New Study Probes Prisoner Reentry

Image courtesy www.humanintervention.net

By Anthony  Tinsman

I have a unique job.

As the program designer of Take a Load Off (TLO) it's my job to teach it, train others to teach it, and evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Since July 2014, with support from our proactive Reentry Affairs Coordinator, Mrs. Guthrie, TLO has provided standardized curriculum and one-on-one guidance to prisoners for their reentry needs. This required a new work detail of 24 inmates, called Reentry Technicians, who provide the services: such as applications for vital documents and facilitating courses in each housing unit. Their class rooms are called the Reentry Opportunity Center (ROC). That's a lot of progress in under 5 years, considering TLO started with a ruler and ball point pen on my bed covers.

Now it’s the back bone of a reentry program.

It shouldn't be surprising that team work between prisoners and Staff members can yield results. Though they are the exception. It takes time.

Susan Kieffer, Reentry affairs Coordinator at Ray Brook (1), wrote about such a collaborative effort in her Introduction to the "Essential Reentry Resource Book," a book which was the result of the Ray Brook Reentry Initiative. "Thanks to the many currently and previously incarcerated men and women who have contributed their invaluable time and experience to this project. Without their desire for accurate information and unwavering belief in this book, we would not have been challenged to dig deeply, to probe so many resources, to look beyond the readily available answers for true solutions." Ms. Keiffer writes, "Nor would we have had the motivation or the opportunity to test these findings and document the results so thoroughly."     

The evaluation:

The current evaluation of TLO / ROC is simple. Answer this question: how many prisoners are willing to participate and what impacts have we made so far? The role of the TLO / ROC program is special in the BOP, since our Unit Based program is the first of its kind in the system. Collaborating with Staff was a natural step and adds empirical data about what we do. I don't want the program to get undue credit or miss any opportunities to be more effective, just because it’s been described as a Best Practice by regional officials doesn't set me at ease. There are plenty of programs out there that get "results" then falter because those findings are inaccurate. We don't need rose tinted glasses; we can change the program as needed.

Even common sense changes like expanding programs and resources to serve an entire population of offenders more effectively needs to be studied.

Since November we've gathered 300 complete surveys, or roughly 20% of the general population in Forrest City medium. The Reentry Affairs Coordinator, Counselors and Case Managers have administered course-credit and tracked requests for applications. I've also conducted 100 interviews and a case study of the institution’s progress which will be available in a Report in the coming months.

Summary of findings:

1. 75.5% had participated in Instructional programs elsewhere, only 3% said they would not voluntarily participate in unit-based reentry programs.

2. 87.3% were concerned with employment after release from prison, but only 49.7% had an institutional job.

3. 73.7% had a GED, only 14.3% had post-secondary education or certification in a trade.

4. 45.1% were first time offenders, almost all of whom stated that employment concerned them the most; meanwhile, repeat offenders almost unanimously were confident about a job.

5. Repeat offenders stated, along with 29.1% of others, that getting their Driver’s License was the biggest barrier.

6. 93.8% had an average of two out of seven vital documents (2/7). Surprisingly 26.2% of these prisoners said they did not need help locating or completing applications one-on-one to receive those documents.

That last one was interesting. Our Survey had plenty of YES / NO questions, such as 'Do you have a GED, Secondary Schooling, or Trade Certification and Experience' or 'Is this your first time preparing to reenter society? If not please explain'. But the survey was also designed to measure prisoners current understanding of the reentry process and their perceptions of the resources available to them.

There were checks and balances.

For example: Brian, who has zero of seven (0/7) vital documents recommended for reentry, said "I don't think I require one-on-one help." Charlie, had five of seven (5/7) vital documents, and said "[one-on-one] may be helpful."  What's interesting about those two men you ask? Well, both men had over 10 years’ experience in trade labor and at least 2 years in college. How can one be so different from the other? How can the difference widen so much as the education and life-experience levels decrease with other prisoners?

Well....

Results are effected by people’s confirmation bias. Research studies on self-evaluation and positive illusions have found that the worst self-evaluators are people who lack skills. David Dunning, a renowned researcher called this the "unskilled and unaware" phenomenon (2). This is certainly the case with many prisoners who attend reentry courses but come with an illusory belief that they can overcome unaddressed issues in their lives with sheer will power - or darkly, being more sneaky next time.

