Commentary: Good intentions in recidivism or just padding?

As a prison inmate, I recently completed a program that was just plain common sense. We talked about our fears, our goals and the present situations that led us to relapse and recidivism.

On the first day of class the counselor greeted each client with a cheerful “good morning.” She then went on to explain why we would not be programming through a workbook 1) because they were 20 years outdated, 2) most of us already know the standard signs of relapse and the tools to avoid them and finally, the only paperwork would just be padding for our personal files and to please the powers that be.

However; the innovation of dealing with the present, talking about the now and role playing the real-life situations, along with her “good morning” and fist bump goodbye, it made you feel part of the group and opened your eyes to your own problems so you can avoid returning.

Recent bills signed include HB7: modifies the impact in applicants criminal history would have on their eligibility for a license by the Board of Massage and Body Work; HB124: modifies the impact an applicant’s criminal history would have on their eligibility to obtain a license as a plumber for HVAC technician; SB43: modifies the impact of criminal history on an applicant’s eligibility for license by the Board of Electrical Examiners.

This a condensed version of this year’s efforts by the General Assembly to reduce recidivism. The three bills mentioned are part of an 11-bill package sent to Gov. Carney. They are the most promising ones to affect recidivism and I am sure they were introduced with good intentions. However, if we approach this realistically and statistically, there may be a misinterpretation.

Realistically getting a license for any of the above occupations is not a one-day event. By trade, I’m an automotive mechanic but I worked in construction, including plumbing electrical and HVAC for over 15 years. I know that in order to get a license in the above fields, you at least must have one to several years’ apprenticeship or some kind of schooling before you can even apply. Then you must pass a test in your chosen field.

The bills introduced and signed are a long-term solution. Statistically, upon release, 10% or better of ex-offenders have no place to go. Fifteen percent-plus don’t have a high school education. Fifty percent-plus don’t have a job to return to, 70%-plus have no job skills and 80% have some form of drug addiction or personal problem that needs to be addressed.

The DOC, within the Sussex Correctional Institution, has a well-organized department of education that offers high school GED and diploma courses and we have two life skills classes: Thinking for Change and Moral Recognition Therapy. They offer computer courses from the basics to programming and along with decision-making classes, they have a rounded curriculum.

For addictions and drug problems, they have the failing KEY program that’s been around for years. They have a semi-new program called “6 for One,” designed to change your criminal mentality, but turns out to be a short disciplinary course loosely based on the old KEY. They have a new DUI program called Reflections. They also host a few informative classes such as parenting classes, victims’ impact and AVP: Alternatives to Violence Program.

For job training, they have a small vo-tech class that teaches masonry and HVAC. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a HVAC teacher for over a year. With this simple summarizing it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the problem. Receiving an academic degree or GED is a big plus when seeking a job but what good is it if you have no job skills, have never filled out an application or even been interviewed for employment?

It’s safe to say that job skills and employment should be the number one concerns in fighting recidivism. We can keep forcing individuals into drug programs, which only causes a rebellious attitude, or we could offer education and job skills that would build confidence toward change instead of being involved in the drug scene.

It’s a common belief that someone who is dependent on drugs either as a user or as a dealer is not going to change until they’re ready. So, let’s give them reasons to change, because right now what we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working.

With that being said, I would like to introduce a program that addresses all three: addiction, education and employment.

It’s simply called “doing only what’s needed to end recidivism”. Sussex Correctional started out as a small prison and turned into warehousing for human beings. We may not be able to reduce the capacity but hopefully we can reduce recidivism. The general concept with doing only what’s needed to end recidivism is to educate and prepare individuals for employment. In order to accomplish this, there needs to be a set curriculum, a time limit and desire to change.

The first step would be a thorough and honest evaluation in which an individual’s curriculum would be adjusted to his needs and concerns to education and job skills, this would come from the following requirement: 1) be serving a level 5 sentence between six months and three years, 2) be classified for minimum status, 3) complete at minimum 30 hours of drug awareness education or more in accordance to their evaluation, 4) complete a job-seeking class that covers the proper way to fill out a job application, how to prepare a resume, how to act during a job interview and information on tax incentives for employees who hire ex-convicts, 5) completed job skill class of their choice, choosing from carpentry from reading a tape measure to blueprints, plumbing from basics to diagnostics and repairs, electrical from basics to diagnostic and repairs and automotive and small engine repair.

I know this may all sound logical on paper and it’s going to have the critics asking where the space and money is coming from. Well the space is already here. The old wood shop is being used for storage when it could host a carpentry course. Then there is the program building, which is partly being put to good use by the Department of Education.

While the rest of the building consisting of four bases used for housing, therefore two of the bays could be used for plumbing and electrical classes thus making the program building what is named for; programs. The automotive and small engine repair could start in vo-tech out in the maintenance building for hands on experience.

As far as expenses are concerned, maybe they will have some money left over from the opioid settlement. After all, a good percentage of our problems came from drugs. In closing, I’m about to be another ex-convict, but I submit the above with good intentions and I believe in doing only what’s needed to end recidivism.

David Downer, of Dagsboro, is an inmate housed at Sussex Correctional Institution.

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