May 30, 2014

AB 109: New approach leads to hope for some former inmates

Jails are changing the way they operate under AB109, creating programs to help offenders find success after incarceration. But the programs are too early for any sure signs of success.

Locked up in jail, Randall Roy missed his son’s first birthday. And his second.

“I had (a total of) 13 years locked up,” Roy said. And he pretty much assumed his future would hold more of the same: stealing cars to support a drug habit, doing time in jail, and then the cycle repeating.

But then he took classes in the Sheriff’s Custody Institute of Life Skills program, where he learned how to cope with his problems and where to get help once released.

Now he is reconciled with his little boy’s mother and close to securing a job, pending the results of a drug test.

Success stories like Roy’s are the goal of the changing way local jails are operating under Assembly Bill 109, which sends prisoners to county jails instead of state facilities to serve their sentences.

“This is new for California,” Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said. “It’s a paradigm shift in corrections.”

The goal, Christianson said, is “to prepare folks to re-enter the community and have the skills they need to be successful and hopefully not reoffend.”

The state is providing money to house these prisoners; in March, Stanislaus County successfully lobbied for $40 million to pay for a 288-bed jail expansion that also will include a day reporting center for those not incarcerated.

The new facilities will be built on the same property as the Public Safety Center and the sheriff’s administration office on Hackett Road near Ceres. They will join a 192-bed unit completed last year to replace the county’s outdated Honor Farm.

Classrooms in jail

Though there’s no mistaking the new unit for anything but a jail – the corrections officers, sparse rooms and locked doors remain – the recently completed unit, like those that will be built under realignment, is set up far differently.

Sgt. Mat Huffman, who oversees the Sheriff’s Custody Institute of Life Skills, or SCILS, program, pointed out that the rooms used for classrooms look like just that.

“We can provide opportunities,” Huffman said. “We’re not just building jail beds.”

Inmates who take part in the classes are housed together, further increasing the opportunity for positive reinforcement. And those who finish up the program and their sentences don’t graduate. That’s an important change, Huffman said. “We’re not rehabilitating you here,” he said. “This is the onramp to rehabilitation.”

Previously, an inmate who finished his or her sentence would be back out on the streets, potentially with a probation officer checking in occasionally. “The gate just closes behind them,” Huffman said. “Now, we have set up a discharge program.”

That includes help with getting identification, successfully negotiating programs outside jail and even finding a job. Staying clean is also a challenge for many of the offenders, with drug addiction a major underlying factor to the vast majority of property crimes committed in the area.

“They think, ‘I can do this,’ because they’re not just thrown to the wolves,” Huffman said.

In fact, they stay in the program for three to five years post-release. The county is building a new day reporting center that will serve those participants who have been released from jail. Construction is expected to start later this year, with an opening date sometime in summer 2015. It will replace the existing day reporting center at the Stanislaus County Probation Department on 11th Street.

“They have a lot of bumps and falls along the way as they change,” said Michael Atinsky, director of programs and volunteer services for the Sheriff’s Department. Graduation comes later, when the inmates go back inside the jail – on a visitor’s pass. “During that five years, they learn to give back.”

Passionate volunteers, stronger partnerships

Atinsky credited passionate volunteers with making the program work. Christianson recently walked into a class, in which a volunteer was working with female inmates on life skills.

Christianson asked how many of the women had children. All but one raised their hands. They said they are learning how to cope once they are released, so they can be reunited with their kids.

Making it happen takes more than just money from the state and work from the Sheriff’s Department. Chaplains at jails are nothing new, but Christianson and Huffman said partnerships with outside organizations, secular and faith-based, are growing stronger.

For instance, the Sheriff’s Department contracts with the Salvation Army to provide transitional housing for some inmates when they are released.

Obviously, it’s too soon to call the new efforts a success. Atinsky pointed out that the program is too new to have any statistics, and even when it does, the first numbers will be small. Atinsky pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of inmates are taking part in the SCILS program, though it’s open to anybody.

“But say we help 10 men turn their lives around in a year,” he said. “How many people are in their circle of friends? We’re affecting 500 to 600 people.”

And local officials realize that, as one of the first agencies to build new facilities under realignment, the eyes of the rest of California’s counties will be on them.

“It’s too soon to tell,” Christianson said. “But it’s actually pretty exciting.”

David Pacheco was pretty excited, too – so much so that the SCILS graduate recently stopped by the jail to show off his first paycheck, from a job at Foster Farms.

Roy hopes for similar success, though he admits it took him time to buy into the program. Atinsky called Roy “one of our surprises.”

The last time Roy was released from jail, a few months ago, he had every intention of reoffending.

But after three days, “something clicked in my head,” he said. He turned to the Modesto Gospel Mission, another partner with the Sheriff’s Department, and went through the New Life program there. He wanted to prove to his girlfriend, who has been clean for three years, that he had changed.

“My lady ended up taking me back,” he said. “All blessings have been given and answered.”

And when his son, Randall Roy III, turns 3 on Christmas Day 2014?

“I’m going to be here.”

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