It is a sad fact of human nature.

Inside the evaluation:

Digging around a table top loaded with surveys, I stopped several times, surprised with a few findings (possibly suffering a little bias myself). Only 6.1% of inmates expressed a negative or ambivalent attitude towards participating in unit programs. I expected there to be more. Prisoners complain so much I figured they would just gripe their way right past the obvious need for Reentry Opportunity Centers.

The majority expressed a positive opinion like 'Kevin,' who has served time in state prison previously and was shipped directly to federal prison to serve another sentence for conspiracy charges, "I think [classes] are a big help to everyone," he stated. In an interview with another "positive" participant the sentiment was explained more colorfully but basically the same.

Meanwhile, negative opinion had plenty of color to make up for the lack of frequency. Jessie, a repeat offender, answered NO to voluntary participation in our programs, stating "I'm on my own time." No less stubborn but more ambivalent responses were presented, like this statement from another repeat offender: "I am still working on myself and don't want class... no one can tell me how to stay free."

Thousands of studies on Psychology indicate that people do better when they have high self-confidence. Psychologists Albert Bandura and Dale H. Schunk suggest that when building self-efficacy it is best to shrink the behavioral tasks that are required (3). For prisoners, this means offering a class room right in their unit. Imagine if a college was built next door, wouldn't you be tempted to at least wander through it? Ask some questions? Meet the admissions Officer; just to meet your neighbors?

... Oh, look, an interesting course.

Considering that 97% of prisoners in the survey admitted they would voluntary take that tour gives me hope.

As the evaluation is nearing its conclusion plans are being made to improve the program. Informative fliers will be designed that instruct prisoners on applying for vital documents, about preparing themselves for assistance in the Reentry Opportunity Center, and leads on employment and postsecondary education available to them.

Based in part on my 11-year experience inside the BOP, and 4-years’ experience as an educator of prisoners, the psychological phenomenon found in U.S. prisons doesn't get a lot of practical attention. What's important is that solutions must be backed up with plenty of psychological studies, and be administered professionally. As straight-forward as our approach is, it is radical. Hopefully another study, in about three to five years, quantifies my greatest hope: a reduction in recidivism among participants.

Darrel, a prisoner included in the survey summed it up pretty well: "The programs are good, they keep your mind working instead of just idling in prison. Thinking and learning is always good." Thanks to participants like him we are now closer to measuring the extent of that good.

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Footnotes:        

1- Susan Kieffer, Reentry Affairs Coordinator, Ray Brook, NY. schieffer@bop.gov, *see "Essential Reentry Resource Book."    

2- David Dunning, Chip Heath, and Jerry Suls (2004), "Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace" Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69-106. 

3- Albert Bandura and Dale H. Shcunk, (1981), "Cultivating Competence, Self-Efficacy, and Intrinsic Interest Through proximal Self-Motivation," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586-598.

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Author:  Anthony Tinsman is a PEN award-winning author and the designer of Take a Load Off, an evidence based prisoner re-entry program taught in federal prison. He is an advisory Board Member to the ICBRP (International Board of Recovery Professionals).

He is serving a mandatory minimum 35-year sentence for Armed Bank Robbery. He is a first time offender.

Tinsman's published work includes Hungry Robot, a children's bed-time story. His next book – Book Of Prosper – is a collaboration with Michael Collins and will be available later this year.


'Prison Legal News' vs. the State of Florida: A Battle Against Censorship

Image courtesy prisonlegalnews.org

Image courtesy prisonlegalnews.org

By Christopher Zoukis

Last month, a small, black-and-white newsprint magazine quietly made a case in a Florida courtroom to protect the fundamental rights that nearly every citizen in the industrialized world holds dear. Yet the odds are, you didn't hear a word about it.

Prison Legal News has reported on the legal landscape of prisoners' rights in America's prisons for 25 years. It was founded by Paul Wright from his prison cell in Washington State, where he was serving a 25-year sentence for shooting a drug dealer (he was released in 2003). From the beginning, its goal has to been to inform both the incarcerated and their families regarding issues of prison conditions, resources, and reform. It has grown from a cheaply-produced newsletter slapped together by a few prisoners, to a well-respected, 64-page monthly publication backed by the non-profit foundation, the Human Rights Defense Center.

