Rehabilitation is Central to a Prison’s Mission—Except When It Isn’t

Private programs to tutor inmates have to contend with an environment that views volunteers with suspicion. The need to maintain security seems to outweigh all other considerations—including reform, writes a long-term resident of a Washington State penitentiary.

A small army of college students is helping prisoners pass high school equivalency exams and, where the opportunity exists, to earn college degrees.

These volunteers’ ranks are regularly replenished by recruitment from 30 different universities. They march under the banner of the Petey Greene Program.

For the last decade, Petey Greene has trained (typically) undergraduate and graduate students in pedagogical approaches and, thereafter, financed the volunteers’ trips to do service in correctional facilities across the Northeast.

In Pennsylvania, Petey Greene tutors work with young students who are earning their GEDs in juvenile detention facilities.

In Maryland’s sole women’s facility, volunteers work with prisoners in a study hall environment preparing them to pursue higher learning through the Goucher Prisoner Education Partnership.

In Rhode Island, tutors have individual study sessions with prisoners who are completing college courses through the Boston University Education Program.

There are 31 other correctional facilities where members of Petey Greene can be seen. It is an amazing accomplishment—especially since any organization working within a prison environment must contend with a security apparatus that views volunteers with suspicion.

In fact, these sentiments are ubiquitous throughout the correctional system.

For instance, following a large-scale drug and weapons raid in Pennsylvania’s Graterford Correctional Institution in 1996, prison administrators claimed it was necessary to reduce “the number of volunteers entering the prison for such programs as literacy tutoring, Bible study, and gardening.” [The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Struggle to Survive: View From Behind Bars,” August 12, 1996].

More recently, after drugs were discovered in a visiting room bathroom at Washington State’s Stafford Creek Correctional Center, volunteers of the Black Prisoners Caucus were suspended from entering the facility—notwithstanding the fact that countless visitors and staff had equal access to the location where the contraband was secreted.

Unfair as it may seem, prisoners have no right to interact with members of the community. More to the point, volunteers have no right to do service within correctional facilities.

This makes me wonder how Petey Greene has managed to go about its work so freely.

My personal experience with prison officials’ abhorrence for ceding control to anyone outside of the bureaucracy and the correctional system’s hyper-focus on maintaining institutional security convinces me that Petey Greene’s success took the patience of Job and the cunning of Machiavelli.

Understand this: Prison officials are given “wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.”

On its face, such declarations are reasonable. But in practice, this “wide-ranging deference” creates a conflict between fostering reform and maintaining institutional security. Indeed, it ultimately undermines public safety by hamstringing outside efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism.

The Facts on the Ground

The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) enables prisoners and others to submit pilot proposals to help reduce re-offending and increase success upon re-entry.

Unfortunately, though, the administrative compulsion to wield authority makes it next to impossible for non-WDOC programs to be established—let alone for them to maintain any real semblance of autonomy.

Take the Redemption Project which was created by WDOC prisoner (and my former cellmate) Anthony Powers. His vision was to develop a program that—according to the mission statement—would “repay society for the negative acts committed against it by helping to prevent others from repeating similar acts.”

Yet as the program transformed from a small group of prisoners who spoke to at-risk youth brought to Stafford Creek into a cognitive behavior therapy program for prisoners throughout the facility, Powers had to relinquish ever more independence to administrators to keep his program growing.

In the end, the Redemption Project became a fixture within WDOC. However, by then, it had transformed into nothing more than a means for prisoners to earn “good time” credit for their participation. As for Powers, prison administrators relegated him to the status of a volunteer for the very program that was his brain child.

The lesson: Compromising to get buy-in from correctional officials can be a slippery slope to ruining a program’s integrity.

The fact that a rehabilitative program is created and controlled by someone who is free does not deter official attempts at encroachment or usurpation. This truth was imparted to me as a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the non-profit University Beyond Bars (UBB).

