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Breaking the Pattern
 
Published Friday, April 21, 2017
by ERIKA COHEN

Sullivan County is one of the poorest and most remote counties in NH. Job prospects are worse than the more developed southern counties. Many inmates at the Sullivan County jail have mental health issues. Often it's because inmates have come from homes that support and encourage substance abuse.

So it should come as no surprise that Sullivan County experienced one of the highest rates of recidivism in the state. Now, though, when these men and women leave jail, their chances of returning are significantly lower.

The Sullivan County jail in Claremont runs the Transitional Reentry and Inmate Life Skills (TRAILS) program, a 90-day rehabilitation program followed by monitoring, work release and aftercare support for  inmates going back into the community.

In Sullivan County, the recidivism rate—the chance an inmate will leave, reoffend and find themselves back behind bars within three years—is 20 percent. But it was 68 percent before the TRAILS program. By developing this program, Sullivan County’s recidivism rate went from the highest in the state to among the lowest, says David Berry, jail superintendent.

In fact, 20 percent “is about as low as you can get,” says Kevin Warwick, a corrections consultant who has worked with more than 300 county jails in 48 states. He  notes Sullivan County ranks in the top 99th percentile nationwide for successful reentry programs.

“I’ve told so many people that the heroin addict who lives on your block, they will go back to your block after being in jail. Do you want us to put them back out educated and with a job, or do you want us to just house them and kick the same person back out?” asks Berry.

Sullivan County officials started down the path to TRAILS in 2005 when a study found most of its inmates had substance abuse issues and more programming was needed to treat them. At the same time, the number of inmates was expanding beyond jail capacity. So Ross Cunningham, superintendent at the time, asked the county commissioners and county delegation to choose: Do we build a new $42 million jail or a $7.1 million community corrections center with space for programming, and money to invest in it, to make the jail less of a revolving door?

It took some convincing. Cunningham hit the road with the county public defender and prosecutor, police chiefs, board of commissioners, the county delegation and representatives from Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord. He made about 50 presentations around the county.

“It’s telling them how important it is to do it now,” Cunningham says of the road show. “We need to make changes to what we’re doing. The county farm is always what we used to be called. We are not a warehouse of people … I think any initiative that wants to put people back in the community in a safe way, that is the goal here,” Cunningham says.

The response was TRAILS, which was based in part on the Urban Institute’s Transition from Jail to Community initiative and received help from Warwick, who co-authored the initiative’s online learning toolkit. When TRAILS launched in 2010, it was a novel concept with only about 14 sites nationwide developing and testing intensive treatment and reentry programs for inmates, mostly through the Transition from Jail to Community initiative. Sullivan County developed its own program, but it did receive several federal grants to address co-occurring issues of substance abuse and mental health disorders in inmates. Now the movement has spread, and of the 3,000 counties nationwide, about 1,000 are working on reentry programs and 200 have comprehensive models in place, Warwick says.

Among those working on reentry programs are Belknap County and Merrimack County, where Cunningham is now superintendent. Merrimack County is spending $6.8 million to renovate the former jail, located adjacent to the current jail on the same property, and will invest $490,000 in annual salaries and benefits for eight additional corrections officers and one administrative assistant.  

Cunningham says the investment in community corrections will lead to a more effective way to manage inmates and keep the community safer.

Warwick says such investment is a critical sea change in how dollars are spent and has a big domino effect in terms of an increasing number of people working, paying taxes and in some cases getting off public assistance. “You take the highest risk people in jail [to reoffend], offer a wide array of services and move them back into the community with lots of support,” he says. “This is a business model, which is new for criminal justice. It is built on performance measures. Before, we did what looks good.”

Correcting Behavior
The heart of the TRAILS program is behavior modification, specifically teaching inmates the mindset and skills to be positive and productive community members, and then helping them transition to a new role in the community after being released from prison.

Changing that thinking starts with a space conducive to learning. The first thing you notice in the Sullivan County Community Corrections Center is it looks more like a minimalist college dorm than a jail. Once you get buzzed into the hall (there are separate halls for men and women), there are sleeping quarters, classrooms, bathrooms and offices for counselors. Inmates come and go from the different rooms freely, and the doors within the hall are not locked. Likewise, the windows don’t have bars on them.

All of this is intentional. Program Director Donna Magee says the building reflects the program and creates an environment meant to foster reform, not a sense of imprisonment. Warwick says one reason the program works well is the county has invested in staff and programming, both within the jail and during aftercare when former inmates continue to be monitored and receive support, first once a week for six months and then once a month at West Central Behavioral Health in Newport.

The program in Sullivan County is often a first chance for inmates to really address the issues that landed them in jail. Counselors and jail administrators say many inmates come from broken homes where drug and alcohol abuse are prevalent. Three quarters of inmates have received mental health services at West Central Behavioral Health in Newport at some point in their lives.

TRAILS has capacity for eight women and 16 men. Between 2013 and 2015, 44 women and 103 men participated in the program, with recidivism at 19 percent for men and 20 percent for women.

