What Prison Fellowship Int. should be doing
Inmate Rehabilitation Returns as a Goal as Punishment Pendulum Swings
By Fox Butterfield
The New York Times
Sunday, May 20, 2001

    Todd Ragsdale is serving a 10-year sentence for assault in the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, but he still considers himself lucky.
    Mr. Ragsdale is in an advanced computer class, building customized computers for state agencies, and says he expects eventually "to walk out into the world with a real job," making more than $50,000 a year. It is something Mr. Ragsdale could not have dreamed of before he was sent to prison.
    Mr. Ragsdale is part of an Oregon program to deal with a serious problem confronting the criminal justice system — the high and growing rates at which released inmates end up back in prison. Oregon and Missouri, followed more tentatively by several other states, have each begun a comprehensive effort to remold offenders, requiring them to work, study or undergo drug and other treatment sessions full time.
    "The bottom line is, we want inmates practicing on the inside what works on the outside," said Steven J. Ickes, an assistant director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, "to try to undo all the bad crime-inducing habits they learned in the years before they got here."

Shane Young for the New York Times

Oregon is among a few states trying to rehabilitate prisoners with work programs, like the computer class in which Todd Ragsdale is enrolled.


    In a sense, these new programs represent a major shift in thinking about how to run prisons — a return to the old notion of rehabilitating prisoners, the idea behind the very term "corrections" that lay at the creation of American prisons in the 19th century.
    Rehabilitation was discredited and largely abandoned decades ago in most state prison systems, said Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
    "With the huge expansion of prisons starting in the 1980's, most prison systems gave up believing they had any responsibility for changing offenders or what happened after offenders were released," Professor Clear said, adding that some academic research contributed to this by concluding that nothing could be done to reduce recidivism.

    "The objective became that prisons should be just for punishment," he said, "and politicians competed to see who could make prisons more unpleasant, by taking away things like television and recreation and education classes."
    But the pendulum may be swinging back again, in what prison officials like to call re-entry or transition to the community. And states like Oregon give the process a modern twist. For it was an Oregon voter referendum in 1994 mandating that prisoners work as hard — 40 hours a week — as the taxpayers who provide their upkeep that supplied the impetus for putting inmates to work. Given this mandate, prison officials called on Oregon business executives for advice about how to run prisons more productively.
    And so Oregon turned from historical vocational training for low-paying jobs to comprehensive inmate training for jobs that companies have open, like telemarketing and using computers to map water and tax districts from aerial photographs. To ensure accountability, inmates are tracked by computer 24 hours a day, and are offered what amount to small monthly bonuses for good work or study. Many inmates now leave prison with a professionally printed résumé, including a record of classes passed, and letters of recommendation from prison officials.
    "For guys whose lives have been way out of control, a résumé puts them back in control of their lives," Mr. Ickes said.
    In Missouri, which has a similar program, Dora Schriro, director of the State Department of Corrections, sums up the new approach this way: "People ask, `How much time is enough?' But they should ask, `How do you want them when they come home?,' " because 97 percent of inmates are eventually released.
    As the movement to revive rehabilitation has spread, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Washington State have also begun programs, though less comprehensive.
    Texas, which has the country's second-largest prison system, with 150,000 inmates, has also made rehabilitation a central goal since 1995, said Glen Castlebury, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with a requirement that every inmate do a full day's work. Mandatory schooling is required for inmates with less than a seventh-grade education.
    Many Texas inmates still work in old-style prison jobs, like stamping license plates, and the state's program does not emphasize inmates' success on the outside as much as Oregon's does. But, Mr. Castlebury said, "What we hope is that we are teaching the work ethic."
    Inmates who refuse to work are not allowed to watch television or buy items in the canteen, he said.
    The Oregon program, for men and women, begins upon an inmate's arrival with a battery of tests to identify the mental, social or educational barriers the inmate may face. A detailed plan is then worked out to help the inmate overcome these troubles through literacy programs, drug treatment or job training.
    "We try to be outcome-based, like a good business," Mr. Ickes said.


