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Posts Tagged ‘offender’

Photo: John Walker
Melvin Smith, who completed the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) program at Fresno County Jail, is now clean and running his family’s well-drilling business.

Here’s another example of a program that has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Brianna Calix reports at the Fresno Bee, “The last time Melvin Smith was arrested, he was so hungry and tired that he prayed to God the authorities would keep him in Fresno County Jail instead of releasing him.

“Smith was arrested 14 times in 2013 for drug use, auto theft and vandalism. In Fresno County, law enforcement arrested him 41 times since 1999. ‘I was wild,’ he said. In jail, his ‘celly’ asked him where he saw himself in five years. Smith’s goal was to reunite with his family.

“He’s been out of jail for four years, sober for five years and his probation ends in June. He runs his grandfather’s well and pump company, goes to church with Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and is about to buy a home with a pool for his family. For birthdays, he takes his family on trips to places such as Universal Studios, Magic Mountain and Disneyland.

“During that last stint in jail, Smith went through the Transition from Jail to Community program. It helps inmates who are more likely to re-offend prepare for life after incarceration.

“The TJC program, as it’s known, was started in 2013. The men who complete the program have a dramatically lower recidivism rate than the rest of the jail population, in part due to the support system the program builds for them.

“ ‘We’ve had programs for many years in the jail,’ Sheriff Margaret Mims said. ‘This one was very different.’ …

“Inmates have to opt into the program voluntarily, and not just any inmate can qualify. Forty or fewer people participate in the program at a time. The jail houses between 2,600 and 2,900 inmates.

“Jail staff evaluate each inmate based on how many times they’ve been arrested in Fresno County, their age and how old they were when they first were arrested. Based on that score, staff evaluate the inmate’s risk to re-offend. Only medium-to-high-risk inmates qualify.

“If the inmate agrees to participate in the program, he signs a contract pledging to participate, follow the rules and stay engaged with supervision upon release.

“In a typical housing unit, the inmates tend to group by race, said Michelle LeFors, Fresno County Jail’s inmate services director.

“ ‘Not in the TJC,’ she said. ‘You’ll see mixed races sitting together, sharing a meal with each other. … They work with each other as opposed to against each other. If you ask the inmates, they’ll tell you they leave their politics at the door.’ …

“As a gang dropout in jail, [inmate Clinton S. ] constantly worried about his safety. But that’s not the case in the TJC program. …

” ‘Everyone in here is pretty much in here for the same reason. There is perks that they come over here for, but everyone obviously wants to change because being in jail is not cool. It gets old. You grow up quick.’

“The program has helped transform his mindset and taught him to persevere and that his consequences have actions.

“So far, his biggest takeaway in the program is to ‘not give up.’ ”

More here. See also the recent post on my cousin’s work to rehabilitate 18- to 24-year-old prisoners. So encouraging.

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Prison improv classes organized by actress Sabra Williams and film director Tim Robbins correlate with lower recidivism, according to a recent article in New York magazine.

Writes reporter Mickey Rapkin, “You can imagine how this idea was received 10 years ago, but here’s the pitch: A tenacious British actress teams up with Oscar winner Tim Robbins to bring acting classes to maximum-security prisons.

“And not just any acting classes, but improv workshops that ask Crips and Bloods and convicted murderers and white supremacists to sit together, wear makeup and masks, and maybe even pretend to be women sometimes. The eight-week intensive is meant to help the incarcerated better handle their emotions. …

“People said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you want to give them crayons. You’ve got acting classes?’” recalls Robbins of the launch of the Actors Gang Prison Project. ‘We’re like, “No, … it’s about changing behavior.” ‘

“Fundraising was a slog. Correctional officers pushed back. And these actor-facilitators were dismissed as another merry band of liberals pushing what’s known in the Prison Industrial Complex as ‘hug-a-thug’ programming.

“Sabra Williams, the co-founder and executive director of the Prison Project — who also had a small part in Kristen Wiig’s Welcome to Me last year — remembers those early days. ‘There was so much opposition … A few haters thought we were giving inmates too much power. One spread rumors that I was having an inappropriate relationship with a student.’

