I suppose you could call me a state government junkie…as well as an information junkie. As a state employee, I feel it is my duty to keep informed. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I downgraded my cable service long ago to “basic” to save about $600 a year. Therefore, I watch a lot of political affairs shows interspersed with my Netflix DVDs of choice.
It is a minimalist life, but a fine compromise for me in my considerable quest to change careers and offer my talents and services to the Southern California or San Diego community. (Hopefully, in the near future).
Given the above, I was perfectly content to watch a series of parole hearings sponsored by the State of Connecticut Department of Corrections during a recent Saturday night dinner in front of the TV.
(Author’s Note- There is approximately 3.5 million residents in Connecticut, 19 state prisons and 1 federal prison (not counting county jails).
The hearing consisted of three officers, two male, one female and a parole officer. (Male) As I viewed the parade of offenders, I noted many things of interest to a survivor of violent crime.
Each offender looked similar, and presented similar crimes. However, there was a wide array of articulateness, perceived intelligence or lack thereof, aptitude for verbal expression and motivation. This should come as no surprise when one thinks of the make up of the general population.
The hearing officers, who were doing their job to the best of their ability, went through the procedures in a rather bland and rote manner. They were perfect in their social etiquette, saying “Good morning” to each offender, wishing them a Happy New Year, addressing each by their Sir Name etc.
Questions involved prison behavior, how many infractions they received and why, who was in their life as a support system; inquiring as to their plans for the future, whether they had acquired a GED; what programs they attended and liked best. Occasionally, they asked if “Mr. Offender” had any remorse for their victims.
Time after time, when asked about the programming the offender had participated in, the majority would name one or two programs, followed by:
“I signed up for “X program” but they don’t offer it here” or (more typically) “There is a waiting list of at least a year.”
This author recalls watching many legislative hearings in the past and learning that our state has an excessive number of programs on the books for Connecticut offenders, both within the confines of the cement walls and as part of a non-profit re-entry program into civilized society.
***In fact, the Department of Corrections currently offers an alphabetical compendium of programs listed as “Offender Programs and Victim Services Unit.” Consisting of 264 pages of offerings! Upon close examination, almost without exception they are meant for prisoners and not for the benefit of victims. Granted, not every program is continuously offered…. But still…
Although my allegiance is always for the survivor of crime first and foremost....
What is wrong with the picture I have painted thus far? Plenty! 264 pages and inmates are on waiting lists for a year or more… Why is this so?
At considerable expense, we are supposed to mold offenders into responsible citizens. We clothe, feed, educate, skill train, provide parenting classes, assist in ridding substance abuse and other addictions, provide role models, domestic violence and other forms of counseling, AIDS treatment, mental health remediation, and all other forms of medical, social and emotional treatment necessary.
Why is the wait to rehabilitate so long? I can think of a few reasons…
1) Lack of instructors – A chosen few pursues the calling to work with offenders in these oppressive environments. Most do not;
2) Bottlenecks in the system- You can only re-arrange the deck chairs so many ways. Let’s say a class or training has the capacity for 30 student inmates. Perhaps, for whatever reason, those who qualify withdraw or are de-selected for tickets/infractions. The process may be held up further for approving the next candidates who are waiting because of the actions of others before them. If inmates require these classes for re-entry, another year in prison waiting for a program is indeed a long wait.
3) Supply and Demand- The demand for specific programs is so great in a particular geographic area, that the supply is always far less than the need.
4) Warehousing- Those who would otherwise be in the mainstream of society are taking up prison space and using resources needlessly as they wait for in-house programs, or housing on the outside.
Highly respected and retired DOC Commissioner, Theresa C. Lanz established a priority of supporting offender re-integration when she changed the model from strict confinement to community re-entry under supervision in the mid and late 1990’s. The transitional services overview on the DOC website states, “Since more than 95 percent of offenders (19,000+ currently) will eventually be released from prison, the department already offers extensive educational/vocational, substance abuse, parenting and other programs that will aid in supporting that transition….
A key component is stakeholders-including other state agencies such as the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Department of Social Services. the Department of Labor and the Department of Veteran Affairs as well as community based advocacy groups.”
As of January 2009 when the information was updated, those stakeholders contracted just 1,299 halfway house beds and supervised more than 3,500 additional “low risk offenders” in the community. Connecticut has increased its use of mental health professionals in the courts and created increased funding for its diversionary programs.
However, this author’s opinion is that the lack of sufficient beds in the community and the “not in my neighborhood” stance when it comes to group homes and halfway houses often places ex- prisoners in overcrowded homeless shelters.
So, are they left to languish in prison waiting for their required programs to become available, thus getting into further altercations? Or do they hope to transfer to another DOC facility where the program is available so that they can meet the parole rule minimum of 50% incarceration and then into the community with “whatever supports are available” ensuring public safety?
For the blog reader, ‘Just a Sampling of the 264 page program offerings:
Action Drama – A highly acclaimed outreach drama program;
Addiction Services- Tiers I-IV
Administrative Segregation- A Better Way- Video series on life changing behaviors
Career Exploration Fair;
Aids Awareness Group;
Alternatives to Violence- basic, intermediate and advanced
Bicycle and Wheelchair Repair;
Braille Program- Enables inmates in protective custody to be trained as a qualified pool of Braille writers assisting blind people in CT (Overseen by staff at this author’s agency);
Cage your Rage for Women;
Circle of Strength Dual Diagnosis Program;
Default- Monthly education and therapy group for cancer survivors;
Empowerment Book Club;
Family Matters- Designed for young men with estranged family relations;
Gambling- The Better Choice Program;
Girl Scouts Behind Bars- Volunteers from the Girl Scouts bring daughters of inmates to the facility for creative activities;
Grief and Adjustment;
Health Lecture Series;
Hospitality Operations Technology- Student preparation work in the hospitality industry;
Incarcerated Veteran’s Program;
Intramural Sports- participants must be ticket free;
Juman- Weekly Islamic worship;
Marker Plate Manufacturing- (Author’s Note- Yes, Virginia, they still make license plates in prison)
Mindful Living Meditation;
Resume Builder-Computer Skills;
V.O.I.C.E.S- Victim- Offender Institutional Correctional Educational Services-
Volunteer supported group to “broaden inmates understanding and sensitivity to the impact of their crime on others.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful society if, at birth, we had a 264 page list of “programs for life” offered to new parents rather than those for incarcerated people? All of these programs and resources could be put to good use “in preparation for life in the community” from the baby’s and parent’s first coo. The A through Z menu could be used starting with “P” for parenting classes and choosing others along the way as needed, thus virtually eliminating the need for prisons. What a concept!
Donna R. Gore, M. A. "Lady Justice"
Homicide Survivor in Connecticut