Ohio Pushes Reforms to Help Inmates with Addiction Issues

Four out of five inmates in Ohio’s prisons have addiction issues—and the state is finally taking action to address that problem more appropriately.

For the current fiscal year, the Buckeye State’s prison system received $27.4 million to help pay for more addiction counselors, a move that comes amid a host of other changes, according to the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum.

Before July, the state was offering treatment to far fewer inmates. The state was releasing between 8,000 and 9,000 inmates with serious addiction issues every year, but only about half of them received treatment.

Under the new system, anyone who will be released in three months can start counseling in prison and have their records sent to a halfway house when they leave.

One of the treatment methods the Ohio system uses is the therapeutic community model. Non-violent offenders live together in groups of 70 to 180 and attend group counseling together.

Tracy Plouck, the director of the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, plans to triple the number of inmates in therapeutic communities over the next year and a half. Currently, just four facilities have therapeutic community offerings but Plouck wants to raise that to eight.

The state system is also making a push to sign up more prisoners for Medicaid so they can receive necessary treatment and medical care immediately upon their release. Currently just 10 of the state’s 27 prisons routinely deal with Medicaid enrollments before an inmate’s release.

Although prisoners can’t take medication-assisted treatment like Suboxone or methadone while behind bars, this would hopefully increase the number of inmates able to use such drugs after their release by making sure that they’re on Medicaid, which would cover the cost.

The story originally appeared on The Fix.


Out for Good: An Overview of Reentry Efforts in Tompkins County

Every year, close to 700,000 people are released from jails and prisons in the United States. More than 700 of them are released from the jail right here in Tompkins County.

Those individuals are “reentering citizens,” and, as criminal justice reform moves into the national spotlight, reentry is just one aspect of reform that is gaining steam locally. Reentering citizens can face an array of challenges, including finding a job when they have a criminal record, securing housing without any savings, and transportation to meeting parole and probation requirements.

José Peliot of Civic Ensemble

Ten years ago, there was relatively little to speak of in the way of reentry efforts in Tompkins County. Now there’s a smattering of local groups dedicating resources to everything from college preparation to acting, all in the name of reentry.

Reentry Subcommittee

One big player in local reentry efforts could be the county government. In its current iteration the 2016 budget includes $100,000 in target contingency funds to support a reentry program, the specifics of which will be worked out as the year progresses. The decision to fund reentry support was based on recommendations from the Criminal Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration Board’s Reentry Subcommittee.

The county’s current interest in looking at reentry grew out of the jail expansion. In addition to prompting the creation of the Jail Alternatives Task Force, the decision to install seven more jail beds eventually led to the creation of the Reentry Subcommittee in early 2015.

The group was charged with the tasks of developing recommendations for a reentry program, identifying funding sources to implement those recommendations, and developing tools to track recidivism and program efficacy.

“Why are we talking about reentry? I think everyone’s pretty aware that there’s a revolving door syndrome,” Patricia Buechel, subcommittee co-chair and county probation director, told the county legislature during an Oct. 6 presentation on the group’s recommendations.

To understand who exactly is part of the reentering population, Buechel—along with co-chair Deborah Dietrich and CJATI Chair Suzi Cook—offered up some data from the county jail.

In 2014 the jail had a total of 794 inmates, 68 percent of whom were unsentenced. The jail population is relatively young—64 percent were under 33 years old—and 80 percent male.

Although the jail population is mostly white—72 percent—African Americans are significantly over-represented. While 23 percent of the jail population is black, according to the Tompkins County Health Department’s most recent county health assessment, only 4 percent of the county population is black.

Since 2008 the jail has had a limited reentry program in place. It began as a pilot project, but it doesn’t actually get any specific funding.

Teheran Forest of Civic Ensemble

In a nutshell, the reentry program helps inmates complete Department of Social Services (DSS) applications, offers transport to DSS for an intake appointment, and provides assessments for other needs. However, the current program is only available to a small fraction of the jail population.

