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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Could this be an answer to recidivism


State seeks to give real 2nd chance to inmates
Training, counseling offer key to new life

By Rex W. Huppke
Tribune staff reporter

November 27, 2005

SHERIDAN, Ill. -- Dontae Jones grew up in love with the streets, hooked on the adrenaline rush of slinging drugs on Uptown corners, dodging cops and growing the stack of bills stuffed in his hip pocket.

Now he sits through hours of drug and behavioral counseling and learns the mundane ins and outs of manufacturing metal springs, part of a grand experiment behind the concertina wire-topped fence of the medium-security Sheridan Correctional Center.

A prison tucked amid the farms and miles-long fields of central Illinois seems an unlikely place for a street hustler to find freedom. But Jones, serving the fourth prison term of his 28 years, has this to say: "I've spent so many years in a prison that's been self-imposed. This is the first time I'm actually free. I'm finding my way out."

Unlike most prisons, Sheridan immerses its 900 inmates in an environment tightly focused on education, beating addictions and learning the skills needed to find and keep a job. From sunup to sundown, inmates are engaged. Classes and counseling sessions are mandatory, and there's no such thing as a day off.

Once prisoners are released, they continue to receive counseling and job placement assistance in the Chicago communities they return to, a sizable departure from the traditional monitoring by a parole agent.

State officials hope the program will become a national model for prison reform.

Once a shuttered state penitentiary, Sheridan reopened last year as a laboratory designed to cut back on a statistic plaguing America's prisons: Two-thirds of the more than 600,000 ex-convicts released this year will be re-arrested within three years, and about half will return to prison for a new crime or parole violation.

"They're going to get out," Warden Michael Rothwell says of the thousands of inmates leaving Illinois prisons this year, more than 20,000 of whom will return to Chicago. "The question becomes: What do we do with them? Do we do nothing? Or do we do something to help them?"

Only in recent years has the nation's political climate allowed for questions like Rothwell's to be taken seriously. Since the 1970s, the country's tough-on-crime attitude has led to the widespread removal of prison treatment and educational programs, spurred by the belief that only hard time teaches criminals to straighten up.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been a driving force behind the Sheridan initiative, which was launched last year with a nearly $30 million annual budget. It was one of the strongest indicators yet that states, strapped by the $60 billion annual cost of overflowing prisons, were ready to change their philosophy on incarceration.

Experts agree the program, which opened in January, is too young to evaluate fully. But so far, about 13 percent of parolees released from Sheridan have returned to prison, compared with 25 percent of inmates from other state facilities--a nearly 50 percent reduction in recidivism.

`It's incredibly promising'

"We have a long way to go," said Deanne Benos, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections. "But it's incredibly promising."

Inmates at Sheridan live in what's called a "therapeutic community," which revolves around accepting responsibility for bad decisions and altering the mindset of men whose drug or alcohol problems have led them into criminal lifestyles.

Rather than lock them down, Sheridan requires inmates to start the day early with a meeting in their housing unit, followed by three hours of group sessions ranging from anger management to overcoming drug or alcohol abuse. In the afternoon, they spend another three hours either taking classes or working on vocational skills that will help them find work upon release.

All the inmates at the facility volunteered for the program, and there's a waiting list at other prisons for men who hope to transfer. The enthusiasm is not because life at Sheridan is easy.

Inmates must have both feet on the floor when seated, wear their shirts tucked in and greet others with "good morning" or "good afternoon." If someone doesn't want to attend classes or group sessions, they're sent back to a regular facility.

"We are continually holding people accountable for their actions," Rothwell said. "We teach responsibility."

On a recent afternoon, Jones is standing in front of a broad steel machine that bends wire into taut springs. A textbook titled "Machine Tool Technology" sits open on a nearby chair.

He and several other inmates are learning this trade. It's a Chicago-area industry with an aging workforce in need of new employees. They all hope for steady work once they get out.

The building echoes with the sounds of pounding hammers, buzzing circular saws and the whir of drill presses. Several inmates kneel atop two wooden sheds, learning roofing skills, while others sweat inside the sheds as they run electrical wiring or hone carpentry techniques.

"We're teaching them practical skills--skills they can actually use to find work once they're out," the warden said. "This is not just work to keep them occupied."

Since 2000, Jones has been out of prison only about 11 months. He says his previous stays behind bars did nothing but teach him to be a better criminal.

"This is the first time I've had a chance to look at me," Jones said, carefully punching specifications into the spring machine's computer. "Most people are the way they are because it's all they know. I think a person, given the right circumstances, can succeed."

The Safer Foundation in Chicago handles Sheridan's job readiness program and helps ex-offenders find jobs once they get out. In October, according to the Corrections Department, 48 percent of Sheridan's work-eligible parolees had jobs, compared with 38 percent of parolees from other institutions.

Still, many questions surround the Sheridan experiment. How can the program be expanded to affect more than a sliver of the state's prison population? If inmates are required to go through such a program, rather than volunteering for it, can it still be effective?

There are also economic issues.

$28,151 per year

The cost of keeping an inmate at Sheridan is $28,151 per year. Housing the same inmate at another medium-security state facility would cost $17,429. Sheridan proponents say widespread application of the program would require more money upfront, but they say the investment would pay off by reducing crime and recidivism.

"Over the long term," Benos said, "we believe this investment will ultimately save money for the state and allow the state to invest more money on the prevention side."

Some worry too much money is being spent on a small population of inmates, taking funds away from systemwide prison programs.

Sheridan houses only a fraction of the state's prisoners, said Buddy Maupin, regional director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the union that represents corrections officers in Illinois. "There are another 42,000 inmates at facilities across the state that don't have any programming to speak of."

Others say the aftercare component of the program--in which ex-offenders receive counseling and support once released into the community--isn't working the way it should.

Rashad Walker went through Sheridan this year and was convinced the program was just what he needed to turn his life around. But when he got out, the help he'd been promised wasn't there.

He moved back in with his father on the South Side. After a couple months, Walker said, he'd been unable to get into drug treatment or find a job.

"It started getting real rough for me, it started getting real frustrating," he said. "I knew that in just a matter of days I was going to relapse and start using again. I didn't know what else to do."

So he got on a bus and went to his brother's home in Madison, Wis., violating his parole. He was eventually caught and returned to a regular prison in Illinois. He was released again Aug. 22, this time without parole restrictions, and lives with his brother in Madison and has a steady job.

Falling through the cracks

"I'd say the in-prison component is working pretty well," said Jodina Hicks, vice president of public policy and community partnerships for the Safer Foundation. "But the community aspect still has a lot of bumps to manage."

Benos acknowledges some Sheridan parolees like Walker have fallen through the cracks.

"We are experiencing growing pains," she said. "There's no silver bullet for solving all crime or reforming the entire prison system in one shot."

Maurice Jefferson, who grew up on the West Side and went to prison four times on drug-related charges, believes the Sheridan program, or something like it, is exactly what's needed to keep people like him from committing another crime.

"My other times in prison, you had no treatment at all," said Jefferson, 38. "It was just about doing time. I'd try to go straight when I got out, last a few months, then go back to doing my thing. When I left Sheridan, I felt like I really had a chance."

The program helped him beat his crack cocaine addiction. When he got out in January, he moved into a transitional housing center in south suburban Alsip, started doing some work as a plumber and then found a steady job as an inventory clerk, all while staying clean and reconnecting with his family.

At first, he said he still felt the pull of the streets, but the skills he picked up at Sheridan helped him resist temptation.

"It can be difficult, but if you make your meetings and stay around the right people, those thoughts fade away," Jefferson said. "This whole experience is something new to me."


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