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Work Key to Breaking Jail Cycle


-By Richie Davis, Recorder Staff

(413) 772-0261 Ext. 269

The last place any community wants a revolving door is its jail, but that's what Franklin Sheriff Chris Donelan found when he arrived at the house of correction four years ago.

"They came there for six months to a year, they sat around, they did nothing, and then we released them...What would be different?" Donelan asked 130 Franklin County Chamber of Commerce members  Friday, as he turned to the community for the key to a new approach to treating the core of inmates' issues.

Liam Latrell of ServiceNet, right, leads a Morning Mindfulness meeting in the D Pod of the Franklin County House of Correction. D Pod is also called the Treatment Unit, as most of the residents are in for substance abuse problems.

Donelan, who won a $600,000 "Second Chance" grant last October from the U.S. Department of Justice to integrate substance-abuse and mental-health treatments in a way that addresses the trauma that is at the heart of many of their problems, had already restructured the environment under a different, three-year "Transition from Jail to Community" grant from the National Institute of Correction.  The Transition program, which instead of money offers help from national experts and other jails around the country, tries to connect corrections with courts, probation, human services and the larger community, eventually setting up a mentoring program for inmates.

Donelan's focus with business leaders at Friday's Chamber breakfast was a more direct plea for a second chance:

"These guys need jobs when they get out of here," he said of the inmates, 80 percent of whom chose to enter a coordinated treatment regimen when they first arrive, beginning with a dail, 7:45 AM peer-led meeting that opens with a credo:  "We have an underlying belief that the past does not define us, that the present does not confine us, and that freedom, in every sense of the word, is our future.  It takes a stronger man to dig down deep and admit, 'I am here because of me.'  We must master our habits that have held us hostage."

Rather than the "I didn't do it" denial that prevails in many correctional programs, Donelan said, the approach of having inmates "own their behavior" that runs through the patchwork of treatment and educational programs inmates participate in from medium, minimum security and pre-release phases has turned the Elm Street facility from "a jail that does treatment, to a locked treatment facility."

The reality is that more than 80 percent of inmates have substance abuse and some kind of mental-health issues that feed off trauma in their lives.

"Why is it that when someone walks into a room, somhow they feel that who they are isn't adequate, that they have to alter who they are, to fit in or to feel good?  We're finding that these people experience trauma from a very early age...the horror story that hear about somebody who's in kindergarten and everyday when they go home from school they have to hide in the closet because Mom and Dad are drunk and beating the hell out of each other.  We fashion a treatment plan to dig down into that, to give them the tools to focus on a situation and handle it differently instead of lashing out."

That program includes guided meditation mindfulness training,and may also include literacy, parenting, anger-management, and sex-offender treatment as well as substance-abuse treatment that's more about understanding what triggers behaviors and how to avoid impulses that won't get the person far, rather than trying to motivate inmates to avoid drugs and alcohol because they're bad for health.

But the best training - including vocational skills like carpentry and welding, as well as Greenfield Community College courses in organic gardening and food-systems business - won't get the pre-release inmate far if there is no stable housing or job on the outside, said Donelan.

"There's nobody serving a life sentence at the Franklin County House of Correction.  The question is, what condition do we want them to be in when they get released?  We want them to be stronger, to have their footing, to have the tools to deal with whatever the issues were," he said.  "(But) we put them through this whole program, and they can't get a place to live and they can't get a job.  What do you think they're going to do?"

Donelan's point was underscored in an earlier part of Friday's program, in which regional Opioid Task Force Coordinator Marisa Hebble said, "Stable employment is a really important long-term piece of solving...this (heroin addiction) problem."

In addition to a partnership with GCC, to which eight released inmates have already gone on for programs, the Sheriff's Office has reached out to the Greenfield and regional housing authorities to ask for more flexibility in considering former inmates as tenants.

Pointing to several federal and state programs for employers - including training grants for staff, free bond insurance and tax credits - Donelan asked business leaders "to maybe be a little flexible and a little tolerant about past criminal record.  I'm not going to tell you there's not going to be failures.  But there are successes, and when you hit the success, man, it feels good."

Ed Hayes, Assistant Superintendent of Treatment and Programs, said the job market is "challenging for everyone, and it's a further challenge for us."  But he added that the House of Correction, which releases about eight inmates a month and has had no statistics on re-incarceration beyond a three-year statewide average of 44 percent, has had success in having released inmates hired for food-service and auto-related businesses.

A recidivism study is now being done as part of the grant program, he said.

Donelan said that state's Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law, to provide information to the public about criminal history, has been "a catastrophe" because it's blocked "the most desperate people, who need the most support" from access to educational, housing and employment opportunities.

"It's really hard, because history is history and you did what you did and you own your behavior, but when it blocks you from every changing paths, I think that's an unintended consequence," he said.  "And they all live here.  They're our neighbors."

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