SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 15, 2013

Watson: Inmate rehab programs break cycle of recidivism

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — In Massachusetts, there are 18 state prisons and 19 county jails. The inmate population of both systems totals roughly 23,000 offenders.

In a typical year, approximately 16,000 inmates are released — an average of 320 per week.

The jails and prisons are usually at or near their full capacity, so the numbers above also apply in reverse. That is, roughly 16,000 individuals are freshly incarcerated every year.

It costs the state between $25,000 and $45,000 per prisoner, per year, to house those inmates. Many of them are repeat offenders; approximately 40 percent of them will be behind bars again, within three years of being released.

In Essex County alone — there are 14 counties in the state — roughly 1,250 convicted offenders are put in jail every year. The same number is released each year.

If you’re starting to picture a treadmill or a revolving door, with the same inmates going around and around — sometimes to be replaced with very similar offenders — you’re getting the picture.

At the county level especially, which incarcerates lower-level offenders, almost every inmate is young and male and goes into jail with a drug or alcohol addiction, no job, no diploma, no vocational skills, and little family or adult support.

The wastefulness of this status quo — where a young man can be incarcerated three, four, five or six times within the space of maybe 10 years, say between ages 17 and 27, without any change in his proclivity to commit crime — is obvious.

Fortunately, there are ways to intervene smartly in the cycle of recidivism, and citizens should be supportive of those efforts. For in the long run, they save tax dollars and lower the recidivism rates.

I recently spoke with Richard Wysopal, the manager of a program designed to elicit educational efforts from inmates who can be motivated to pursue higher education upon their release from jail.

Called the Danells Scholarship Program, and run jointly by the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and North Shore Community College, the initiative has successfully assisted 30 offenders with transforming their lives.

Prisoners who wish to participate in the program — and receive the tuition aid it offers — must demonstrate their suitability, diligence, discipline, attitude and character fitness by meeting certain requirements. They must complete a wide range of courses in prison, including receiving their GED, and they must agree to participate in transition classes after leaving jail. They must continue to perform academically, socially and vocationally while enrolled at NSCC.

Last week, I had long discussions with two men who have been participating in the Danells program.

Francisco Paulino, 24, who will graduate from NSCC in the spring and go elsewhere to continue his education, has been out of jail for almost four years. Between seventh grade, when he first started hanging with gang members, and the age of 20, when he decided to change his ways, he was incarcerated four times and arrested many more.

Living in Lynn as a middle school and high school student, Francisco progressed from vandalism and street fights to more serious law-breaking and firearms possessions. Constantly getting into trouble in and around Lynn Tech, and thoroughly alienated from certain of his teachers, he was kicked out of the school at the beginning of his third repetition of 10th grade.

By then, he had been shot in the shoulder, upper body and thigh; later, he got stabbed through the lung and nearly died. None of that violence dissuaded him.

What finally got his attention, and moved him, while in Middleton Jail, was watching the toughest, most hardened guys from three rival gangs attend a series of seminars that had been organized specifically for them to confront each other, confront their lives and consider all of it clearly.

After that experience, Francisco signed on for a group of rehab programs, including Danells, and never slid back.

Julio Morales, 23, has been attending NSCC for almost two years, and intends to transfer to UMass to continue his education.

Between age 13, when he was first arrested for selling marijuana, and age 19, when he was incarcerated for the third and final time, Julio was heavily involved with alcohol, drugs and guns. He both used and sold large quantities of many types of drugs, and developed a heroin addiction. He was arrested many times.

He detoxed numerous times, and relapsed every time. He quit Peabody High in 10th grade and expanded his dealing until the police and ATF raided his house later that year.

It was in his third incarceration, at the Lawrence correctional facility, that he made the decision to never return. He took rehab and re-entry courses, and was particularly affected by alcohol treatment classes and religious studies.

Both Francisco and Julio are transforming their lives. They now have jobs, educations, health, housing, transportation, support systems, self-esteem, confidence and goals. It takes attention to every one of those elements — simultaneously — to sustain an individual’s comeback.

Nobody can impose on a prisoner the desire for transformation; that motivation must come from the inmate. Many fail, repeatedly. But to break out of the cycle of recidivism, an offender almost always needs the extra boost, the advantages and the one-on-one attention conferred by smart rehabilitation programs, whether in jail or outside.

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Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at watson@nii.net.