    The 1994 measure specified that the work by inmates reduce the cost of prisons to the state government. So, for example, 16 inmates sitting like telemarketers in office cubicles are answering callers' questions to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the secretary of state's office, saving the cost of state employees.
    "What makes this so phenomenal," said Mr. Ragsdale, the inmate, as he assembled a computer, "is that a few years ago a guy walking out of here had nowhere to go and no job skills, so they often ended up coming right back to prison.
    "At least here they had everything they needed: food, clothes, a bed and their friends."
    Now, he said, "There is a waiting list to get into the class, and when guys are accepted, they have to make a commitment to be on a team, or they are out, permanently, even for playing a computer game."
    Signs already suggest that the Oregon program is working, state officials say. The percentage of inmates admitted to Oregon prisons in 2000 who were returning parolees was only 25 percent, down from 47 percent in 1995.
    Inmate behavior in Oregon's 13 prisons has also improved, prison officials say. Because a disciplinary report can lead to automatic expulsion from the most coveted work assignments — like the computer program — there has been a 60 percent reduction since 1995 in major disciplinary reports, including for fighting or attempted escape.
    Also, because admission to some of the best prison jobs and classes requires a high school diploma or its equivalent, Oregon's inmates are now completing G.E.D.'s after an average of only 1.5 starts, down from 8.5 starts before 1995. Over all, Oregon prisons have a higher rate of G.E.D. completion than the 17 community colleges in the state that offer the instruction, Mr. Ickes noted.
    But Oregon has not yet found a way to gauge perhaps the most important measure of the success of its new program — how quickly inmates find jobs and how long they hold them. It has been difficult getting money from the State Legislature to set up a tracking system, prison officials say, though they hope to have a system in place soon.
    Finding ways to ease the return to society and reduce recidivism "is the hot topic in the criminal justice system, because of the huge costs and numbers involved," said Michael Jacobson, a professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former director of New York City's Department of Correction.
    About 614,000 people will be released from state and federal prisons this year, said Allen J. Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical arm of the Justice Department. Within three years, based on studies he has done, Mr. Beck said, 62 percent of them will be arrested again, and 41 percent will be sent back to prison.
    In California alone, Professor Jacobson said, about 70,000 people, 75 percent of the state's total number of parolees, are sent back to prison each year for parole violations, like failing drug tests, for periods averaging five and a half months. These inmates take up about 20 percent of all the state prison beds each year, he said, costing California $1 billion.

    In the 1990's, when the economy was hot and tax revenue high, politicians could ignore these costs, Professor Jacobson said. But tax revenue is down, and voters want more money spent on education, he said."So there is a new environment for looking at how to save money on prisons," and one of the easiest ways, without having to soften popular tough sentencing laws, is to reduce recidivism, he said.
    Since the prison boom began in 1980, quadrupling the number of inmates in jails and prisons to two million, the recycling of criminals through prisons has gotten worse. The percentage of inmates admitted to prison who had been there before rose to 36.4 percent in 1998, from 18 percent in 1980, Mr. Beck said.
    Still, some prison guards view rehabilitation programs as taxpayer money wasted on criminals, and some labor leaders worry that inmates are taking union jobs.
    But in Oregon, even some people in the tough-on-crime camp say they like the state's new approach. Steve Doell, the president of Crime Victims United of Oregon, whose 12-year-old daughter was killed walking home from a school bus stop, said:

Shane Young for the New York Times

    "The thing people need to know is that most of these folks in prison are eventually going to come out again. So we think it's smart policy to try to change them while they're locked up, so that when they return to society there will be fewer victims on the street."

What Prison Fellowship Int. should be doing
Behind Bars and on the Clock
By Edward Wong
The New York Times
Wednesday, June 6, 2001

    PENDLETON, Ore. — The workday begins on a patch of black asphalt ringed by razor-wire fence. This is where more than 200 inmates of the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution line up at 7:45 on weekdays. They are clad in blue jeans and inspected like cattle by men with pistols and crew cuts and gray uniforms. Their names are called out, their bodies frisked.
    Fifty of them march into a yellow concrete factory building the size of a hangar and punch a time clock. Inside, they are no longer "on the inside." Inside, they are the hired hands of John Borchert. "I hope you enjoy your stay," he tells them at the door.

