of Chris Regans new students are wearing laceless shoes.
This is a classroom on an upper floor of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, and these men make up the 29th group to go through the jails New Beginnings Transitional Re-entry Program. For the next eight weeks, Regana cheerful, petite woman in khakis and a black-and-white blousewill be spending about six hours a week with these 25 or so students. Theyre all nearing their release dates. Regans job is to try to give each one a fighting chance to succeed when he walks back into society.
They range in age: A lot are under 30, but plenty are in their forties. One is 19.
As Regan does a roll call, shes calm and relaxed, smiling continuously. But she gets almost no response longer than a syllable. No ones looking at her. Heads are in hands, butts slid down in chairs, legs yawning apart.
One guy rests his head on the table.
Getting the call
Of the roughly 4,800 men who are inmates each year at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail (ACRJ), 72 go through the Re-entry program. Who gets tapped is mainly a matter of scheduling, but once on the list, theyre given a choice: Take the eight-week course, or lose as much as six months time off theyve earned for good behavior.
In the last four years, only a handful of people have been muleheaded enough to stay in jail longer just so they could avoid Re-entry.
Seeds of change
ACRJs Re-entry program started in 2005, its primary goal to reduce recidivism by preparing inmates for life on the outside. Previously, there was a similar program at the jail just for DOC (state) inmates; Colonel Ronald Matthews, jail superintendent, decided to offer the curriculum to regional inmates too.
The idea is this: Over eight weeks, students in Re-entry are put through several intensive courses (including Employability, Parenting and Thinking For Change) as well as a number of short info sessions on topics like money management. All told, they spend about 12 hours per week in a classroom. And they all live together in a cell block called HU-3, so they can help each other study and absorb what theyre learning.
Recidivism is tricky to measure. For the last quarter of 2008, ACRJ posted a 55.1 percent recidivism rate, which includes people who end up in other Virginia jails and prisons as well as back at ACRJ. The jail says that participants in all its programs (including Re-entry and other initiatives like art classes) have a somewhat lower 43.53 percent recidivism rate, and that Re-entry graduates, including males and females, have a 50 percent rate.
But experts say that to truly measure the effects of incarceration in general, and programs specifically, theyd need to track offenders for three years or more, counting not only those who go back to prison but those who are charged with misdemeanors or who violate probation. This fall, UVAs Dr. Ann Loper will complete a study of the local Re-entry program that aims to provide a more thorough evaluation.
No matter how theyre determined, everyone wants the numbers to go down. If recidivism is a problem, and Re-entry is the jails best effort to improve that problem, what does that effort look like? And is it working?
This spring, from February into April, I followed the 29th group through Re-entry, observing as many different sessions and teachers as possible in an attempt to answer those questions. Only a few of the students in the class gave permission for me to use their names and photos, so Ive given everyone nicknames.
I also did extensive interviews with one student in particular. Ill call him Charles. Released April 23, he seemed a likely candidate for a truly new beginningcommitted to changing his life. That was one reason jail officials paired us up, hoping, no doubt, that his story would provide a positive example of Re-entrys effects. (Though he initially agreed to let me use his real name and cooperated with my reporting for six months, he changed his mind about participating in the story a few days before publication. Thats why we decided to give him a pseudonym.)
At the time of this writing, things havent quite turned out the way jail officialsor Charles himselfhad hoped. Last month, Charles was shot in an altercation in his old neighborhood, from which he was legally barred.
It wasnt fatal. The story isnt over. And in the meantime, I witnessed a world of good intentions.
Looking for work
The topic for the first day of Re-entry class: employability. Regan, who works for the local service agency Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), asks, What can we expect of each other in this class? The answers come rather quickly: cooperation. Participation. Teamwork. Then the group gets waylaid. Near the front, a white guy with a goatee starts complaining about not getting work-release. He doesnt think its fairits because of an assault charge from a long time ago. He has a wife and a newborn son he wants to support. He doesnt need this class.
Regan agrees that a lot of things dont seem fair. We take whats handed to us, and make choices, she says. Goatee is unconvinced. Then Regan moves on.
