With all the depressing news coming out of Sacramento and Washington D.C., it is great to run across a genuine bit of very good news—amazingly enough, from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
HERE’S THE DEAL: This morning the California State Prison at Solano will hold a graduation ceremony for 47 prisoners—41 of them serving life sentences— who have just completed an innovative course of study called the Offender Mentor Certification Program—or OMC—that has allowed them to become officially certified drug and alcohol counselors especially skilled at working with their incarcerated peers.
The newly-minted counselors were each carefully selected. They had to have have at least a high school diploma or GED. An effort was made to make them all—or nearly all—-lifers, with the idea that these are men deeply in need of purpose.
(And there are other reasons for picking lifers, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
First you need to know that this is no lightweight program. Once selected, the inmate students are put through six months of intensive training, which includes a great deal of group therapy. At the end of six months, they become certified CAADAC counselors. (CAADAC is short for The California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors—a highly respected certificate-conferring program that usually offers its training in local colleges.)
The normal CAADAC course of study is two years., Yet the Solano inmates are expected to master the same material in six months by attending class at least eight hours a day, six days a week, with another four or five hours of study back in their cells.
The hard work has paid off. In addition to their CAADAC certificate, thirty-six of the 47 inmate students— or 77 percent—also passed an international counselor certification exam—a significantly higher pass rate than the average pass rate of 68% for non-inmate counselors-in-training who take the 2-year version of the course at their local state college.
Lt. Cicely Burnett, a spokesperson for Solano, who has also worked around the program as a corrections officer, says she has seen huge changes in the inmates’ behavior and sense of self as they make their way through the training. “I wish they had before and after picture, so you could see it,” she told me Thursday.
The program has been shepherded by Sol Irving, a former corrections officer turned long-time corrections counselor, who saw a similar program at San Quentin, and wanted to add the lifer component, and try it at Solano . Irving too describes the training as transformative—both for the student inmates and also for the prisoners whom they have now started to counsel.
“Lifers are also often the leaders in the prison population, Irving said, “the ones that the other guys respect.” So if these guys transform, he said, their change tends to resonate outward through the rest of the population in a sort of behavioral wave pattern. (That is the other reason Irving has picked almost exclusively those serving life sentences.)
“I’ve been a peace officer for 30 years,” he told me yesterday. “and a counselor for many years. I’ve seen programs come and go. But I’ve never seen a program that works quite as well as this one.”
Another secret of the project’s success, he said, is that once trained, the inmate/counselors are far more effective as substance abuse peer counselors than the best outside shrinks.
“A lot of these guys have the feeling that they want to give back,” Irving said, “but they don’t now how to it. This program gives them the chance to do that.”
Addiction expert and author, Terence Gorski, who has consulted with the program, agreed. “It is a way to bring a sense of meaning and purpose into the lives of long-term offenders and also to expand by multiples the availability of addiction treatment within correctional facilities without increasing costs. He predicts that the program will make “a tremendous difference” in reducing recidivism.
The full cost of the six month program is $4,000 per inmate. (The course is labor intensive involving instructors from partnering agencies like the US Navy, and a respected Berkeley group called Options Recovery.) But if the CAADAC-trained inmate is able to successfully counsel just one other person well enough to avoid the revolving door back to prison, for every year that parolee is not incarcerated, the state will have saved nearly $48,000 on it’s $4000 investment. If each CAADAC counselor can help two inmates stay out of prison, or three inmates—-well, you can do the math.
According to Irving and others, the program positively affects, not only recidivism rates, but the safety of the prison well.
In June, Solano warden John Haviland told a CDCR publication called Rehabilitation News that he has already perceived a positive affect on the parts of the prison’s inmate population in contact with the trainees. “By the time we reach 200 graduates,” Haviland said, “I’m looking at a serious reduction in violence.”
That, of course, is another potential savings to the taxpayer, said Sol Irving. Prison riots are costly affairs—even the minor ones. Major riots can cost $700,000. A Chino-sized riot costs in the millions.
So with all this nice, upbeat news, here is the bad news:
The corrections budget still has not been passed. In an effort to get the necessary votes, many of the intended cuts are slowly being gutted out of the package, and there will be more gutting.
Since so many cuts are being eliminated, an angry governor and desperate legislators will be looking for some brand new line items to cut in their stead.
The first place legislators are likely to look is in the direction of co-called discretionary rehabilitative and educational programs.
Like this one.