Since its inception, the UBB has devoted itself to providing opportunities for prisoners at Washington State Reformatory to pursue higher learning. Prison officials nevertheless sought to impose WDOC’s policy of prioritizing prisoners based upon their release dates, deportation and citizenship status, and their likelihood of reoffending.

To the UBB’s credit, the group’s director balked at erecting such a barrier to entry. To her dismay, prison officials then balked—for six years—before finally allowing her to bring donated computers into the facility for utilization by UBB students.

The lesson: When independent programs refuse to acquiesce to correctional prerogatives, there will be consequences.

Keeping the Faith

With these lessons in mind, let me return to the improbable success of Petey Greene. Based on its Program Viewbook the organization appears to have somehow avoided such trials and tribulations. Is it possible that the eight states and 34 prisons where the Petey Greene Program operates are outliers within my construct of the correctional system?

I highly doubt it.

The reality is that Petey Greene has long been plagued by its inability to collect the data that is necessary for receiving grants—difficulties that are due, in large part, to a lack of cooperation by correctional officials.

Were rehabilitation the paramount goal of corrections, prison officials would be falling all over themselves to ensure that Petey Greene was successful in enlarging the amount and type of data it collects about its programming.

Yet at the end of the day, the Supreme Court notes that “central to all other correctional goals is the institutional consideration of internal security within corrections facilities themselves.”

Sadly, assisting a non-profit collect the data required to establish that it is an evidence-based program is not a correctional priority—even if that very program furthers the penological interest in protecting the public from future harm.

Therefore, it remains to be seen if the patience of Job and cunning of Machiavelli that Petey Greene has exhibited thus far will enable the organization to meet its larger objective of measuring the program’s impact on recidivism rates.

I wish the organization the best.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

But to those running Petey Greene, I urge you to heed this warning:

Compromising and being conciliatory to prison officials to keep a program growing can undermine its mission and destroy its integrity. Yet, remaining steadfast to one’s principles can likewise lead to frustration and grief.

So, you better tread carefully.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.


OK Female Incarceration Rate Won’t Be Cut Soon

A new measure reclassifying minor drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors should cut the state’s nation-leading rate of incarcerating women. But “we’re not going to be able to reverse the trend overnight,” says former House Speaker Kris Steele.

Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate is the nation’s highest and more than double the average. It is the result of tough sentencing laws, zealous prosecutors, and a lack of alternatives to prisons, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Female imprisonments  in the state rose 30 percent between 2011 and 2016. Most of the women were convicted of low-level drug and property crimes like fraud or bad checks. Women are just as likely to be arrested in other states for these offenses, says sociologist Susan Sharp of the University of Oklahoma. “But they’re not going to be sent to prison for 5 or 10 or 20 years.” Behind this approach is a conservative culture that takes a dim view of mothers caught up in drug and alcohol addiction. What might be mitigating factors in other places, such as childhood trauma or domestic abuse, fail to sway prosecutors and judges in Oklahoma.

A task force appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin warned this year that the state would need $1.2 billion to add three prisons by 2026 to house a projected rise in inmates. Last November, voters passed a measure to reclassify minor drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The change took effect on July 1. Over time, this should mean fewer women sentenced to prison for these offenses, says Kris Steele, who led the campaign. Another ballot item mandates that money saved should go to treatment programs. Still, it will take root-and-branch reforms to reduce the prison population, given the bias in the system toward punitive sentences, says Steele, a former speaker of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. “Oklahoma did not come to have the highest [female] incarceration rate in the country overnight and we’re not going to be able to reverse the trend overnight,” he says.


Trump DOJ Says High Court Should Avoid Long-Term Case

The Justice Department changes sides, urges the Supreme Court to reject an appeal by a Florida man who says he was sentenced to prison for seven more years than the law allowed.