To be eligible, inmates must be sentenced and have at least 45 days left to serve. They can’t be on parole or probation after their release, they can’t have participated in the reentry program previously, and they must be planning to stay in Tompkins County.

As a result of those restrictions, only 14 percent of sentenced inmates—143 people—have gone through the program since it was created seven years ago.

Despite its limited scope, there are some indications the reentry program may be working. The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2005 found that more than 50 percent of state prisoners recidivate. Though there isn’t recidivism data for the county jail overall, reentry participants are reincarcerated about 35 percent of the time, according to the subcommittee report. However, that number only measures returns to the Tompkins County Jail and thus commitments to other county jails aren’t included.

Although the subcommittee expressed optimism about the program’s low recidivism rate, it’s hard to make significant conclusions from such limited data.

To improve and expand the program’s outcome, the subcommittee offered a number of recommendations (including better data collection). Some highlights of the 16-page report include:

Hire two full-time reentry coordinators to create discharge plans, identify needs pre-release, and provide follow-up in the community.

Create transitional housing in the city, staffed by a resident advisor. About 50 percent of inmates said they were unsure of their housing upon release. Transitional housing, the subcommittee notes in its report, “would provide a supportive atmosphere for those high risk inmates leaving the jail who have no or inappropriate housing.”

Implement more jail programming, possibly at off-site locations. Educational opportunities, college orientation programs, money management, and addiction treatment programs were all identified as options that could help provide inmates with better tools for the real world after their release.

Consider “Ban the Box” legislation at both the county and city level, in order to reduce barriers to employment by removing questions about criminal background from job applications.

Create a van service to help reentering citizens in rural areas get to appointments and jobs.

Create a mentoring program. The report notes, “Lack of emotional support upon release from incarceration is an identified issue for those leaving both the prison system and the Tompkins County Jail.”

Improve the process for getting identification post-release. Some reentering citizens struggle with finding the necessary documentation to get state ID. The report notes that the Department of Motor Vehicles has agreed to accept enhanced sheriff’s ID cards—which could be given to reentry program inmates—for points toward proving identity for a license.

The legislature, at the urging of Legislator Martha Robertson (D-Dryden), began by tackling the first of those suggestions in this year’s budget, but there are other groups already in place and working to address some of the remaining recommendations.

Mary Bogan College Initiative

“The thing about reentry is it’s a cloth, and every single person who offers support is a thread in that cloth,” said Benay Rubenstein.

Rubenstein, an energetic woman with decades of experience working in prison college programs, wants to add another thread to Tompkins County’s cloth.

That’s why she created the Mary Bogan College Initiative (MCBI). Funded by private donations, MCBI is intended to “provide a bridge-to-college program for the entire reentry community here in Tompkins County.” Basically, that means helping current and former inmates figure out how to navigate the college application and preparation process.

Starting in October, Rubenstein and volunteer academic counselor Laura Komor began meeting with groups inside and outside the jail to provide academic counseling services.

Rubenstein said that Ray Bunce, the jail captain, has offered eager support.

Benay Rubenstein of the Mary Bogan College Initiative

“Number one, he’s going to be posting our information in the dormitories in the jail, and we’re asking that anyone who’s interested in having a meeting with an academic counselor put in a request to meet for one-on-one appointments,” she said. “Then when they come home we can take the next step, which would be college prep courses or remedial work. Or, if a person is ready to apply, it could be assistance with applications, financial aid, dealing with outstanding loans, and dealing with the special application process for people with felonies.”

The program is named after a long-time New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision employee who passed away in 2011.

MCBI’s seed funding came from one of Bogan’s close friends, Park Foundation Board of Trustees President Adelaide Gomer. Rubenstein hopes to find other sources to grow that seed funding into a tree.

“At the moment the MBCI project is running on a shoestring budget, although I’m giving it my all in the hopes that more funding will follow,” she said.

Rubenstein said that once there are additional funds in line, there is a possibility that the program could expand to other counties. Eventually, it could lead to more jobs for reentering citizens.

