Program helps Arizona prisoners get ready for real life

From Day One, inmates are treated like adults, lowering the chance they will return.

By , Correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor

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    New direction: Director of Arizona Corrections, Dora Schriro addresses a group of inmates participating in the “Get Ready” program, which prepares them for reentry into society.
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When Edward Maxwell III arrived at Arizona’s Lewis prison near Phoenix, he nearly hit rock bottom. The job assigned to the man convicted of first-degree murder was raking – rocks.

The task befit the hopeless place, where in 2004, Lewis inmates held two officers hostage for 15 days, the longest such standoff in United States history.

But that was then.

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Today, the head of Arizona corrections says violence inside state prisons has sharply decreased, and released inmates are less likely to return to prison. It’s the result of a new public policy innovation, Arizona officials say, that begins preparing prisoners for reentry to society from their first day in prison. Arizona’s “Getting Ready” program is garnering nationwide attention, as states face skyrocketing incarceration and release rates.

“You start to think about your future more and what you can offer your family, your community, and even the people you victimized,” says Mr. Maxwell in a telephone interview. He has been in prison for 22 years and will be eligible for parole in 2011.

Before Getting Ready, prisoners had no autonomy, says Dora Schriro, director of Arizona Corrections, a system of some 38,000 inmates in 10 prison complexes. They were told when to eat, when to sleep, and not helped to develop positive pastimes. They were ill-prepared to reenter society.

“A good inmate [was someone] who sits in their bunk, follows orders, never talks back. A bad ex-offender will lay on the bed, doesn’t get a job.… Someone who doesn’t learn how to use leisure time,” Ms. Schriro says.

Getting Ready upends those expectations, she says. Within one week of entry, inmates receive a needs assessment and individualized corrections plan. They’re expected to participate in work or education, self-development, and restorative-justice activities seven days a week. Benefits are tied to accomplishing goals.

Implemented in 2004 with significant input from correctional officers, community members, and prisoners, Getting Ready creates a “parallel universe” in prison, reflecting as much of the outside world’s challenges and opportunities as possible.

“I wake up and think, ‘Yeah – I get to go to work today, and work in a harmonious atmosphere,’ ” says Maxwell, who now maintains the program’s roster for the prison. Having a prison job isn’t unusual. But Maxwell wakes himself up, and chooses whether he wants to go to breakfast. No one else does that for him, or any of the prisoners.

Privileges gained through work, education
As prisoners complete the goals outlined in their assessment, they accrue stature, responsibility, and increased opportunities.

“As you get your GED [high school equivalency degree], like in your world and in mine, you can apply for jobs that are closed to you if you don’t have a GED,” Ms. Schriro says.

Choose not to get an education? Your wages are frozen at entry level. Complete substance abuse treatment and cultural awareness workshops? You get more privileges at the canteen, visits where family members can bring in food, and other perks.

Criminal Justice consultant Gerry Gaes recently visited four of Arizona’s prison complexes as part of a Harvard Kennedy School innovations awards program. Getting Ready is a finalist. What’s innovative, Mr. Gaes says, is the intensity with which the graduated system of incentives is implemented. “I’ve never seen it done to the point it’s done there,” he says, citing the opportunity for families to bring in home-cooked meals. “It could introduce contraband. They take a risk in doing that, but the inmates clearly enjoy it.” [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Gaes's first name.]

In 2004, Schriro faced budget cuts and a prison population up 17 percent. Getting Ready was implemented without any new funds. Instead, corrections staff received additional training and rearranged their schedules for expanded services and hours.

In other states, “If [prisoners] are lucky, they’ll get one service,” says Amy Solomon, a criminal justice expert with the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. Often that treatment is self-help, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Prisoners often have multiple challenges. More than two-thirds have “substantial” substance-abuse histories. Many have spotty employment records and serious health issues, Ms. Solomon says.

America’s growing prison population
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), some 1.5 million sentenced inmates were under state or federal jurisdiction in 2007, a four-fold increase since 1980. That growth has made meeting the various challenges of inmates difficult, Solomon says.

“The thought was always that they were locking up bad people and keeping them away,” Solomon says. “But about a decade ago or so, people realized that 95 percent are coming back and we’ll have to do something different.”

About two-thirds of the 650,000 inmates released from prison each year will be arrested again within three years, according to the BJS.

Last April, Congress passed the “Second Chance Act,” authorizing some $360 million for prisoner reentry programs. Getting Ready, which Gaes says is replicable, is among those commanding attention.

It already boasts powerful results: 75 percent of inmates in the program have a GED. Inmate-on-inmate assault is down more than one-third. Inmate-on-staff assault is down by more than half. Drug use, suicide, and rape are also down.

The recidivism rate is less than 2 percent for some 3,000 inmates who have completed the program in its entirety since 2004.

Donna Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform Inc., a prisoner-advocacy organization in Tempe, Ariz., says its premature to declare Getting Ready a success, and that these statistics mask real trouble in Arizona prisons including continued violence and gang activity.

"I see an attempt to gloss over very serious institutional problems ... to appear the department [of corrections] is making great strides," Ms. Hamm says.

Hamm says she'd like to see the program undergo a formal program evaluation by a university or independent institution, and focus on other indicators of success.

Prison problems don't "get erased by having your own alarm clock or choosing to go to breakfast [which is] inconsequential if you fear for your life in prison," she says.

But Lewis correctional officer Christina Duran says the program ushered in a sea change in the place she once considered “an undeclared state of war.”

“We kept them locked down and did everything for them. They started to rely on us heavily, and there was resentment from staff who had to force them to do things,” she says.

Today, “When I hit that yard, I have so many ‘good mornings’ I can’t keep up with them,” she says, attributing the environment to inmates enjoying the chance to be adults.

Maxwell, who hopes to be a writer upon release, says he’s ready to be an adult outside prison walls.

“I’m responsible for my own actions,” he says. “You can earn something by doing it the natural way, and that’s by showing up day in and day out and involving everyone else in the process.”

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