Together, PLN and the HRDC print and distribute books, litigate free speech issues across the nation, and generally serve as the most respected voice for the 2.3 million men, women, and children presently confined in our country's prisons and jails.

PLN itself has more than 9,000 subscribers across all 50 states. An estimated 70 percent of all the subscribers are incarcerated, the remaining balance being attorneys, prisoners' rights advocates and loved ones of prisoners. The managing editor, Alex Friedmann, is a former prisoner himself, and most of the columnists and contributing writers are incarcerated themselves. And in the interest of full disclosure, I am also a contributor.

PLN has become a key player in the battle against censorship and has also had success in forcing correctional agencies to disclose records of their operations, information that many agencies guard most jealously. Their work has brought to light corruption and breaches in ethics and has earned HDRC the Society of Professional Journalists' annual First Amendment Award. More recently PLN and HDRC led a successful push for tough new FCC regulations designed to reign in the exorbitant telephone rates charged by prison phone vendors (imagine paying $28 for a 15-minute call to your family 30 miles down the road).

But when operating a non-profit, funding is a constant battle; prisoners and their families generally don't have a lot of extra money. As such, PLN funds its operation with fundraising campaigns and also by selling ad space to a carefully monitored hodgepodge of lawyers, specialized publishers of prisoner-centric books, magazine subscription providers, pen pal services, and other purveyors of goods and services aimed at the prisoner market. And that's what's set Florida Department of Correction officials' sights on the publication.

It's no secret that prison officials tend to be less than supportive of efforts to educate prisoners on their rights or to disseminate information regarding prison conditions; this is not the first time the FDOC has attempted to silence PLN. In 2003 prison officials began impounding issues when inmates ordered the magazine, justifying their actions with the thinly veiled assertion that advertisements contained therein presented a "security threat." PLN sued the agency on the grounds that it violated the first amendment, and in 2005, the FDOC "assured the court they would no longer censor the magazine." The case went to trial and the district court held the claim was moot based on the FDOC's statement; PLN then appealed to the 11th Circuit, which upheld the lower court's order.

Starting again in 2009, FDOC began to again block PLN, via the application of a Department of Correction rule on "Admissible Reading Material," which prohibits publications that include advertisements for three-way calling services, pen pal services, the purchase of products or services with postage stamps, or promotes inmates conducting a business.

And so this past January, PLN headed back to court.

Whether advertisements for pen pal services truly represent a security problem for the Department of Corrections is a matter that a jury will decide at trial. The view on such matters is skewed sharply in favor of prison officials, who enjoy great deference from the courts when their security policies are reviewed for constitutionality. PLN probably faces an uphill fight; as long as prison officials can maintain a poker face while citing the dangers associated with postage stamp purchases, they'll probably win.

But why should anyone outside the prison system care about this? Because all pretextual laws and regulations on free speech are a danger to our freedom as a nation. As Justice Brennan noted in a 1963 civil rights case involving the NAACP, "broad prophylactic rules in the area of free expression are suspect."

Here, a powerful government entity, the State of Florida, wishes to suppress a long-respected voice of dissent and social justice by targeting arguably "dangerous" content in the advertisements. We must remember how bitterly the Framers of our constitution battled over the contours of the First Amendment. Allowing the State to crush legitimate dissenters who are attempting to ensure transparency and accountability, by prohibiting the advertisement of lawful endeavors should make everyone take pause and ask: what are they afraid of?

A bench trial took place in January, and we're now waiting to hear the court's judgment. Let us hope that the Justice remembers Meriweather Smith's words to the Continental Congress, "When the liberty of the Press shall be restrained, the liberties of the People will be at an end."

(Published by huffingtonpost.com; used by permission)

Darnell's Corner: Daily Thoughts, Opinions, Quotes, Inspirations, Motivations & Observations

Image courtesy scottishcentreofnlp.com

Transformation (Part 1)

By Brian Darnell Berkley Sr.

I'd like to share a true story.

This is a story about a guy who I once knew better anyone else.

I really don't know this Young Man any longer, but I do know him as he was way back then and, as I write, vivid memories come to the forefront of my mind.

This Young Man was extremely intelligent, academically speaking, yet at a young age he embraced the street life, gangs in particular.  At the time of his gang membership it wasn't as it is today, back then everyone knew each other, they all grew up and lived in the same neighborhood, they went to the same schools their parents attended.  True, they were gang members.  Yet parents weren't afraid of them and they respected their elders.  Justification?  No never that, just pointing out how it was then, as opposed to now, and the insanity of it all, with the crack era being a catalyst.