Inmates receive 250 hours of classes during the 90-day program, and 95 percent have 12 months of aftercare based on their individual situation and level of support needed. Some are released early with electronic monitoring. Inmates’ days are scheduled from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with classes including criminal and addictive thinking, stress management, relationship management, money management, anger management and HiSET, a program that allows inmates to earn a high school equivalency degree. There is also time for recreation and substance abuse treatment groups. Groups are led by clinicians and, at times, the superintendent. Inmates can enter the program once they are sentenced and then assessed to determine their level of risk to reoffend.

Part of the program is assistance finding a job. Once in aftercare, the former inmates meet with counselors at West Central Behavioral Health, at first weekly, to check in and support their transition back to the community.

“What is significant, and I don’t want this to be lost, is these are the highest risk folks because they have co-occurring issues. We are not taking the easy low-hanging fruit, not that people are fruit,” says Magee, a social worker who started at the jail as a clinician in 2010 and became program director in 2014.

Those co-occurring issues are often mental health and substance abuse.

Magee says most are incarcerated for sales and possession of drugs, a road that also leads them to burglary to feed their habit and sometimes assault while intoxicated. While many have jobs, often in construction, others arrive at the jail having burned many bridges at work. For those with a job waiting, the challenge is getting to the job as the corrections center is remote and inmates must depend on relatives or friends for transportation. For those who are not employed, jobs are usually available to those willing to work and able to find a ride.

It is the responsibility of inmates, with help from caseworkers, to find jobs and transportation. In January a bus route in Claremont began to include the jail. “We are very grateful for that,” Magee says.

The jail also has relationships with employers willing to give inmates a second chance. It received a grant last year to hire a community corrections officer for 24 hours a week based out of Hope for NH Recovery in Claremont, a recovery support center. The officer gets to know inmates in aftercare and those released from aftercare, and as part of his job talks to area employers about hiring former cons.

“My motto is everyone has to wash dishes. Most are willing,” says Magee, who leads programming at the jail and teaches some of the classes. “I love working with these guys. I like advocating with them and not for them.”

Magee and the four other clinicians intentionally offer a version of tough love. They often develop a close relationship with the inmates as the combination of jail time and aftercare can last up to two years.

“Some of it is getting them to understand basic stuff your parents told you, or things they never got from their parents,” says Diana Miles, one of the clinicians. These lessons are as simple as getting up on time to actually go to school or work, and don’t take drugs or steal. Many inmates, she says, come from homes where no one encouraged good behaviors or where the adults in their lives committed crimes and abused drugs.

Warwick says Sullivan has done an impressive job with limited resources, especially given the rural location of the jail. The jail is tucked in the back woods of Claremont, with little public transportation, making finding and getting a ride to a job during work release a big challenge. “You can have this transition model but then implementing it is hard, and some people are willing to change the way they work, the way they think. Others aren’t,” he says, noting Sullivan clearly is embracing a new way of approaching corrections.

Berry says getting staff onboard was a challenge as it required training officers to treat inmates less combatively and instead motivate inmates to change themselves. Sullivan County worked with its staff on motivational interviewing skills. “Corrections officers are trained to tell people what to do. Inmates are getting told what to do all the time. We want to help [inmates] want to do it themselves,” Berry says of the new role of corrections officers.

It also took convincing and time for jail administrators to believe in the new approach. That includes Sullivan’s County’s assistant superintendent Douglass Roberts. “There were some old people like me who said I don’t think this is going to work,” Roberts says. “Now I’m supportive. I think it works. People that want to get clean and leave with the tools to live in the community do it,” he says.

Funding Change
For taxpayers, an investment in county corrections is not just about reducing recidivism, but has a direct impact on their tax bills. According to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and Social Sciences at Dartmouth College, county corrections accounted for about 15 percent of total county budgets in 2015, and corrections spending increased in more than half the counties between 2014 and 2015.

Sullivan County initially spent $7.1 million on a community corrections center compared with the heftier $42 million tab for a new traditional jail, but annual costs are higher. Sullivan County corrections employed about 35 people in 2008 before the new model, Cunningham says, and had 54 people in 2015, according to the Rockefeller Center report.

That is still not enough for all its needs, though. Caseworkers help inmates prepare for job hunting and to seek out jobs. “It is much easier when the community corrections officer is standing there saying what a good job they did keeping up on the grounds or working at the nursing home,” says Berry. However, there is not enough trained and available staff to go with inmates on interviews to vouch for them; many officers are new and need supervision and training, and the county jail does not have the budget to add this position right now.

Cunningham used his experience in Sullivan County to successfully pitch a new community corrections program in Merrimack County. Facing a 54 percent recidivism rate, Cunningham won approval for a $6.8 million renovation of the adjacent old county jail, called the Edna McKenna facility, into a community corrections facility.


A rendering of the entrance to the Edna McKenna Community Corrections facility, housed in the old county jail. Courtesy Photo.


The county currently offers a 60-day intensive treatment program but space constraints limit it to 15 men and 15 women. Cunningham says the program could be offered to more inmates, especially women, with the new facility.

Belknap County is also building a new facility. It broke ground on a new community corrections facility last spring. When completed, the Belknap County jail will go from 87 to 124 total beds. The plan is to hire four new corrections officers, with counseling services contracted. Currently the jail has 32 full-time staff, including 20 corrections officers and three community corrections officers.

