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A chance to succeed: Classroom program aims to reduce inmate recidivism rates
Press-Republican - 3/31/2022
Mar. 31—PLATTSBURGH — The future of corrections is here.
Through CV-TEC's Corrections Education Program (CEP), which began in 2019, Essex County Jail in Lewis, and Clinton County Jail in Plattsburgh, have both implemented a variety of services for their inmates with the hopes of lowering recidivism rates.
The services, which are grant funded at no cost to the community, improve the inmates' quality of life in jail, while also extending well beyond their eventual release back into the community.
Some of the services included in CEP are basic education toward a GED or higher learning, work readiness training, reentry preparation, life skills, National Work Readiness Credential, cognitive behavioral intervention, and certifications in OSHA and ServSafe.
EDUCATION IS KEY
CEP's Coordinator Dana Poirier, after being hired two years ago, has been instrumental in the success of the program at both Essex County Jail and Clinton County Jail so far.
"From an educator's point of view, my take on it is, anytime you can educate people, you should be doing that," Poirier said.
"I'm very confident that they enjoy being here, and they are getting something from this. When we have class discussions, it's amazing to hear some of the reflections and some of the things that folks will say they learned while they were here."
While the services are offered in a classroom setting at the jails, the learning doesn't stop there.
In 2019, the company JPay provided correctional facilities all across New York state with free tablets that the inmates pay to use.
On these tablets, the inmates have continued access to the majority of the services offered in CEP, so when they're back in their housing units, they can keep progressing in their work and assisting fellow inmates who may need the help.
The tablets also have the added benefit of improving the inmates' behavior, Poirer said.
"One of the things that we work on here, because they're going to be reentering the community, is the behavior piece," he said.
"Should they get themselves involved in something they shouldn't have gotten themselves involved in, not having access to the tablets would become a possibility, and I would turn off the portion of our program as a consequence."
Sheriff David Reynolds at Essex County Jail said he noticed that the program, as well as the tablets, have generally improved morale among the inmates.
"It's that they're busier. They're getting away from stressors, whether it be guards or other inmates, or just being locked in. When you're out here with the same 10 or 12 inmates, you're going to get on each other's nerves. So when they can get out and read a book or work on the programs, it made sense and was beneficial for them," Reynolds said.
"Every inmate is given an opportunity to succeed — they're probably given more opportunities here than anywhere else. If they fail, it's on them, because we and CVES have done everything we can to make it easy for them."
Adult Services Administrator John Iorio, who oversees the programs at both jails as the lead administrator, said CEP is vital in reducing recidivism in their inmates.
"Most places can't afford to support programs like this. It's actually a miracle that Clinton and Essex counties, which are two counties that are in the far right corner of New York state, would have such comprehensive programming when none of the other programs in the state can really do this," Iorio said.
"Recidivism is such a big issue, the only way to prevent that is to have programs like this."
In addition to providing the services while the inmates are in jail, CEP continues helping the inmates after they're released by transitioning them to further services provided by CV-TEC's OneWorkSource.
PLANS IN PLACE
Senior Case Manager at Essex County Jail and Clinton County Jail Giovanna Nelkin is in charge of putting the plans in place for this transition.
"Seeing people released and they are facing barriers, my role is to make those barriers, maybe not eliminated entirely, but they become easier to face," Nelkin said.
"My biggest thing is working with individuals and making sure they're getting a fair shot when they return to the community. They also have a little more insight into their goals for the future and who they want to be when they go back."
Nelkin said the plan varies for each inmate, since they all have different circumstances and priorities they'll be returning to when they're released.
"If someone is facing homelessness, doesn't have a job, and they have children on the outside, they may choose their children as their priority for them, so that's going to be their motivator, even if I think differently than what their motivation or first goal should be — that doesn't matter," she said.
