RI Monthly Publishes an Article on 9 Yards

June 17, 2014 - 3:46pm

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"Making it on the Outside" by Ellen Liberman

Jesse scores eighteen points. He scores six less than twice what Max scores. How many points does Max score? A textbook in one hand, a stub of chalk in the other, teacher Paul Pasaba waited for an answer in the tiny prison classroom.

“We have to translate the words into an equation,” he says. “But once you have the equation, you guys know how to go right through it.”

Four shorn heads bend over their notebooks. Four pencils crawl across the page. Inmates are good at jail math. Based on the calendar and symbolically expressed, the calculations involve the number of bids (prison stays), flattened sentences (complete prison terms), time cuts and credits (earned good time). Every frequent offender can fluidly add and subtract these numbers. But algebra, with its unknown factors, is something else.

“I’ll raise my hand,” says Derek LeBlanc. “I’m lost.”

LeBlanc has been in and out of secure facilities since he was thirteen. A taste for opiates honed a talent for burglary. In 2007, the Warwick police charged LeBlanc and four others in connection with a rash of break-ins that netted televisions, jewelry, electronics and guns.

Then eighteen and a violator on a previous arrest, LeBlanc pleaded to nine felonies and was sentenced to eighteen months. Less than six months after he returned to the community, the cycle started anew. He is now serving five years for another raft of burglary convictions.

“On paper I look horrible. But I’m not a bad person. I’ve made bad choices,” he says. “I’m used to starting things and not finishing them. But I’m planning on finishing and finishing strong.”

LeBlanc gets nine months of education, behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment inside prison, plus six months of housing, a job and mentoring when he’s released into the community. What are the odds that he will return to the ACI? That’s a bigger unknown.

In a five-year period, from 2004 to 2009, state courts handed down 28,000 prison sentences to 15,000 Rhode Islanders. Of the roughly 4,000 people sentenced to prison in 2004, 54 percent returned to the Adult Correctional Institutions as a sentenced inmate or an inmate awaiting trial within three years.

A groundbreaking pilot program is working the recidivism equation with the goal of getting an answer of zero. Created by OpenDoors, a nonprofit serving ex-offenders, 9 Yards attacks recidivism by targeting those with a high risk of re-offending and systemically remedying each factor.

“Everything we’ve done in the last ten years has been a Band Aid,” says Executive Director Sol Rodriguez. “But I really believe that potential is there — especially when people are still young enough to turn themselves around.”

According to a 2009 Pew Center report, “The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” one in every thirty-one American adults is in prison or on probation or parole. States spent $52 billion on corrections, a figure that has quadrupled in two decades, the second fastest expenditure after Medicaid.

Battered budgets have renewed interest in lowering recidivism rates, says Pew’s Ryan King. But it’s a blunt and imprecise way of measuring the effectiveness of the correctional system, he adds, and if policymakers want to realize savings while enhancing public safety, they have to look beyond the recidivism trend lines.

“It’s important to understand that’s not the end of the conversation,” he says.

For states interested in continuing that discussion, there’s a solid body of research on the elements of successful transitioning. Professor Edward Latessa, director of the University of Cincinnati’s School for Criminal Justice, says that’s reflected in the shifting focus of his professional training workshops: “We now spend time teaching them how to do it and how to do it well. We don’t have to spend time convincing them. The pendulum’s been swinging for a few years now.”

Unlike the majority of programs, which tend to operate only inside the facility or in the community, 9 Yards begins to invest in the offender while he is still incarcerated, and continues care when he leaves. At least nine months before release, participants receive individualized education and occupational training along with behavioral change and family therapy. For another six months after release, they are placed in part-time jobs and provided fully subsidized supportive housing, case management, mentors and other social services.

More than a year ago, 9 Yards won a $130,000 Innovative Partnership grant, one of ten the Governor’s Workforce Board gave to programs that target the unemployed and under-employed.
(The program also received a $10,000 grant from the city of Providence’s Dexter Fund.) Ex-offenders make up a sizeable portion of the labor pool. In December, nearly 24,000 Rhode Islanders were on probation or parole.

“Folks who have criminal records have extreme challenges in obtaining employment,” says Rick Brooks, the board’s executive director. “This was our most unique proposal. And if this is successful, we would hope to see it replicated and scaled up.”

The Department of Corrections was ready to embrace a comprehensive re-entry program after a forty-year rehabilitation that began in the 1970s, when the ACI was under federal scrutiny for failing to provide the basics of prisoner care. In the 1990s, after the operation reached its constitutional threshold to run a safe and sanitary institution, prison officials turned their attention to professionalizing its staff and programs.

More recently, the ACI has focused on strengthening inmates’ prospects on the outside. It, too, has received funding — a federal “Second Chance” grant — to beef up its re-entry programs while building relationships with the social service entities that assist ex-offenders. In October, the department reported a 6 percent drop in the three-year recidivism rate, based on a comparison of two groups of offenders released in 2004 and 2009; 48 percent of the latter cohort of 3,400 was behind bars three years later.

“There’s a real interest now in recidivism reduction on the state level, a realization that it doesn’t always have to be at high rates we’ve known. There’s an openness to providing the resources we need,” says Corrections Director A.T. Wall II. “We are in one of the great shifts in correction policy. 9 Yards reflects the more sophisticated thinking that’s evolved in our profession.”

The program began in July, with fifteen randomly selected participants in the medium security facility. (Two left, one voluntarily.) Close observers of the remaining thirteen say that the program, with its emphasis on education and re-aligning inmates’ self-perceptions, has already produced changes: more hope, fewer disciplinary infractions and a newfound affinity for school.

Initially, thirty-two-year-old Ed Coulter, convicted of second-degree robbery, wasn’t interested. In high school, Coulter disrupted the classroom. But OpenDoors’s Nick Horton, who runs the program, says that Coulter is now one of his best students, never missing a class.

“He’s gone through a series of transformative changes which are undeniable. It’s pretty impressive,” Horton says.

Algebra comes from the Arabic “reunion of the broken parts” or “restoration,” and it’s as apt a metaphor as any for what the 9 Yards project is trying
to accomplish.

Coulter is aiming for college with a major in business while he also pursues his commercial driver’s license. He’s been inspired by his volunteer teachers, especially one who struggled with unemployment — without resorting to robbery.

“I guess there’s a reason to keep going and try to do the right thing,” Coulter mused. “I want to prove it to myself that all those jailbird stereotypes are just that.”
LeBlanc wants a spot at the University of Rhode Island Talent Development Program to study kinesiology.

“It’s a little scary,” says LeBlanc. “But it’s important to remember what you are solving for — re-entry — that’s our variable. And that’s what I have to remember.”

Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.




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