“My plan is to hire formerly incarcerated people to staff this program as soon as possible,” she added. “Also, volunteers are welcome. There is much to do, including outreach, academic instruction and tutoring, building a website, and on and on.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension

It’s not just community groups and the county government that have become involved in reentry efforts—the Big Red behemoth up the hill has stepped on board too.

Cornell is already home to the Cornell Prison Education Program, which seeks to provide a college education for state prisoners, but now the university is expanding its efforts, as the Cornell Cooperative Extension is housing a part-time reentry specialist position.

Lisa Ellin—who has also been involved in Civic Ensemble’s project (see below)—is currently filling that position. While many of the other reentry efforts underway focus on life after jail, Ellin is focusing on life in prison.

Right now, she’s running parenting classes at state prisons in order to help men learn how to maintain and rebuild family relationships upon their release.

“The research shows that family connections and family involvement in reentry is critical,” Ellin said. “What I’m doing is helping to develop tools and skills with these men so they can play a powerful role in their child[ren]’s lives.”

Ellin said she also works on alternatives to violence programs and hopes to expand offerings to other facilities, possibly including the county jail.

Civic Ensemble

“What the arts can do is give a glimpse of another way,” said Sarah Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s director of civic engagement. “In theatre there’s no wrong answer.”

There are right answers, though, and last spring Civic Ensemble embarked on a project to help former inmates find them. The eight-week playwriting class culminated with a series of plays—all penned by reentering citizens—offered up to the community for free.

After a successful set of performances and positive community feedback, Civic Ensemble has decided to do it again. In early 2016 they’ll be offering a second theatre reentry playwriting class.

As they did last spring, Civic Ensemble will offer a stipend to anyone who completes the class and transportation will be available to anyone who needs it. The class meets twice a week, and Chalmers said—in addition to providing positive growth experience and resume material—the class can create a sense of place that reentering citizens often need.

“Someone who’s been told you can’t or you’re not good enough or you’re not a full member of our community, they now have a place where they are valued without question,” she said. “With this program, people have someplace to go, where they’re expected to be. They’re getting paid, they have community and people who are excited to see them and care about them. They work together, and by the end of the eight weeks they’re helping each other finish their plays.”

Ultimate Reentry Opportunity

The idea for the URO came about in late 2013, according to one of the organization’s founders, Schelley Nunn.

“The reason why this all came about,” Nunn said, “is because there were some serious issues around reentry. A lot of what we know is anecdotal information; it’s been a little difficult getting statistical data.

“We know of people who are opting to go back to jail because it’s just so difficult to be out here,” she said.

In addition to Nunn, Audrey Cooper and Fabina Colon are at the helm of the grant-funded project, which is affiliated with the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). One of the key aspects of URO’s problem-solving approach is the “collective impact model.”

“It’s really an approach that is used to solve large-scale social issues,” Nunn said. “It goes a step further than collaboration; it brings key organizations and individuals together so they can work outside of the silos that exist when we operate in our own vacuums. It’s a model that has been used internationally with great success.”

So far, the group has begun their work by holding meetings with stakeholders involved in all aspects of a reentering citizen’s life. That has included representatives from fields including mental health, education, probation, and more.

Also, URO plans to start a mentoring program for newly released members of the community.

Colon said that within the next year, they expect to hire one position to coordinate the volunteer mentoring program and another two positions to facilitate working groups for reentry stakeholders.

“There are definitely gaps here in Tompkins County and Ithaca that are pretty serious,” Colon said. “I think that we have a lot of work to do.”

This piece originally appeared in the Ithaca Times. 

7 (Weird) Ways People Get High in Prison

Prison is rife with desperation. Inmates are desperate to get out, desperate for time to pass, desperate to see family, desperate to get laid.

And some are desperate to get high. There are all manner of creative ways people succeed in finding intoxication behind bars—and some even make the news, like the drone drug drops in Ohio in July. Here, from two women who know a thing or two about doing time, are seven weird (and real) ways in which prisoners attempt (and often fail) to get twisted while they’re in the clink.