Belknap County jail Superintendent Keith Gray says it is a critical investment as the jail currently faces severe overcrowding. The Belknap facility is built for 87 inmates, but the county jail has more than 100 inmates on a regular basis.  That limits programming that could reduce recidivism, which is now at a rate of 65 to 70 percent, he says. Gray says as it is, he has priests occasionally meeting with inmates for weekly prayers in holding cells, as they are the only private space, and a classroom had to be turned into a dorm. The jail offers 38 different education programs to inmates, including ServSafe training for hospitality and lead removal jobs, both grant funded.


The roof is installed at the new Belknap County corrections facility. Courtesy Photo.


Gray says the switch to a community corrections facility will allow county jails to break what is now a dangerous cycle. “If you are in this business long enough in the same community, you see the family members of individuals who have been in jail also. You see the mother and father and later come the children,” he says.

But community corrections is not without its own funding challenges. Many inmates come to jail with numerous health issues, and the jail must treat them. Gray says it costs $85 to $110 a day to hold and house an inmate, but it can be significantly more when medical issues are added. Some medical costs, such as psychiatric medications, can be reduced, such as when inmates receive mental health services as part of the community corrections program. In Sullivan County, monthly psychiatric medications for inmates dropped $773 a month within a year of instituting the TRAILS program, which included a partnership with a mental health provider.

By switching to community corrections, the entire community benefits as Gray sees it. “Financially it is a benefit to the community if we have better people in the community. With our success would come a financial burden removed from the community, from police, from social services … There will be more people paying taxes,” he says. “I’m not just managing this jail. I have to think about the role of the jail in the community.”

From Jail to Community
No matter the county, a typical prisoner ends up at the county jail because of drugs. And the data shows many also have a co-occurring mental health disorder. The goal of community corrections is to treat these people so they can go back into the community and hold a job.

No employers who have hired inmates from the Sullivan County program would talk on the record as most are chain retail and service stores, but Magee and Diane Lackey, a case manager at the Sullivan County Department of Corrections, say employers are happy to hire inmates. The main reason, says Magee, is they show up on time, and they are sober because their freedom is on the line.

Gray agrees. “Some employers like the inmate labor because on any day he will be in a sober condition because he lives in the jail. I guess it can be hard for employers to count on young employees showing up every day sober,” Gray says, noting a number of employers repeatedly hire former inmates.

Magee says many end up working retail or service jobs for chains, construction and in some cases manufacturing. It is the job of case managers like Diane Lackey at Sullivan County to not only help people find jobs, but be prepared to start them. “You get out of jail and sometimes you have no place to go, no job, no money. Where do you start? You’ll never get them all the way. There are so many challenges,” she says.

Often inmates can’t go back home because those homes have the drugs and alcohol that got them into trouble. Helping them find safe and affordable housing is a challenge. About half have also lost their license or don’t have one, making it even harder to get to a job, says Lackey. And often they have no health insurance but have health and mental health issues. Lackey helps inmates apply for medical coverage.

Last year, Merrimack County joined a federal program that reimburses 80 percent of taxi fees for inmates leaving jail to go on job interviews. The jail pays the remaining 20 percent. For people who come to the jail with jobs, it tends to be in the construction industry, says Cunningham. When people seek jobs, he would like to see more manufacturers, as it is an industry he says could use the labor, and inmates could be trained.

Sullivan County is looking to create transitional sober housing for inmates on electronic monitoring and in aftercare in Claremont. Proponents wanted to rent space in a house owned by Hope for NH Recovery, an organization that supports people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, but Berry says the county delegation is wary to spend $1.3 million of taxpayer money to renovate a place the county would not own. He had hoped if people lived above Hope for NH Recovery, they would also access services and support there.

Berry says such space is desperately needed as the community corrections model only works when people move from the jail to a sober, safe place to live and a good job.

Housing is key, and is often a big hurdle. He says some inmates choose to stay at the jail instead of electronic monitoring in the community because even though they have a job to pay for electronic monitoring, they don’t have a safe place to live. Still others struggle in aftercare because of a lack of safe, sober housing. Sober house residents would pay a monthly stipend and sign a behavioral contract to remain sober.

“We are putting so much time and money into treatment, work release and keeping in touch for clinical support, it’s very frustrating when they fail because of a lack of a safe place to live,” Berry says, noting they are now looking into other buildings.

In Merrimack County, Cunningham would also like to install a workshop in the jail for employers to train future employees. He says such a setup would benefit employers and the community.

Staff buy-in is key, as corrections is changing and officers need to change with it for the model to work. Cunningham says his staff is committed. Kara Wyman, the assistant superintendent in Merrimack County, says the labor pool is beginning to shift as the model has been changing.

Wyman is seeing “a smattering of people” becoming correction officers who have a background in social services and mental health instead of the more traditional criminal justice. This staffing change, along with programming changes, has her encouraged, as the change cannot happen unless both inmates and corrections officers are willing to think differently.

“The pendulum is definitely swinging in corrections toward rehabilitation and programming,” Wyman says.


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