Despite Low Pay, Felons Show Up Motivated
Michael Wilhelm for the New York Times

"We try to run it as much like a business as possible," said John Borchert, right, of the Prison Blues factory in Oregon. He talks to an inmate, Bob Howard, on the shirt line.

    Mr. Borchert is the general manager of the Array Corporation, a private company with $2 million in annual revenue that employs inmates primarily to make garments. The factory churns out 50,000 pieces of clothing a year, most of them jeans and work shirts. Half are bought by the state to clothe prisoners. The rest are sold in retail stores under the brand Prison Blues and using the slogan, "Made on the inside to be worn on the outside."
    Mr. Borchert and his floor managers, Tom Wise and Nick Hiatt, walk around the bright 40,000-square-foot factory as they would in any plant. There are no guards, even though workers are serving time for the entire range of felonies, from stabbing friends to raping children to burning down houses. Many even wield razor knives and electric drills.
    "We try to run it as much like a business as possible," Mr. Borchert, 39, said above the din of sewing machines. "That's important for the mental environment of the workers. It becomes an escape for them. I guess escape is a bad word. It becomes a release for them."

    But Mr. Borchert and his colleagues do have to approach many standard management issues like staff motivation and training new hires from an unusual perspective. After all, they are supervising what is arguably the least traditional work force in America. It is also one of the fastest growing. About 85,000 of this country's 1.3 million inmates in federal and state prisons hold a job, including 3,500 in a federal program where they make products for private companies for interstate sale. That is up from 1,000 five years ago.

Michael Wilhelm for the New York Times

Roddy Henderson, an inmate at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, stencils logos onto Prison Blues clothing.

    Oregon is a leader in the trend, as a result of a 1994 law that requires all able-bodied prisoners to put in a 40-hour week. Eighty percent now do, one of the highest rates in the nation. After starting Prison Blues, the state contracted the program in 1997 to Array, a subsidiary of Yoshida's Inc., a company in Portland that has $75 million in annual sales from products like teriyaki sauce, golf bags and snowboards.
    For the managers of Prison Blues, overseeing felons has a built-in advantage: they are incredibly motivated. No matter that the work is menial and the pay paltry (the state allows them to keep only a fifth of the average $6.80 an hour that they make, with the rest going to taxes, victim restitution and other expenses); the program has a waiting list of 200, and employees are even eager to work holidays.
    "These jobs mean a lot to them," Mr. Borchert said. "You'll get guys who can be fairly emotional about whether or not they're able to do the job. Usually guys in an American company wouldn't express a lot of emotion about whether or not they can sew."

    One inmate who had failed at several jobs last year almost cried when a manager told him he was not working out, Mr. Borchert said. "He was teary-eyed. He said: `Please, I'll do anything. I'll work in the warehouse, I'll do whatever. I just can't sew.' We wrote him a letter wishing him well in future assignments. I still see that person a couple times a week. He pleads with me for his job back."
    No surprise there. Sewing clothes beats the dreariness and danger of prison life, and making $1.36 an hour is better than earning nothing. The workers learn skills they can use on the outside. And for many, the factory floor offers a more personal reward.
    "They treat you like people here," said Robert Staunton, 37, a convicted kidnapper who had never held down a job. "Some corrections officers treat you all right, but a lot of them think you're doing something wrong. These guys don't think that way. They're more business types, so it's like being on the street again."