It is one thing for a new administration to switch sides in a legal dispute. It is another to ask the Supreme Court to deny review in a case that would test whether the government’s new position is correct, the New York Times reports. In a brief last month, the Justice Department tried to have it both ways. It told the justices it no longer believed that some federal prisoners serving longer prison terms than the law allowed were entitled to challenge their sentences in court. For the last 16 years, the Justice Department had taken the opposite view in at least 11 Supreme Court briefs.

You might think the Supreme Court should settle things, but DOJ urged the justices to turn down an appeal from Dan McCarthan, a Florida man who said he was sentenced to seven more years than the law allowed. It did so even as it acknowledged that the legal question was significant and that the department’s new position could lead to harsh results, condemning inmates to serve out unlawful sentences. The request that the Supreme Court deny review of McCarthan’s case was “incredibly unseemly” and “not a good look for the Department of Justice,” said Leah Litman, law professor at the University of California Irvine. A McCarthan attorney, Kannon Shanmugam, said in a brief that, “When the government changes position on a concededly important question that has divided the circuits, it should at least have the courage of its convictions and be willing to defend its new position on the merits in this court.”


Deadly Escape Attempt Spotlights NC Prison Violence

Assaults on North Carolina prison personnel had increased this year even before a deadly escape attempt Oct. 12 at Pasquotank Correctional Institute. Two officers, a vocational instructor and a maintenance worker were killed, and four inmates are charged with murder.

North Carolina prisons were already a more dangerous place to work before four employees at an understaffed prison were killed during a failed breakout last month, the deadliest in state history, reports the Associated Press. Assaults on prison staff so far this year are 50 percent higher than five years ago, according to state prison data. The number of incidents have nearly doubled at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, site of last month’s failed escape. The increase in assaults occurred even though the prison system has cut the number of inmates by 3,000 since 2011. Department of Public Safety officials declined to discuss the reasons for the growing danger.

Sixty-nine assaults on employees were reported across the state’s 55 prisons as of Nov. 2, compared to an average of 55 per year between 2012 and 2016. The head of the legislative committee likely to shape prison reforms said Thursday that legislators are determined to improve safety, salaries and staffing levels in the wake of the Pasquotank deaths, and a fifth guard killed at a nearby prison earlier this year. The last time a prison worker was killed was 2010. “This is an ongoing commitment to improving,” said Rep. Ted Davis, a New Hanover County Republican who heads the unified legislative committee overseeing public safety. Two correctional officers, a vocational instructor in the prison’s sewing plant and a maintenance worker died, and four inmates are charged with murder in the Pasquotank escape attempt on Oct. 12.


Staff Shortages in NC Prisons at Dangerous Levels

Last month, 16 percent of the state’s prison officer positions were vacant, up from 9 percent in January 2016. Better staffing might have saved the lives of the five prison employees who died in attacks this year at two prisons.

Staff shortages in North Carolina’s prisons have climbed to dangerous levels over the past two years, despite state efforts to attract more officers, the Charlotte Observer reports. Last month, 16 percent of the state’s prison officer positions were vacant, up from 9 percent in January 2016. Better staffing might have saved the lives of the five prison employees who died in attacks this year at two Eastern North Carolina prisons, experts and officers said. In April, when Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution, one of every five correctional officer positions there was vacant. At Pasquotank Correctional Institution – where four employees were fatally injured during a failed escape attempt on Oct. 12, more than 28 percent of officer positions were vacant, up from 17 percent three years earlier.

Just one prison officer oversaw more than 30 inmates inside Pasquotank’s sewing plant when the violence erupted. Inmates stabbed employees with scissors and beat them with hammers, according to a prison disciplinary report. The staff shortages leave prison officers vastly outnumbered. That makes it easier for inmates to acquire weapons, cellphones and other dangerous contraband – and easier for them to attack. Anthony Gangi, an advocate for prison officers, said the high number of vacancies in North Carolina could result in more deaths and injuries. “Ultimately it could lead to an unsecure facility. And an unsecure facility is a threat to the public,” said Gangi, who hosts a radio talk show about corrections. “The inmates know what we do. They know what areas we’re deficient in. And they’ll take advantage of that.” The prisons have been losing even more officers than they are hiring.


