A pearl in the desert

By Stan Moody | Apr 07, 2010

While it was my pleasure to serve for nearly two years as a chaplain at Maine State Prison, I was forced to conclude that religious programming, while serving as an outlet for prisoners and as a strengthening force in their daily lives, had limited value in developing the kind of life skills that serve the public's interest in rehabilitation of criminals. The data offer little encouragement that religious programming in prisons reduces recidivism, defined by most as "re-arrest, re-conviction and re-incarceration," measured over a period of a minimum of three years.

Prisoners refer to religious programming as "Jesus in the lobby." You meet Him on the way in and say "goodbye" to Him on the way out with little evidence of life-altering faith. There are, of course, notable exceptions through not only Christian faith but also other faiths.

I turned my attention to a political concern — how to reduce recidivism and cut the enormous cost and human waste of incarceration. I found that recidivism could be reduced from 60 percent to around 10 percent with a six-month re-entry program that included four elements: housing, mentoring, job training and drug and alcohol treatment. Two of those elements are very evident in Maine's prison system — job training and drug and alcohol treatment. Alone, however, such noble efforts cannot produce impressive results.

Why is there not a concerted effort to permanently put in place all four elements through a public/private partnership with Maine communities? The answers are many. Here are a few:

1. The Department of Corrections has a long history of rejecting community dialogue and support. If reform cannot be implemented under its own rubric, it is paid only lip-service.

2. No state agency, to my knowledge, has ever voluntarily instituted a program that would reduce its budget and its political reach. For some strange reason, ideas of efficiently working yourself out of a job — common within private industry — are foreign concepts to state employees. If an idea fails to build a new or larger program, it is rejected out of hand.

3. Failure to view prisoners as fellow human beings: The system treats the preponderance of prisoners as failures of society rather than human beings capable of contributing to the general welfare. This is reflected in the DOC's preoccupation with policies and procedures rather than with programming that works for the benefit of both prisoners and society. The ethic within the system is self-congratulatory for keeping the public safe, no matter the means.

4. There is such a fear within the DOC of being charged with competing with private industry that it has become defensive about training prisoners to earn the kinds of jobs sought by the rest of us. This was reflected in a recent interview of the new warden, who insisted that any job training would be largely in non-competitive (and thereby non-productive) areas.

5. Corrections officers have a legitimate beef that they are employed to guard prisoners who have more opportunity for education and life-skills training than they themselves have had. Long hours and erratic, unpredictable schedules contribute to this disparity and thereby breed contempt.

Gary Upham, educational director at Maine State Prison, is the pearl in this desert of conflicting agendas.

In his "Proposal to Address Recidivism in the Maine Department of Corrections," a thick, scholarly treatise on the benefits of an aggressive re-entry program, Upham challenges the department to formalize the preparation of prisoners to productively re-enter society upon release. The efforts of the Education Department within Maine State Prison to combat illiteracy, offer GED and degree programs, and operate limited vocational training are exceptions in security and social service programming there.

Upham deserves much of the credit for initiating these efforts despite a tendency on the part of prison management to resist any divergence from the well-ordered template imposed by statute and court edicts while building a top-heavy, elite administrative corps.

If there is a flaw in Upham's thinking, it is that responsible prisoners should be viewed as "clients" rather than the despised terms "inmates" or "prisoners." His ideas are destined to fall on deaf ears in an institution intransigently devoted to remaining a growth industry. The trigger for change, of course, will be a public demanding the kind of innovation that works for the rest of us on the outside.

Upham quotes the new commissioner of corrections in Georgia as having implemented a concept called "Transformation Campaign Plan." This plan views re-entry "... not as a program but as a correctional philosophy that should begin at pre-sentencing ... helping make the transition from prison to the community successful."

Instead, Maine's DOC expends vast energies attempting to justify extended time in solitary confinement (or more politically correct "segregation") as a means of controlling overcrowding. Having so abused the budgetary constraints with promulgation of the status quo, there is little appetite for programs that were considered 50 or more years ago to be viable alternatives to warehousing prisoners.

Maine's typical male prisoner re-entry program, with the exception of what Upham's department is capable of wringing out of its fragile budget, is four months of pre-conditioning in segregation and $50 and a bus ticket, provided the ex-offender does not owe the department any fines. The alternative in better economic times has been the Salvation Army.

In my brief stint at the prison, I obtained a commitment by the AFL/CIO to provide job training both within prison and outside. No response! Noted attorney F. Lee Bailey has been speaking around the state on re-entry. Negative response! Upham had secured a $164,000 matching grant for his re-entry program. "We can't afford it!" The re-entry program at the DOC in Maine was trashed a couple of years ago, reportedly due to failure to implement. With the Justice Department shoveling re-entry funds out of the Second Chance stimulus program, you have to wonder what is going on in Maine's ivory tower of corrections.

I've had enough. How about you? Shall we focus on the new governor coming on board in January 2011?

Stan Moody, former state representative and chaplain at the Maine State Prison, is the author of "Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship" and "McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry." He currently serves as pastor at the Meeting House Church in Manchester. His Web site is stanmoody.com.

 

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.