Respect. Be courteous. Confidentiality. Accountability.
Regan asks how many people have jobs waiting for them. Seven or eight raise their hands. She hands out a form for everyone to fill out; it asks about their skills, what activities they enjoy. Are you mechanically inclined? Can you think abstractly? Do you like to perform lab experiments? At the end of the form, you figure out what kind of person you are: Realistic, Social, Investigative, Artistic, Enterprising, Conventional. Regan goes around the room, asking each guy for his results and what jobs hes held in the past.
Most of the guys fall in the first two categories. A redhead near the front liked being a locksmith (Realistic). Goatee enjoyed working with the public in a tire shop (Social). A cute, coffee-colored kid is Social, but has no work history. A well-spoken guy says he has experience with homebuilding and dreams of working in architectural design. He was signed up for classes before he landed in jail.
Later in the course, the inmates will be creating resumés. Many have never worked, but still they can fill up a piece of paper: Fast learner. Can lift over 50 lbs. Hard worker. They might be good at detailing cars or cooking breakfast. They might know how to wax a floor. And you can say you attended high school, even if you didnt graduate.
By the time Regan makes it around the room, there are only 10 minutes left in the class, the plastic chairs feel very hard, and most of the students look openly bored. She writes on the board: Our thinking controls our behavior, and asks for comments.
Charles, sitting all the way in the back, calls out, Irrational thinking.
Into the cycle
When I met him in February, Charles was not quite 40 years old, and was serving the final months of a lifetime total of 22 years, six months and eight days behind bars.
Charles is a warm, direct person, broad-shouldered and likeable. He grew up in public housing in Charlottesville, the only child of a single mother, in his own words a spoiled rotten kid. His father was not a presence in his life.
As a kid, he liked school but had trouble paying attention. I wanted to be part of the clique, the crew, he remembers. I stole out of stores and got caught. I was a troubled kid. I was trying to be a man, but I wasnt a man and Im still not a man.
He did his first stint behind bars at age 13. His mother couldnt control him, and he physically abused her when she tried. An uncle attempted to intervene, but it didnt make a differenceI was already too far gone, he says. He got into crack, using and selling, before he was 18. He dropped out of school. He fathered a child. And he entered a brutal cycle of long stretches in prison, separated by short and disastrous periods on the outside.
Though hed technically be sober during his incarcerations, he says, he wasnt doing the hard work of digging into the cause of his problems. I love to lift weights and thats what I was doing, he says. But I never took the time to work on me, my behavior. Id build the physique, but Id never build the mental. He never went longer than three months on the street before getting in trouble again.
Then, in December 2006, he got released once more. Within two weeks he had gotten involved with the woman whos now his fiancée. Ill call her Olivia; she has four children, ages 8 to 19. Charles moved into her place in a Shenandoah Valley town, and in some ways, things went well. Family life agreed with him; he bonded with Olivias kids, especially the younger ones.
But problems persisted. Though he was able to find work (landscaping, construction, a couple of factory jobs) he wasnt good at staying employed. Im not lazy at all. I like to work, he says. I couldnt hold those jobs because of my negative behavior. He was jealous over Olivia. Shed tell him, Stop trying to control me. Stop trying to choose my friends. You need to keep employment. Im tired of you verbally abusing me. They fought. It got physical, he says. Olivia called the cops. He racked up several misdemeanor assault charges.
And he was back into drugs. She used to hear about me getting high, he says. I used to lie about it. I was being in denial to her about it. I disrupted that household.
A turning tide
For various reasons, ACRJs Re-entry class isnt an ideal setup; any teacher or administrator involved will tell you that. Still, says OARs Ross Carew, Its a huge step in the right direction. In general, Re-entry sharply contrasts the prevailing American corrections philosophy of the 1970s and 80s. In those days, inmates were simply warehoused. Efforts at rehabilitation were thought to be a waste of time. As Colonel Matthews describes it, the preparation given to inmates as they re-entered society was this: Heres $25, and heres the street.