Fourth NC Prison Worker Dies in Deadliest Attack

Inmates were working in the prison’s sewing plant when they tried to carry out the escape plan lst month. The inmates beat employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors, according to prison workers who called 911. Some current and former prison officers questioned whether the inmates with violent histories should have been put to work in a sewing plant, where they would have access to potentially lethal tools.

A fourth prison employee – maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe – has died as a result of injuries sustained during the Oct. 12 escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, the Charlotte Observer reports. “We owe it to Geoffrey and his fallen coworkers to do all we can to keep an attack like the one that claimed their lives from ever happening inside our prisons again, and that’s what I’ve directed prison leaders to do,” said Gov. Roy Cooper. The assaults at the Eastern North Carolina prison injured eight other employees. Four inmates were charged with first-degree murder.

Law enforcement authorities said the inmates were working in the prison’s sewing plant when they tried to carry out the escape plan. The inmates beat employees with hammers and stabbed them with scissors, according to prison workers who called 911. It was the deadliest escape attempt in North Carolina prison history. Some current and former prison officers questioned whether the inmates with violent histories should have been put to work in a sewing plant, where they would have access to potentially lethal tools. Just one officer was overseeing the more than 30 inmates in the sewing plant when the violence erupted. In October, more than 30 percent of the officer positions at the prison were vacant.  The prison continues to be on lockdown. It houses 676 male inmates.


LA Frees 1,900 Inmates Under Justice Reform Law

It’s the first step in a comprehensive criminal justice package aimed at cutting prison populations in a state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Most of the prisoners being freed are serving their sentences in local parish prisons.

More than 1,900 Louisiana inmates are walking out of prisons across the state Wednesday before their sentence is completed, The Advocate reports. It’s the first step in a comprehensive criminal justice package aimed at cutting prison populations that have made Louisiana a leader for having the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Some 82 percent of prisoners being freed were serving their sentences in local parish prisons. “Most of these will be midmorning releases,” said Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc. Under the new law, nonviolent offenders are eligible for “good time” release after serving 35 percent of their sentence, down from 40 percent before the change.

In most cases, probation and parole officers already have met with the inmates and many inmates already have received prerelease services, LeBlanc said. Two of every three inmates being released are between the ages of 30 and 49. The youngest, Jaquavion Slaton, turned 18 in April and was convicted on auto theft charges. The oldest is 78-year-old Deicie Washington Jr., who was arrested in 2015 for distribution of Schedule II drugs.  About 1,100 of those being released, or 57 percent of the total, are African American, two are Hispanic, one is Asian and the rest are white. Louisiana houses 35,000 inmates at any one time, even as about 18,000 are released from state prisons each year. “People are transitioning back to our communities every day,” LeBlanc said.


Pennsylvania Slow to Cut Use of Solitary Confinement

As of late September, Pennsylvania had 1,235 inmates in disciplinary cells — 2.6 percent of the prison population — up from 2.3 percent in 2015. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has vowed to reduce “segregation” of prisoners.

States including Colorado, Texas and California have begun to reduce use of solitary confinement, also called “segregation.” In 2015, Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called it “unprecedented … that you have the corrections field … look at segregation and say, ‘Look, we need to do better.’ ” As of late September, Pennsylvania had 1,235 inmates in disciplinary cells — 2.6 percent of the prison population — up from 2.3 percent in 2015, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Last year, the average time an inmate spent in restricted housing was five months, down from six months the year before; the median time was 39 days, down from 47. The lengthiest tenure in segregation was 16 years. University of Pittsburgh law Prof. Jules Lobel, who has sued prison systems over isolation practices, says, “Even though Wetzel presents himself as a reformer, the reality is that the reforms are very slow moving in Pennsylvania.”