“Yet, despite the haters, the Prison Project celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and will expand to 10 California prisons in February 2017, just as some hard data has finally come in to prove the program’s merits.

“The recidivism rate in the state is more than 50 percent. But a recent preliminary study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that, for inmates who completed the Prison Project, that number dropped to 10.6 percent. Critics will point to a sample size that’s too small to draw broad conclusions, and it’s a valid concern. But the provisional findings are encouraging.” More here.

I want so much to believe in this approach, but having recently read poet Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir of life in a maximum security prison in the late 1990s, I can’t help but wonder. I look forward to more data. My review of Baca’s A Place to Stand is at GoodReads.

Photo: Peter Merts
Sabra Williams, Tim Robbins, and inmates in an Actor’s Gang Prison Project class at the California Rehabilitation Center.

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Giving prisoners something constructive to do with their empty time has long been a goal of reform activists and prisoners themselves. The upstate New York prisoners mentioned in a recent Talking Points Memo article really got into formal debating — to the point that they beat a storied Harvard team.

Colin Binkley writes, “Months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York inmates.

“The showdown took place at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard College, and where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Last month, they invited the Ivy League undergraduates and this year’s national debate champions over for a friendly competition. …

” ‘Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus,’ said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative.” …

” ‘There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend,’ [the Harvard team] wrote. ‘And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.’

“Against Harvard, the inmates were tasked with defending a position they opposed: They had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the U.S. illegally. The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team hadn’t considered.  …

“While in prison, they learn without the help of the Internet, relying instead on resources provided by the college.”

More here.

Photo: Acroterion
Eastern Correctional Facility

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Kirk Johnson writes in today’s NY Times about efforts to make time in prison more constructive, both in terms of sustainable practices that control prison costs and in terms of inmate improvement.​ The endangered frog program in Oregon, which requires perfect behavior from participating prisoners, is especially intriguing.

Johnson writes, “Mat Henson, 25, serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence for robbery and assault, and his research partner, Taylor Davis, 29, who landed in the Cedar Creek Corrections Center here in central Washington for stealing cars, raised about 250 Oregon spotted frogs in the prison yard this summer.

“Working with biologists, Mr. Henson is now helping write a scientific curriculum for other frog-raisers, in prison or out. A previous inmate in the program, released some years ago, is finishing his Ph.D. in molecular biology. …

“The program’s broader goal of bringing nature and sustainable practices to prisons is echoed across the nation as states seek ways to run prisons more cost-effectively.

“Utilitarian practicality led Wisconsin in 2008 to begin having inmates grow much of their own food. And federal energy rules are pushing the goal of zero-net energy use in federal prisons by 2030.

“Indiana and Massachusetts have become aggressive in reducing energy and water consumption and waste in their prisons, and tough renewable energy mandates in California are pushing alternative generation and conservation at prisons there, said Paul Sheldon, a senior adviser at Natural Capitalism Solutions, a Colorado-based nonprofit that works with government agencies and companies on sustainability issues. …

“There may be some intangible benefits for inmates who are being exposed to the scientific process, many of them for the first time, said Carri LeRoy, a professor of ecology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, and co-director of the Sustainability in Prisons project.

“Science, she said, is about procedural order, point A to point B, with every step measured and marked for others to check and follow. And when the focus of that work is a creature that undergoes a profound metamorphosis from egg to tadpole to adult, the lesson is also one about the possibilities of change. In a prison, Professor LeRoy said, that is a big deal.

“ ‘This image of transformation, I think, allows them maybe to understand their own transformation,’ Professor LeRoy said.”

Read more.

Photograph: Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

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Today’s NY Times has an article on the cutbacks in prison arts programs and on the many ways they help convicts prepare to lead a better life outside. Tim Robbins and the Actors Gang is trying to raise funds to keep this theater program in a California prison alive.

“Two years ago, arts in corrections programs were a mainstay of prisons across the country, embraced by administrators as a way to channel aggression, break down racial barriers, teach social skills and prepare inmates for the outside world. There was an arts coordinator in each of the 33 California state prisons, overseeing a rich variety of theater, painting and dance. But these programs have become a fading memory, casualties of the budget crises.”

Read more here.

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