By Michael Roberts
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In recent years, the hottest growth area in the business has been in the field of community corrections, electronic monitoring and halfway houses, with private industry leading the way. The demand for re-entry programs has generated a mini-boom for companies that provide a mix of 24-hour surveillance, drug testing, job placement and headshrinking that's supposed to somehow transform seasoned cons into productive members of society -- while protecting the public from the truly bad apples.
"We're putting away a lot of the wrong people," says James Anderson, a vice president at BI Incorporated, a Boulder company that's become the nation's leading supplier of electronic monitoring services. "I really believe that what's needed are after-care products for high-risk people. We spend $100,000 or more putting someone into prison, and we don't do anything when they get out but make them report to a parole officer. They should be at home at night for the first year and monitored very heavily."
An outfit that began by putting transmitters on cows in the 1970s, BI now has its ankle bracelets on parolees, those on probation and other offenders in community settings across the country. The company has also moved aggressively into developing its own community-corrections service centers -- places to which parolees report for drug tests, counseling and other services. BI now operates more than eighty such centers, including sites in Capitol Hill and Lakewood.
A collection of articles on Colorado prisons.
"Our programs are structured to require accountability, provide immediate feedback and administer consequences for self-defeating behavior patterns," boasts the BI convention literature. "Our staff assist clients to develop pro-social thinking and attitudes and to confront entrenched, maladaptive patterns of behavior."
BI claims to be "reducing offender risk by meeting offender needs." But even the most comprehensive re-entry program tends to have a high failure rate, in part because the most critical offender needs have been scarcely addressed during the miscreant's years in prison. Within the walls, long-term rehabilitative programs with a proven track record -- programs that focus on education, job training and conquering substance abuse -- have taken a backseat to the rage to punish.
Up to 80 percent of all inmates have a history of substance abuse, and recidivism rates drop significantly for those who complete drug programs while still in the system. But intensive, effective programs are often unavailable or over-subscribed. One 1996 study found 840,000 federal and state prisoners in need of drug treatment, but fewer than 150,000 received such treatment before being released. Educational programs, a favorite target of politicians blustering about the "privileges" prisoners supposedly enjoy, have also languished; when DOC officials were asked to rank prison programs in order of priority, educational offerings made the 25th spot on a list of 42. Vocational education was ranked 35th.
Of course, offenders rarely have a voice in determining what their true "needs" might be. The prison industry doesn't pay much attention to the views of prisoners; what does the client know about the business, anyway? Amid the throng of experts speaking at its convention, the ACA had only one professed ex-jailbird on the program, a Canadian named Rene Durocher.
Durocher spent 22 years in prison on a 47-year sentence for armed robbery. He's now working with an innovative program called Life Line, which brings successful parolees back into the prisons to work with lifers, encouraging them to make productive use of their time. Canada abolished its death penalty in 1976, and most of those serving life sentences -- even murderers -- have a chance to apply for a lifelong parole after fifteen or twenty years.
"I'm the best resource the staff can have," Durocher says. "I understand these people; I spent my life with them. My job is to tell them, 'You have to take charge of your own life. You can do the program and play the game -- but if you want to change, you have to do it yourself.'"
Thirty-three of Durocher's lifers have been released on parole in the past five years. Six are now back in prison -- one for drunk driving, the other five for parole violations. The program's overall success rate is well above 90 percent. "I am 100 percent sure that if inmates inside American prisons were allowed this same opportunity, they could succeed," Durocher insists.
But such a program would be virtually impossible in a state like Colorado. The DOC doesn't permit any former inmates, even would-be do-gooders, to visit its facilities for at least five years. And these days, a life sentence usually means life without parole; those who were sentenced under older, indeterminate sentencing schemes remain in a state of limbo. Colorado has exactly two lifers in halfway houses at the moment. Despite the fact that both have long records of good behavior within the system, neither is expected to be granted parole in the near future.
This was the first time Durocher had been to an ACA convention. He visited the exhibit floor and marveled at all the elaborate apparatuses of punishment and at the lack of viable rehabilitation programs. Ironically, many of the nonprofit organizations that work hardest on prison-reform issues -- the Volunteers of America, various prison ministries -- were tucked in a row at the very back of the hall.