songs, biographies, poetry and commercial movies. They consider how the men approach masculinity and what results from their choices. Berry gets juvenile inmates to think about their own choices the same way--of the price to be paid for sparring with peers, shirking schoolwork or joining prison gangs.
After MALE proved effective in pilot-testing in Ohio prisons--compared with controls, participants showed reduced hypermasculine attitudes, improved ethnic identity and better problem-solving skills--Berry brought the program to Bon Air in 2000. Before that, in 1999, he used it in the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Va. And he's now applying it on a broader scale at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Maryland, which serves 12-18-year-olds--most of them African-American. As Cheltenham's new mental health coordinator, Berry is overhauling mental health programming there.
But for all the fulfillment that work brings, Berry worries that his charges will be released into the same environments that led to their problems. Marvin, for example, did fine at first, but was later arrested for beating up his girlfriend.
As a black psychologist, Berry finds himself uniquely positioned to connect with black teens like Marvin, but, he says, "watching them walk away is the most difficult part....You're preparing them to leave, just like you do with your own kids. But the difference is you don't know what happens and can't help them anymore after they go."
In Berry's view, communities need to install better post-incarceration mentoring that involves going to teens "and doing what they do--playing basketball or video games or walking in the park." Berry and a colleague plan to publish a book, tentatively titled "Beyond Rhetoric," on that theme. Sounds like he's well on his way to designing his next program.