The Re-entry program is part of a sea change in the industry, one that takes a practical approach to these two facts: Number one, more than one in 100 Americans are currently incarcerated; number two, the vast majority of those will someday be released. When they are, what will happen?
Carew sees it as common sense. The systems creating what it wants to prevent, he says. We arrest folks, say Your behavior isnt meeting standards, put them in a place with other folks like them, dont teach them anything, and expect them to do better. In his view, you dont rehabilitate people because youre a bleeding heart; you do it because it benefits employers, neighbors, taxpayers, state and local governments and, last but not least, families.
During the next few weeks of Re-entry class, I observe a number of teachers in the HU-3 classroom. Theres Josh Stewart-Silver, who comes over from Children, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) to teach Parenting. Its a relevant topic; most of the students do have kids of their own. One of the first things Silver, himself a father of five, tells the class: Being a good dad makes us better people.
Silvers teaching style mixes a chummy tone (he likes to enter the classroom by way of the HU-3 cellblock, stopping to slap hands with several guys) with a willingness to confess details about his own family that his students find bizarre. The first time he meets with the class, he talks about a day when his daughter was off to tackle-football practice while his son was taking a watercolor class. This, he says, was strange but wonderful: His children could be themselves, gender be damned. Howd that make you feel? asks a skeptical guy in the back. Your son painting with colors.
Im a child of the 60s and 70s, Silver says,
and Goatee says, I can tell! This produces much hilarity. Silver
digs himself deeper by explaining that he and his wife share a hyphenated
last name. Eyebrows go up.
Dickerson commands the room effortlessly, delivering blunt mini-lectures. There aint no jobs out there. If you got no education, I dont know what you gonna do. Its rough out there, man. He tells them to use condoms, because women have affairs when their men are in jail, and the affairs wont stop when the sentence is over. You may not like it, but thats how it is. All yall women aint doing what you think right now. Hes getting amens: Speak the truth, man.
Watching Dickerson teach, I see the group start to jell. There are seven guys across the back, two white and five black, who do most of the talking and reading out loud. Theyre all sitting near each other; they sit up straight and project their voices. Charles is one of them. Near them, but distinct, are others who clearly like being connected to these volunteers, but dont themselves volunteer. And the other half of the room is mostly silent.
Good news and bad news
Re-entry, just like life on the outside, is complicated. It includes both kindly advice and tough talk.
In the section called WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan), three teachers from Region Ten remind students to wash their faces, brush their teeth and spend time with family. One teacher reads examples of healthy stress relievers from a worksheet: Take a hot bubble bath Go to a support group Plan something fun for the weekend. The ideas sound surreal in this place. Plan a vacation.
Then, a week later, two employees from the state Department of Child Support Enforcement come by to explain the bad things that will happen if students dont make their payments: wages withheld, licenses suspended, taxes intercepted. Duckin and hidin doesnt do any good, says one teacher.
Go on vacation, but dont duck and hide. Feed your animals, and wear a condom. Its a lot to keep in mind.
Keeping them out
The goal of Re-entry is to reduce recidivism. That sounds self-evident, but I was surprised by Colonel Matthews answer when I asked him why its important. The first thing he said was this: Youll have the same people coming in here, and its a vicious cycle of their kids picking up their lifestyle. In other words, its the ripple effects that concern him.
But Matthews is also very mindful of a more immediate problem: His jail is overcrowded, and getting more so. When he came to ACRJ in 2004, it held about 380 people, though its rated capacity is only 329. And on the day in March when he and I talked, it held 532. When is it gonna stop? he asks. The next option is to build a bigger jail. Its cheap to train and educate people. (Indeed, because ACRJ includes DOC inmates from state prisons in its Re-entry classes, the program costs the jail next to nothing.)
Carew says warehousing simply doesnt work. People respond to carrots better than they respond to sticks, he says. [Jail] is not a deterrent for medium and high-risk populations and those are the folks were dealing with on a recidivism level.