"I have to work with them to get as much information as possible to see what it would take for them to get their children back, get visitation or supervised visitation. And then on the sideline, while they're focusing on that, I may also be collecting other information for housing, or for work so that way they have that also, even if they haven't focused on it, it's available for them when they're ready to make that a priority."
One inmate, currently in CEP at Essex County Jail, who officials would not permit to be named, said he was using the opportunities, given to him through CEP, to make a career change when he is released.
He's currently deciding between a career in geology or criminal defense.
"I didn't graduate high school, so it's given me a chance to start my education, get that finished and maybe switch careers. I've been a welder my whole life, so I definitely want to transition out of that and make a little more money for my family and not have to work so hard at it," he said.
"It has definitely been a good thing for me. For starters, it gives me something to do with the time in the day and makes it not so horrible being in jail."
Karen Manning, who teaches the inmates at Essex County Jail, currently has a 100% GED Test success rate for her students.
She said teaching there has been a great experience for her, and it makes her feel good to know she's helping the inmates better their lives.
"My part is, if they can get their high school equivalency, that's huge for them, whether they're getting out or going to prison, because either way it's going to improve their life tremendously. But then, if they (already) have their diploma, to get any kind of training certificate toward getting work or helping them to get back into the community, that's huge too," Manning said.
"I feel like I'm making a big difference with them."
That same sentiment is shared among many people who work at the jails.
Lt. Kevin Laurin, a 24-year veteran correction's officer at Clinton County Jail, said he had been trying to get a program like CEP into the jail for close to 15 years but couldn't find the resources to make it happen.
"The problem was we didn't have the money or the manpower to do this. I don't have the corrections officers to spare, and they couldn't get any more money in their budget, so we kind of lost a grip on it. Then CV-TEC came and let us know that there was a possibility of getting a grant," Laurin said.
The main reason behind wanting a program like this, he said, was because he was tired of seeing the same people return to jail after having no guidance when they were initially released.
"We just kept seeing the same people going in and out, in and out. When these people were getting out of jail, basically they just changed into the clothes they came into jail with, walked out with their personal stuff in a plastic bag and walked up the hill. What do you think is going to happen to them?" he said.
"Are we going to save everybody? We're not. Some people don't want to be saved. But we're doing a good thing here. Like I said to my coworkers, I know they think we're being pillow fluffers, but it's going to make our community better."
CEP has continued to make an impact on Tamara Gomez, an inmate at Clinton County Jail.
She said she's currently taking seven pre-placement math, social studies and science courses to see what she needs help with, while also working toward earning more certificates like the reentry one she already has that will help her get more job opportunities when she's released.
"They'll also help me get certified through ServSafe and OSHA, and that's free of charge if I do it here through them. They're going to help me get financial aid to do CDL driving, because it's in high demand for women right now. I also want to do an apprenticeship in construction, because construction is also in high demand," Gomez said.
"I also got certified in parenting classes that I took through them. Now we're going to be doing domestic violence (classes). We haven't started that yet, but when we do, I'll be getting certified in that as well."
Gomez said the classroom environment has become something she looks forward to.
"The teacher's awesome too. There's never a dull moment with him. Even if you're having problems at home and you come to work, maybe you're not in a good mood — they're not like that, they're always in a good mood," she said.
"Sometimes I'm having a rough day, and I don't feel like coming, but I do, and I can assure you I'm going to walk out of here with a smile."
Dalton Castine, the teacher Gomez was referring to at Clinton County Jail, also has a 100% GED Test success rate for his students.
He said the program has come a long way in just three short years.
"We have definitely come a long way, not only with the location, but with the program itself. Originally we were mostly just doing educational pieces. I just can't stress enough how much work Dana has put into the program," Castine said.
"All of these programs tailor to each individual's needs, not only educational wise, but for the individuals who already have their diploma."
Castine said he really enjoys teaching and emphasized the great connection between everyone involved in the program.
"I actually really enjoy waking up and going to work everyday," he said.
"I feel like a lot of people can't say that."
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