This Young Man quickly climbed through the ranks of his gang and became a top shooter and advocator of gang activity as he promoted himself to other gangs, letting them know whatever, however, wherever.

This attitude short-stopped his freedom and he ended up in State Prison at the age of 17.  A full-fledged gang member and all of 5'9, 130 pounds, he represented a small gang (at that time) at the time of his introduction into prison.  This was an era when 2nd generation Los Angeles County Gang Members began flooding the California Department of Corrections, the beginning of get-tough-on-crime legislation. 

Part of the get-tough legislation introduced the theme of "TRY THOSE JUVENILES AS ADULTS."

This Young Man lived up to the code of NEVER make a statement and he had the respect of his peers because he rode a case that wasn't his, kept his mouth shut, beat a murder charge, yet still was sentenced to State prison when, in reality, he had a California Youth Authority Commitment.  He was 17 and never had he been beyond juvenile hall as far as incarceration.

Prior to this Yong Man's incarceration, he had two very positive things in his favor, he had options:  one, he had just taken the Military Aptitude Test and at age 17, scored higher than anyone on/in the testing site that day; second, he had just been informed that the Continuation School he attended was allotting Scholarship funding to send him to college.

This Young Man had aspirations to become a Doctor (Pathologist or Neuro-Surgeon), with a leaning towards law.  He had a child on the way and he and the Mother discussed his leaving the gang life style behind.  At 17 he was already well known in the gang world, but unfortunately he caught a case in a get tough on young African American Males era.

The Recruiter tried his all to get this Young Man released to the custody of the United States Marines, after all the case was a Youth Authority Commitment, but the Judge refused.  The Continuation School tried to no avail.  These people saw potential in this Young Man.

Soledad State Prison welcomed the Young Man with open arms, sink or swim.  Of course the, Young Man swam.  He witnessed murders, rapes, extortions, and everything else that came with prison life.  He knew it was a dog eat dog environment, so he picked up that knife, as the prison saying goes, and he became a top hitter in that environment from Soledad to Tracy (Gladiator School) with a trip to San Quentin & Folsom State Prisons.  Along the way, he obtained his G.E.D. in the same year he would've graduated from high school, he took a few college courses and he did a lot of Hole time (Administrative Segregation).

New Pennsylvania Law Stifles Prisoners' Free Speech

By Christopher Zoukis

On October 21, 2014, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law the Revictimization Relief Act (HB 2533/SB 508), which enabled victims of crime to petition a judge to censor Pennsylvania state prisoners, if the prisoner's words cause or will theoretically cause "mental anguish" to a crime victim, regardless of who committed the crime against the victim and the content of the speech. The law has widely been reported to be an attack on Pennsylvania state prisoner and social justice advocate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Many interest groups, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the National Writers Union, have strenuously opposed the legislation.

Vice.com's Seth Ferranti succinctly presented the facts of the bill's signing, but also contributed to the discussion by sharing how Abu-Jamal's book Live from Death Row had given him the "ambition to pursue a career as a journalist . . . despite [his] incarceration."

He also made a point of showing that people like Abu-Jamal — successful prisoners, that is — have an impact upon fellow prisoners by showing that even in prison personal progress can be had.

CounterPunch.orq's Linn Washington Jr. profiled another Pennsylvania state prisoner — Lorenze "Cat" Johnson — in an effort to show how the Pennsylvnia justice system often lacks compassion when it comes to prisoners. Washington also provided coverage of both Abu-Jamal's history and the fact that this is actually the second time that he has been a commencement speaker at Goddard College, albeit by telephone.

The Associated Press via ABC 30 Action News provided curious coverage of Goddard College itself and Abu-Jamal's speech. As it turns out, Abu-Jamal actually "did not address the crime for which he was convicted" during the speech, a point not widely reported. Goddard College, a low-residency college in Vermont, has about 600 students who neither take tests nor receive grades, according to the AP.

PeoplesWorld.orq's Eric Gordon contributed a resonating objection to the Revictimization Relief Act by pointing out that the "First Amendment exists not just to protect speech we agree with, but also that which might offend and challenge us."

