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Program helps Arizona prisoners get ready for real life

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

By Sarah More McCannCorrespondent for The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2008

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.

Arizona State Corrections

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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.

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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.

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.]

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