1. Kissing Cousins. One of the major drug smuggling routes into correctional facilities is through visiting rooms. Sometimes, goods are exchanged through a simple handoff. Sometimes, they’re exchanged during a kiss. That’s a method that works reasonably well if it’s someone you might reasonably kiss on the lips. If your brother, mother, or cousin is smuggling in drugs, you should probably not make out with them. That might raise some red flags.

Probability of attracting attention notwithstanding, some prisoners still use intra-familial drug smuggling techniques. Sometimes, making out with your cousin pays off and you get the goods without a hitch. (Some guards just think inmates are depraved enough that they seem to chalk it up to another oddity of prison life and don’t investigate further.) Sometimes, a guard raises an eyebrow and you end up in solitary confinement for months on end. So it’s risky, but it can work.

2. Taking Coffee to the Next Level. In prisons and jails, typically the only coffee option is instant coffee purchased on commissary. Sometimes, there’s java available in the mess hall—but sometimes it’s just a woefully decaffeinated tease. So if you want caffeine, it’s often the powdered stuff or nothing.

Drug addicts, however, are used to putting powders up their noses. The thing is, desperate drug addicts behind bars plus intranasal powdered coffee does not equal a pleasant high. It only equals a brown nose and a sense of failure. (But that’s never stopped anyone from trying.)

3. Who Got the Hooch? In real life, as in prison lore, hooch is totally a thing. However, making it is harder than it sounds. It stinks, requires regular care (you have to “burp” the bottles), and requires a certain skill and knowledge to get just right. Many attempt to make it, few succeed.

When it goes wrong, you have a smelly mess of moldy oranges, sugar, and soggy bread on your hands. When it goes right, you have most of a unit acting like drunk monkeys—and the odd task of explaining to the guard why there’s some disgusting dregs of moldy oranges, sugar, and soggy bread in the shower drain.

4. Medical Magic. Although there are some drugs that would quite obviously get you high—Percocet, Xanax—those are a little scarce in prison. In New York State prisons, some inmates are still prescribed them, but not a ton. Psych meds, however, are incredibly common.

Thus, through trial and error, prisoners have figured out what combinations of non-narcotic medication can actually get you feeling kind of high. One of the most popular black market pills (in women’s prison, anyway) was Topamax. It’s intended for use in combating migraines, but some women realized that it caused weight loss and an increase in energy. It wasn’t a serious, euphoric high—it wasn’t smoking a hit of meth. But it did put a little pep in your step and move the needle on the scale a wee bit.

Although Topamax had a pretty sizable market, there were other drugs frequently taken for off-label uses. Wellbutrin is the “poor man’s coke” and Neurontin is pretty popular on the underground meds market as well.

Through mixing and matching, prisoners figured out some of the most successful combinations for achieving the desired outcome. Mixing the muscle relaxant Robaxin with any number of psych meds, for instance, would get you so twisted you might pee in the middle of the floor like the village drunk. (Yes, that seriously happened.)

5. Purple Plants. Eminem sings about purple pills, but in prison it was purple plants that were all the rage. Thing is, they didn’t actually get you high. One of the vocational offerings in New York State prisons is a horticulture class. Of course, any addict worth their salt knows that a lot of seriously mind-altering drugs come from plants. Thus, at the horticulture class in Albion, the largest female prison in New York, some of the women tried licking all the vaguely interesting plants to see if any would get them high. Although none of said plants actually would get you high, at least one—a fuzzy, purple plant called a Purple Passion plant—looked like it definitely might.

As the women zeroed in on the apparent potential of this plant, the horticulture instructor became increasingly baffled as to why all the other plants in the greenhouse were doing okay, but the purple fuzzy plants were all dying. Eventually, he caught on: In an effort to get high, the women were actually licking the plants to death. 

6. Painting the Town Red (or Gray). A lot of the low-level maintenance tasks in prison are left to assigned inmate work crews. But huffing paint is not only for high schoolers, and so if the paint crew is left to its own devices, in all probability someone will decide to starting huffing the paint instead of putting it on the walls.