If jail is not a deterrent, that is simply one more reason in a long list of reasons that people dont make it on the outside. Housing and employment are the two biggest challenges, but there are dozens more. People walk out thousands of dollars in debt because of restitution fees, court costs, and overdue child support. The terms of their probation may require them to keep numerous appointments every week, for urine tests, substance abuse meetings and probation officer visits. Not everybody can do it, says Carew. Can you manage your life? House yourself, clothe yourself, feed yourself?
Then there are the emotional barriers. Reintegration is a huge challenge, says Phyllis Back, ACRJs programs coordinator. They may have expectations of family theyll be returning to, and family may have different expectations. Its difficult for both sides to understand. When that kind of disappointment collides with poor anger management, stability suffers for the whole household. In the worst cases, where theres a pattern of domestic violence, they find themselves back here with another charge It really does affect the recidivism rate.
In fall 2008, Charles and Olivia and two other couples went out to Applebees for drinks. It was crowded, a weekend night. They hung out around the bar, eating potato wedges and hot wings, having a good time. Then a man across the bar said something to Charles. I didnt hear it because I was playing chess, he remembers. [Olivia] picked up on it. It was a homosexual thing.
Moments later, as Charles tells it, his friend told him to go get Olivia, who had walked around the bar to confront the man. I was like, Baby, come on, he says. A female pushed me. Then a man hit Charles in the head with a barstool. Thats when I went to retaliate, and broke his jaw in four places.
Charles blacked out. He woke up with a concussion and an assault charge. The previous misdemeanors didnt work in his favor. He went back to jail.
This time, something new happened. I done hit my rock bottom, he says. I was in Middle River Regional Jail when I got saved. Right there I just say to myself that I can no longer do things to myself. He speaks slowly as he remembers the moment. There was a lot of crying, he says. I was really pouring out my heart because I want so bad to change.
He began to turn to other people, and to the resources offered by the jail system, for help. He was excited to find out hed been tapped for Re-entry. I feel the class can help me as much as I can help someone else, he says. All of it is positive. During his time at Stauntons Middle River and then at ACRJ, he started to think of drugs and anger as problems he could manage, not as the given limits of his life. The macho image stood out because I was really hiding. Now Im taking brick by brick out the wall. Im exposing myself each time I take a brick out.
Continually, in our jail conversations, he returned to hopeful thoughts. In this period of time Ive been locked up I learned how to respect others and myself. I could see him practicing, literally, positive thinking. Im trying to get myself togetherchange my ways, my attitude. Sometimes he seemed almost radiant with purpose. I used to be more physical and controlling, but now I look at it like I can communicate.
Once, he said something very direct. Im almost 40, he told me. Im tired.
Once again, its at least 10 degrees warmer in the HU-3 classroom than it should be. You can hear the heat blowing; it takes the quiet in the room and makes it stifling. The crowd seems thin this morning, March 16. Goatee is out sick.
Charles goes and gets a fan from the guard and plugs it in at the front of the room.
Chris Regan hands out a true/false test and says, Dont think too hard about it. Its about anger. They go through it quickly, then discuss the answers. Yes, everyone gets angry at times. No, screaming and throwing things are not helpful ways to get anger out of your system. Nobody agrees with number fiveAngry people can never change the way they handle anger.
Did this come from a shrink? says Skeptic. A few guys laugh. Regans calm. It came from an anger management class. Got an issue with the answers? Skeptic says the answers arent wrong or right; theyre just based on opinions. This seems to bother him.
Number nine: Women are less likely to feel angry than men are. A guy with AUSTIN tattooed on his arm goes phew and shakes his head. Women hold grudges, someone says. Charles says his fiancée will lash out, just like a man. She straightforward, he says. Aint no hangups. I can relate a lot better than waaaahwaaaah [he imitates crying]. So you speak the same Anger Language? says Regan. Yeah, Charles says.
During the break, Austin puts his white-socked feet up on the table.
Charles is really talkative today. He says he disagrees with number 15, Its okay to use put-downs from time to time in a marriage. Cause what does that do? he says.