    Mr. Staunton says he has saved $4,000 and sends money to his two children. Workers also spend their savings on new shoes, toiletries and tuition.
    They are paid by the piece. The more they make, the more they earn, although a federal law requires Array to pay at least the prevailing wage. And if the percentage of defects falls below the industry average of 3 percent, the workers are given credit to buy Prison Blues products.
    Even the smallest of incentives, ones that would be taken for granted on the outside, can be surprisingly effective. In the first quarter of 2000, when the percentage of defects first fell below the industry average, Mr. Borchert bought pizza for the entire floor. Many workers had not tasted a slice in five years.
    "They loved it," Mr. Wise said. "Not long after that happened, there was an issue that came up where several pairs of jeans were put together wrong, and some guys actually spent time on their breaks correcting these just so the percentage wouldn't rise."
    Prison labor has come under fire from human-rights advocates who view it as exploitation, and from labor officials who complain it takes jobs away from law-abiding Americans. But Mr. Borchert said none of his workers were forced into their jobs. And as for stealing jobs, he said it was not an issue in his company's case because "all the sewing would be going overseas if it weren't here."
    Supervising inmates does have its downsides. At Prison Blues, some workers show the effects of powerful drugs taken for their psychiatric disorders. Managers often have to help others deal with personal crises, like alienation from their families. And with the inmates' suspicion of authority, it often takes half a year just to win their trust.
    "They think at first that you're here to jerk them around," Mr. Borchert said. "You're the Man."
    Partly as a result, team-building is much harder than on the outside, Mr. Wise said. No inmate wants to be thought of as an informer, he said, so it is tough to get one worker to point out another's mistakes. Mr. Wise said he first learned this lesson three years ago when he asked who had botched a pair of jeans, only to get silent stares.
    Another headache is the high turnover rate that comes from inmates being released or transferred, often without notice. A mechanic did not show up one day last summer, for instance, and it was only after Mr. Borchett called the prison guards that he learned he had been sent to another institution for medical treatment. It took more than six months to train a replacement.
    "People say you have a captive work force," he said. "It's not true."
    Ahmed Muyingo, a Ugandan refugee convicted of domestic violence, told Mr. Hiatt recently that he was returning to court soon to reargue his case. "You should probably start training somebody," Mr. Muyingo, 40, said as he ran a pair of jeans under a sewing machine.


    "Are they going to let you work up until you leave?" Mr. Hiatt asked.
    "Probably. I like the money."
    None of the managers had supervised inmates before, and their weeklong training program with the Department of Corrections taught them some eye-opening lessons. They learned how criminals think (the world revolves around them), what to do in a hostage situation (do not resist) and where to frisk prisoners for contraband (under the armpits, in socks or wherever there is a bulge.) Then they stepped through the metal detectors and sliding doors on their first day, and heard the locks click shut behind them.
    "I was nervous," Mr. Borchert said. "You're around guys who've committed serious crimes. You don't understand the environment they live in. You don't know whether you'll be threatened with violence from day to day."
    "Almost without fail," he said, "for the first two to three months, I have managers looking at me with wide eyes saying, `What have I gotten myself into?' "
    Mr. Hiatt has a wife and four children, and took the job a year and a half ago after the shutdown of the wood-fiber mill where he had worked for 23 years.
    "With a lot of the inmates, I don't know their crimes," he said. "I feel if I know what their crime was, and it hits personal to me, it would interfere with the way I interact with them. Child molesting is what usually gets to me the worst."
    "You always have this feeling that you never let your guard down," he added, "that you're always looking over your shoulder."
    So while the managers have to try to respect their workers, they also remain wary of them. Mr. Hiatt's office on the floor is enclosed in a steel mesh cage, and the padlock to the gate is always kept shut to prevent a prisoner from pocketing it and using it as a weapon later. Irons are secured with cables to pillars. The 300 tools used by the workers are hung on a white Pegboard in the rear of the building.
    Nobody is allowed to leave if one is missing. In 1998, a worker unknowingly dropped a pair of nippers — tool No. 39 — into a box of clothing that was shipped out. Guards were called in. The factory was turned upside down. Then a doctor did a cavity search on each worker.
    "That worker doesn't like to handle nippers anymore," Mr. Borchert said. "No one uses No. 39 now. It's cursed. People here are careful not to associate themselves with something that has failed or something that has to do with wrongdoing."