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Former inmate, now UMPI student highlights benefits of second chances

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine —  Shyquinn Dix is wrapping up his sophomore year of college studies and aiming to prove a lot of people right about the value of second chances and alternatives to incarceration.

Dix, a social work major and a point guard on the University of Maine Presque Isle’s basketball team, was featured recently in a CBS TV 60 Minutes episode that highlighted a new Connecticut prison intervention and rehabilitation program.

Dix, who grew up in Stamford,Connecticut, was serving a four-year sentence for check fraud when he enrolled in the German-inspired Connecticut prison intervention program for young adults. Known as TRUE, for truthful, respectful, understanding and elevating, the program takes young prisoners into a new housing wing and offers mentorship, job and skills training, and personal development classes with the aim of lowering the recidivism rate for former inmates.

“My mom worked a lot, so there was a lot of time where I was unsupervised,” said Dix, the oldest of four siblings. “I started getting in trouble at a young age and as I got older I started hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

In his late teens, Dix quit a college program in Nebraska to return to help care for his two young sons in Connecticut.

“I went home to try to support my kids but it was too much for me, so I just started doing other things to get quick money. I eventually landed in jail and got sentenced to four years for check fraud.”

Dix found himself in a maximum security prison with inmates sentenced for a range of serious crimes and all spending 22 hours a day inside of a cell. In his first year at the prison, the state of Connecticut started the new TRUE program aimed at young people like Dix, who would be out of the prison after a few years and at risk of returning.

The TRUE program was set up around the principles of prisons in Germany, where the recidivism rate is 50 percent less than the United States. Rather than a model based entirely on punishment, the German prison system and the TRUE program emphasize rehabilitation.

“Central to the program is intensive counseling,” as 60 Minutes reports. “Through peer and self-criticism, prisoners are forced to face the demons and behavior that put them behind bars.”

Dix applied to and enrolled in the program with the goal of returning to college and learning new skills. A corrections officer on staff in the program, James Vassar, took note of Dix’s efforts, as well as his basketball skills.

“I guess he had seen something in me. He kept nagging me to take the program seriously,” Dix said. “I really dug in and I treated it like I was in college.”

Through an acquaintance, Vassar got in touch with UMPI athletic director and men’s basketball coach Dan Kane, floating the idea of encouraging Dix to consider enrolling at UMPI.  

“My friend mentioned that he knew James Vassar,” Kane said. “He had a special young kid that was incarcerated at the time, but he was a great kid and a good basketball player and they were trying to find a home for him. What they were really looking for was somewhere where he could kind of get away and really focus on school and focus on basketball.”

After some background work and back and forth communications, Kane met with Dix and told him that he could potentially apply to UMPI and try out for a spot on the basketball team.

“I was surprised, because where I come from people don’t give you second chances and really don’t give you a first chance,” Dix said. “Coach Kane and Officer Vassar saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.”

Dix continued in the TRUE program and eventually earned a two-year reduction in his sentence, partly with the help of Kane and based on his plans to enroll at UMPI.   

In the summer of 2017, Dix arrived in Presque Isle ready to restart college academically and while playing in the NCAA’s Division 3 North Atlantic Conference.

“At first, I was kind of nervous,” Dix said. “My coaches, professors, teammates and people on campus helped me adapt. Playing on the basketball team has been great. I hadn’t played in a few years, but being here, I have that love again for basketball.”

With two years left of university, Dix said he is focused on his academics as a dean’s list student, enjoying basketball and his future career.

“I chose social work because while I was in the TRUE program, I was able to find a passion. People gave me an opportunity and I want to put myself in a position where I can do that.”

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