Then they get to number 18, and things really pick up. If people are angry, they should always express it directly to the person theyre angry with. Charles reads this out loud and agrees. For a short time, the students talk about self-control and staying away from foolishness. Then the conversation turns.
You hit me in my mouth, you gonna get beat down cause Im coming after you, says Forehead. Charles, Austin and a short guy in the back start telling stories about what theyve learned from fights: when to hit first, when to let yourself be hit first so you get mad enough to win. Shorty says hes small so he always hits first. Regan gets a word in: What else can you do besides swing or get swung on? Forehead: Only choice you got is to run. And Im not running. I was taught if you get your ass whupped, youre gonna get your ass whupped even worse when you get home.
So thats an attitude or belief you have, Regan says.
A lot of us grew up like that, says Shorty.
Forehead says if hes in a bar and someones talking about him, pointing, laughing, looking at me, he has to go confront him. Regan asks, Is it risky to go to a bar? What happens when people drink?
They see where shes going with this, and they dont like it. Why shouldnt I go out and have a good time?
Charles interjects another speech, this time a mixture of what sounds like solid thinking and a more fluid, habitual trash talk. I dont care how big you is. I done fought dudes way bigger than me. You gonna get it. I feel Im gonna whup you anyway. Someone says, Are we getting sidetracked? Charles goes on: Im re-evaluating my thinking right now. Im not gonna put myself in those situations no more. Hes learned he cant drink, he says. I cant hold my liquor. It doesnt come off as unmanly.
Regans pointthat getting in a fight is your choice, even if someone provokes youis getting lost. Most guys in the room are still in favor of just going out for drinks and seeing what happens. They keep telling fight stories as the session ends and theyre heading for the door. Its the most energetic Ive ever seen this group. But its hardly reassuring.
Sizing up Re-entry
Several of the instructors I observed teaching Re-entry said things like, Sometimes a seed might get planted, or, If I can just reach one guy, that makes a difference. Compared to what Id understood to be the goalkeeping most of the students from ever coming back to jailthose seemed like very modest sentiments.
But Phyllis Back brings up those ripple effects again: If we can help these people become productive and crime-free, one person is going to translate to generations. Ross Carew sees it even more broadly. In his view, successful programs at ACRJ and other regional jails might eventually provide a statewide model. If you can take what were doing and make it larger, [resulting in] 3 percent less recidivism across the state, saving an average of 30 days [incarceration] per person, those numbers start to add up. Thats a ton of less criminality and millions of dollars saved. Everybody should like that. It might mean were building less prisons.
Eyeing the door
Charles felt anxious as his release date grew closer. He knew he wouldnt be able to visit his mother, because he was barred from the public housing where she lives as a result of past charges. But other limits were less clear. Ive been used to living so reckless. Now for me to change, its a scared feeling Its so easy to do wrong, but so hard to do right.
It was going to be hard just to survive. Charles has no GED. He has never rented his own apartment. He doesnt know anything about using a computer. He had owned several cars over the years, but had lost his drivers license because of his convictions. And he had essentially no money to start out with. Armed with little more than information and desire, he was going to have to build a life from scratch.
I asked him what he would be doing after his release. He knew hed serve a court-ordered stint at the Mohr Center, a residential drug rehab facility run by Region Ten, but not how long it would be. Then hed have to secure housing. When I first began interviewing him, he said he intended to live with Olivia. But several weeks later, he told me they were going to leave it up to her kids whether Charles could move in. Whatever they decide, thats how its gonna be, he said. If the answer was no, Its going to hurt, but its the truth. Im more than willing to face that so I can move on. But he had no clear idea of where hed live in that case.
As for employment, he thought he had a landscaping job waiting. The work schedule was uncertainespecially how it would mesh with going to NA meetings every day. He wasnt sure how hed get around, either.
What he was sure of was the desire to become a good family man. He fantasized about baseball games and Chuck E. Cheese, about respecting and supporting the kids, and about being a better partner to Olivia. She stuck by me, he said. And she has all the opportunity to leave, but she sees something in me that keeps her there. She brings out the best in me. Olivia never missed a visit with Charles at the jail. And when he walked out on his release date, April 23, her car would be there waiting.