7. Sending in a Stamp of Approval. At one time, the only drug that could really be affixed to a stamp was acid strips. But who wants to trip someplace as miserable as prison? (Of course, that’s not to say it never happens.) Now, though, with the rise of Suboxone and its widespread availability in sublingual strips, prisoners can get high on things other than hallucinogens. Of course, some facilities rip off the stamp before handing out letters, just for that reason—but many don’t.

Written by Rhain Mae and Keri Blakinger, this post was originally published on The Fix.

Does Prison Cause “Social Death”?

In his newest book, Prison and Social Death, SUNY Binghamton professor argues incarceration causes traumas that amount to a form of “social death.” Price has a background studying everything from sociology to linguistics, but the inspiration for this text began when he started volunteering with the local NAACP by helping investigate claims coming out of the Broome County Jail. Click on the link image below to read the full story.


Talking Heroin on HuffPost Live

huffpostliveIn some places, heroin is cheaper than cigarettes. That was one of the interesting takeaways from today’s segment on HuffPost Live, featuring me, Major Cities Chiefs Association Director Darrel Stephens, Dixon Police Department Chief Dan Langloss, and Drug Policy Alliance Manager Michael Collins. The discussion covered some of the ways in which police departments have come to realize the value of funneling addicts into treatment instead of jails and prisons. Click here to watch the full half-hour video.


Camp for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Imagine you are six years old and your dad is in jail. You’re probably confused. You may not understand where he is or why he’s not there. You probably aren’t sure why you have to see him through plexiglass every week or why there are guards in room who won’t let you sit in his lap. You might even feel like you’re singled out, like you’re the only kid this has ever happened to. What do you do?

If you live in Tompkins County you can attend a summercamp program called Project RISE, and it’s dedicated to helping kids of incarcerated and criminal justice-involved parents get to experience a safe, understanding camp environment for free. Aislyn Colgan

The project, spearheaded by Aislyn Colgan, is starting as a part of the existing Village Camp, founded and run by Camp Earth Connections owner Susan Rausch. Rausch has owned the Freeville campground, located in Hammond Hill State Park, since 2002, when she took it over from Cayuga Nature Center.

Before taking ownership of the campground, Rausch founded Village Camp back in 1999 as a community camp. With help from Greater Ithaca Activities Center, Rausch began something that she said “is very different from other camps.” It’s a very outdoor-focused program and kids aren’t broken up into age groups. Instead she said, “We come together as a community and then we offer choices to the kids.” She added, “The Village Camp doesn’t really have a focus other than supporting kids who are disenfranchised in one way or another.”

Thus, when Colgan approached Rausch with the idea for Project RISE, it was a natural fit. Colgan said, “Project RISE is geared toward anyone whose parents are involved in the justice system in any way.” Kids with parents on probation, drug court, or behind bars will qualify for full camp scholarships. Over the past few months, Colgan has done the leg-work in terms of securing funding to make sure those scholarships are a reality.

Before moving to the Ithaca area in 2011, Colgan worked at Project AVARY (Alternative Ventures for At-Risk Youth), a camp for kids of incarcerated parents. Colgan was there for two summers and found the program inspiring, so when she moved out the area she decided she wanted to recreate it somewhere else.

Although Project AVARY included year-round activities, Colgan said that she hopes to build up to that point so that eventually there can be day trips or weekend getaways during the off-season.

“This is meant to be a focal point for parents and families dealing with incarceration to mobilize and help each other out and be more resilient,” she said. “Project RISE means ‘Resilience in Spite of Everything.’ So it’s meant to be a base for people to work together and build resilience among themselves and work against this system of mass incarceration.” She added, “It’s not like, ‘Let’s help these poor kids who are through no fault of their own are a victim of their parents’ behavior.’ This is like, ‘The system is targeting these kids.’ And this is to resist that.”

This year, the camp will be one week long, running from Aug. 17 to 21. Kids will be picked up at GIAC at 8:30 a.m. and dropped back off at 5 p.m. To enroll or get more information, contact Colgan directly atprojectrise15@gmail.com. •

This article originally appeared in The Ithaca Times.