Whether it’s on stage or in the third-floor corridor of King’s County Criminal Courthouse, acting is in Garly Pluviose’s blood. He has gotten better at overcoming stage fright, he says, but still feels a bout of shyness every time he goes up to someone coming through the set of large light blue doors at the end of the hallway. His timid smile, soft-spoken voice and colorful outfit are a sharp contrast to the mugshot in his arrest records.
Pluviose, 23, works as a peer recruiter for MOVEUP, a study led by Columbia psychologist Katherine Elkington that is testing new approaches to link young adults involved in the criminal justice system to healthcare providers and reduce risky sexual behavior and substance abuse.
Four days a week, Pluviose sits in the courthouse on one of the wooden benches in front of the offices of Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, an organization offering defendants charged with non-violent misdemeanors supervised release programs as an alternative to bail or jail time.
While he waits, Pluviose watches anime cartoons on his phone. In his bag, he has a new Nintendo game console – a gift from the rest of the research team for his upcoming birthday. Japanese popular culture is one of his favorite pastimes but his life ambition is acting. In July, he played three different roles in Kizzy’s Playhouse “Four Women,” including one of the four women’s love interest. Earlyn Ferguson, the playwright who runs the small Brooklyn theater company and wrote the play, called him a quiet, steady actor, who “knows all his lines … and takes directions well.”
Pluviose says the directions for his work as a peer recruiter are simple. When he sees someone in their late teens or early 20s coming through the blue doors of Brooklyn Justice Initiatives’ offices, he walks up to them and tells them about the study. If he manages to catch their interest, one of the two research assistants sitting on the benches across the hallway steps in to check their eligibility. Research assistant Alexis Jones explained that they look for young adults between 18 and 24 who have engaged in risky behavior involving sex, drugs or alcohol.
In one individual and three group sessions, participants talk about that behavior, but, following an approach called critical consciousness, they also look at racially biased ads or skewed storytelling in the media. Examples on MOVEUP’s website include ads from Intel and Adidas depicting black men as athletic and physically strong but at the same time threatening or submissive. Participants learn strategies to be more aware of how feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement in the face of discrimination can cause stress and they learn healthier methods to handle that stress by acknowledging it and speaking up about the underlying causes, rather than coping with it through drugs, alcohol and other harmful behavior.
Participants set their own goals in terms of taking better decisions with regards to drug, sex and other issues. Frequent individual follow-up sessions via text or phone are designed to help them stay on track. For Pluviose, making better decisions meant cutting down on his alcohol use. He said his drinking habits made him do “illogical things” when he was under the influence, which made him “end up downstairs” in one of the arraignment courts on the ground floor, following his arrest for multiple misdemeanor charges of trespassing and fare jumping.
Pluviose participated in MOVEUP’s pilot study in July of 2017. He said he was initially interested in the $50 he was offered in exchange for participating but during the eligibility survey, he became more and more impressed by the interviewer’s genuine interest in his situation.
Over the course of the next four weeks, Pluviose felt that the study staff genuinely rooted for him to succeed but also weren’t afraid give him their honest opinion or call him out when they felt he was slacking. “They don’t behave like parents or friends,” he said. “They don’t patronize you, but they also don’t sympathize with you.” He said the approach worked well for him, helping him decline invitations to do drugs or drink excessively. He’s also following practical tips such as carrying around a condom at all times so he’s safe in the case of a sexual encounter.
When his participation in the study came to an end after a month, Pluviose said he felt upset. He didn’t want to leave the supportive environment and kept in touch with the researchers. Jones recalls that his enthusiasm during the study did not go unnoticed so the researchers decided to hire him as one of the peer recruiters. “We couldn’t get rid of him,” she said, smiling. Initially, Pluviose worked as a peer recruiter for one day a week, but it quickly grew to two, three and eventually four days a week.
On the weekend, he works as a server in a restaurant, but he considers his work for MOVEUP to be his main job and he takes his commitment very seriously. That means staying out of trouble with the law and setting the right example. “One of the things they teach you at the study is that your actions have consequences,” Pluviose said. “If I can’t make it to work, there will be nobody to do the recruitment that day.” Ferguson said Pluviose shows the same discipline in showing up on time for rehearsals and notifying her when if he does run late. “He always endeavors to do better,” she said.
In the future, Pluviose said he would like to be more involved in the other aspects of the study but he understands that right now, he is needed most as a peer recruiter in the courthouse. He estimated that since he started in October of last year, he has recruited between 80 and 90 individuals for the study. Elkington, the study’s director, said the research staff is trying to find about 225 people to go through the whole MOVEUP program, as well as a similarly sized control group. Over the next two years, the larger follow-up study aims to provide the quantitative data needed to test the efficacy of MOVEUP’s approach, so it can be implemented by healthcare service providers catering to young adults involved in the criminal justice system.
Pluviose does not have to see statistics to be convinced. For him, his own improved decision-making is ample proof of the effectiveness of MOVEUP’s approach. “Brooklyn Justice Initiatives gave me a second chance to be free,” he said, “but this study gave me a second chance to live.” Ferguson said he has something to look forward to, because she is writing a role into her next play designed specifically for him. In the meantime, he will continue to sit outside the light blue doors on the third floor of the courthouse building trying to convince his peers to join in the study that he said helped him turn his life around.
This article was originally published here on Oct. 20, 2018 .