Something good had happened in HU-3. Charles and another inmate had gotten into a conflict, and the other guy had pushed Charles. The old Charles wanted to retaliate, but I bit my tongue and walked away. They ended up shaking hands and hugging. It took a lot out of me, he said.
As March becomes April, Re-entry class material seems to turn toward the dark times the students might face when they get out. A money-management session ends with an impossible budget sketched out on the board: $2,000 monthly income, $2,500 expenses. WRAP covers the possible symptoms of a mental breakdown.
On April 1, Im waiting in the jail lobby to head up to class and theres a guy in the room who just got released, but has no ride. Whoever was supposed to pick him up is stuck in Richmond, trying to scrape together gas money.
The other side
I spoke with Charles by phone a little less than a week after hed been released. What was it like to walk out of the jail? I asked him.
It was shocking, he said. It felt good.
What was happening at the Mohr Center?
Just meetings, meetings, meetings, he said. I gain a lot of information. Ive been around a lot of positive people. He said he was speaking out a lot, and using some of the skills hed learned in Re-entry. I try to be a good listener and hear that person out before I even speak its helping a lot.
We spoke again a few days later, and Charles attention had turned to his job search. A caseworker at the Department of Rehabilitative Services was helping him look. Charles was searching on his own too, and had called on a few job listings. He was being upfront about his history of incarceration. Im going to be honest with them so they know the type of employee theyre getting, he said.
Fortunately, this didnt seem to turn potential employers offthe problem was that they wanted him to come in and fill out applications, and Charles couldnt yet leave the Mohr Center. It was making him antsy. I cant wait til next week. My wheels are turning, Im ready to burn rubber.
Two and a half weeks after leaving jail, Charles was sounding downright stressed. The meetings had become a time of conflict: He felt other addicts in the program werent sharing openly enough. It aint no group effort. If you got a problem, you need to go and express it. You do unnecessary things, walk around with a chip on your shoulder, I aint got no problem knocking it off Now its like Im getting back to that ugly Charles and I dont like that because if I do that I might as well go back to jail. This is my life Im playing with, he said. Its a scary feeling.
He had eight job applications out, mostly for construction work, and couldnt wait to leave and move in with Olivia.
From the ground up
We talked the day after he left the Mohr Center in mid-May. Things seemed much better. [Olivias kids] want me here, he said. We done talked, first thing I did when I got here. It was some things that they needed to share with me, what they expect from me now And I respect that. And, pending an orientation, he had a full-time job in a factory in the Valley. Im just excited right now, he said. Im feeling good.
A week into his new job, he told me he loved the workdriving a forklift. But he also said he hadnt been to an NA meeting since he left the Mohr Center. That caused him some uneasiness, though he said he had no urge to start using again.
As the weeks ticked by in June and July, our contact tapered off. It was harder to reach him. He would text at odd times, signing off Living Sober or Freedom, but we couldnt seem to connect in person.
Finally, on July 30, my phone rang. It was Charles. Since wed last talked, Charles had moved out of Olivias place and back to Charlottesville. They had had a misunderstanding, he said. The move had caused him to lose his job, since it left him without transportation. He was risking a trespassing charge by staying with his mother. And he had picked up an assault charge whileas he described itbreaking up a fight between his mother and her friend.
Of course, this wasnt good news. But at least he wasnt on drugs or in jail.
It was a Sunday night when Charles got shot, near his mothers place. The alleged shooter repeatedly shot Charles in the legs.
He now faces 23 years or more in prison.
Charles is now home from the hospital, lucky to be alive, getting around with a walker.
When do you declare a life stabilized? When do you declare it misspent?
Do any of yall have any idea of what type of stress you may face when yall walk out of here? Herb Dickerson had asked on April 6, the last time he met with Charles Re-entry class. Living out there, its a whole different story. Everything out there aint peaches and cream. It wasnt peaches and cream when you left it. Thats why you here.
To which Charles had added, Exactly. (Erika Howsare, C-Ville
Weekly, September 1, 2009)