Richard Dale Thomas, 32, spent 2½ years in solitary confinement. After his release, he tried to avoid the behaviors — breaking things, mostly, and “snapping out” at authority — that got him “hole time” totaling nearly 1,000 days, during each of which he spent 23 hours by himself. “I was losing my mind because I was locked up in the hole,” he says. For two years, he was disciplined each month, for abusive language, contraband, destroying property, disobeying orders and making threats. He sabotaged his plumbing, swallowed a razor blade, and “damaged around 100 cells,” he said. “I was bad, man,” he said. Solitary confinement turns bad to worse, say some psychiatrists. Left with no socialization and no decisions to make, prisoners suffer “the decimation of life skills,”  said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who wrote the new book “Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It.”


Guice Leaving as NC Prisons Chief After Deaths

David Guice will retire on November 1. His departure was announced 11 days after two prison employees were killed during a failed escape attempt. “Perhaps the problems start at the top,” says a state representative whose district includes the prison. A corrections officer was beaten at another prison in April, and the Charlotte Observer has reported on drug, sex and gang violence problems in the corrections system.

David Guice, a top North Carolina prisons leader who oversaw an extraordinarily deadly time for the state’s correctional officers, is stepping down from his post, the Charlotte Observer reports. The Department of Public Safety announced Guice’s retirement Monday, 11 days after two prison employees were killed during a failed escape attempt. Guice, 62, the state’s Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, has been in his current role since 2013. He will retire on Nov. 1. A former state representative, Guice has worked in state government for 40 years.

In April, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed inside an Eastern North Carolina prison, allegedly by an inmate who beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. The prison was understaffed that month. An Observer investigation, published in June, reported that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina’s prisons and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it. On Oct. 12, chaos erupted inside the sewing plant at Pasquotank Correctional Institution after plant manager Veronica Darden and officer Justin Smith were killed there. Inmates stabbed employees with scissors and beat them with hammers, according to prison workers who called 911. Ten other prison workers were injured. Four inmates have been charged with first-degree murder. Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks has closed the prison’s sewing plant, asked for a review of all inmates assigned to work at such operations and requested an outside review of the prison’s safety operations. Rep. Bob Steinburg said that he had heard from many officers who said they had no confidence in Guice and other prison leaders. “Perhaps the problems start at the top,” said Steinburg, whose district includes Pasquotank County. Guice oversaw a system made up of 37,000 inmates, 8,000 officers and 55 prisons. He earns $132,500 a year.


Former Inmate Defends Low-Paid Work in Prison

Many of those fighting California fires are inmates who are paid $1 an hour. Chandra Bozelko, who was paid .75 to $1.75 daily to make and serve casserole, says, “It doesn’t surprise me that prison work assignments are credited with reducing recidivism. Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job.”

Most criticism of prison labor, that it’s “a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show … and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system,” is unwarranted, former inmate Chandra Bozelko writes in the Los Angeles Times. Serving six years for identity theft crimes in a Connecticut prison, Bozelko was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve casserole. Among the firefighters in California this fall, 30 to 40 percent are inmates, paid $1 an hour to work side by side with crews making a lot more money. Bozelko says some inmate firefighters feel the same way she does about prison jobs.

Bozelko quotes David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project as saying, “We don’t want prison policy driven by a desire for cheap labor,” worried that a captive labor force incentivizes mass incarceration. Less than half of the U.S. prison population works. In 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said that only 800,000 to 900,000 inmates of a 2.3-million total had jobs in their facilities. “It doesn’t seem likely that captive labor is the reason our prisons are overcrowded,” Bozelko says. “My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing. It doesn’t surprise me that prison work assignments are credited with reducing recidivism. Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job.” The charge that prison labor is the new Jim Crow because of the large of minorities behind bars is “facile,” Bozelko says, and “it may be keeping progressive companies away from prison projects. Socially conscious businesses and agencies are likely to pay inmates higher wages, train them for better jobs and do more to prepare them for life after prison — if those companies aren’t scared away by vociferous critics of prison labor.”