Mumia Abu-Jamal himself also sounded off on the legislation during an interview with DemocracyNow.orqs1 Amy Goodman. During this 15-minute telephone interview, which was conducted through his prison's monitored telephone call, he expressed concerns of the Revictimization Relief Act being unconstitutional and effectively being a mechanism of the state to further censor prisoners.

First Amendment Under Fire: Pennsylvania's 'Silencing Act' Puts Society at Risk

Image courtesy cojmc.unl.edu

Image courtesy cojmc.unl.edu

By Christopher Zoukis

Most Americans take the Constitution and Bill of Rights for granted; they are simply an inextricable part of the very fabric of our society and nation. But this past October, a startling bill was fast-tracked through the Pennsylvania legislature that should make every one of us take pause and think about what those documents really mean.

On October 16, 2014, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Revictimization Relief Act, an amendment to the Crime Victims Act, which was ostensibly designed to muzzle anyone who has ever been convicted of a crime. The law was aggressively forced through the legislature and promptly signed into law by former Republican governor Tom Corbett on October 21, 2014. While the law purports to protect victims of crime, its true purpose was to silence prisoners' rights activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently serving a life sentence at SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, Pennsylvania.

Earlier that month Abu-Jamal made headlines for delivering a pre-recorded commencement address at Goddard College, a school he'd attended in the 1970s, then graduated from in 1996 via correspondence while on Pennsylvania's death row (his sentence was later commuted to life in prison). While he'd been invited to speak by the graduating class, his address heralded an outcry of criticism from victims, law enforcement, and even the state legislature -- not for its content, but for no other reason than Abu-Jamal's words had been provided for public consumption.

Just 11 days after the address, the act was born. It puts in place a mechanism for victims to petition courts to bring a civil action against a person who has ever been convicted of a crime whose speech "'perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim [and] includes conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish." The law was staunchly supported by Gov. Corbett, whose goal was to target the "obscene celebrity" of such convicts like Abu-Jamal. Unfortunately for Corbett, just because he, or anyone else, doesn't agree with what someone has to say -- even a person convicted of a crime -- it doesn't give him, or the state legislature, the right to censor the speech.

HB2533 is a mere two pages long which, unsurprisingly, means it's open to massive interpretation. No guidelines were promulgated to quantify what types of content or speech qualify for the act, or what reaction is required by a victim in order to permit such censorship -- it is entirely up to a judge's discretion. Aside from the issue of no explanation of what might constitute "mental anguish" being provided, the definition of an "offender" is also absent, which means that even the formerly incarcerated could be affected by the law.

The act effectively censors an entire class of people based on what they might say or the presumptive reactions to that speech. It could apply to any medium: print, online, broadcast, or even in-person speech (insofar as a victim might hear about it). And if an injunction is successful, victims may also be able to claim their attorney's fees -- effectively suing the inmates. There can be little question that such a threat could create a "chilling effect" amongst prisoners and ex-inmates wanting to speak about their experiences.

Opponents of the law have spanned from the liberal ACLU of Pennsylvania to the conservative Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Upon reviewing the legislation, the ACLU of Pennsylvania stated that it "completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Tony Norman agreed, writing, "Taking away anyone's right to free speech in a knee-jerk attempt to silence Abu-Jamal is a threat to us all."

On January 8th, 2015 eleven parties signed on to a lawsuit naming the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia district attorneys as defendants. Included amongst the signatories are Prison Legal News, Solitary Watch, the Pennsylvania Prison Society and several journalists and academics. Other notable plaintiffs include several former inmates -- now community leaders -- who speak about their experiences in an effort to help reduce crime.

Regardless of where anyone resides on the political spectrum, the idea of censoring anyone because of who they are, what they might say, or what someone else's reactions to those words might be, should be alarming to everyone. This isn't an act designed to protect victims, and it isn't about being tougher on crime. It's an attack on the U.S. Constitution, plain and simple -- one that our nation's forefathers would not stand for.

By cloaking the law in the language of "victims' rights," the legislature successfully hid how dangerous it is to our society, and the American prison and legal systems themselves. By conjuring visions of inmates using free speech to threaten or intimidate victims, they have obfuscated what's really at risk here: the ability of prisoners to speak out about things like prison conditions and wrongful convictions, and of former inmates to educate and inspire.