Swamped prisons seek work-release programs

Faced with exploding costs and a record-high inmate population, the state prison chief is warning that Massachusetts can’t afford its incarceration rate and must alter laws or deliver “angry and unprepared” felons back to society.

“The message to policymakers is we have very limited resources to continue to incarcerate at the rate we’re doing so now,” Department of Correction Commissioner Harold W. Clarke said in an interview with the Herald. “As we speak, I believe we’re right about 144 percent of capacity in the DOC. All the sheriffs will tell you that they are also very crowded. Where are we going from here?”

Clarke is pushing to better prepare inmates to return to society by setting up more work-release beds, implementing a new method of tracking prisoners’ readiness for release, and promoting a Patrick administration proposal to let certain drug offenders participate in work release. The state’s Anti-Crime Council is supposed to develop a re-entry plan by December.

“As you well know, we are crowded and that’s why we need to better manage our system with an eye toward re-entry. That’s why work release is important,” said Clarke, who became prison chief last November. “We ought to be locking up folks we are afraid of, not folks that we’re mad at.”

The state’s inmate population reached a record 11,445 on Sept. 29, a 10 percent increase since 2005. Of those inmates, there is a waiting list of 120 prisoners vying for 250 full pre-release beds, said Deputy Commissioner Veronica M. Madden. The DOC’s budget is $530 million, a giant jump from last year’s $474 million spending plan.

Last year, 2,562 inmates were released from prison, including 158 that went to the street from maximum security, the DOC said. National studies show that 97 percent of inmates return to society.

Clarke cited statistics that show 50 percent of inmates were unemployed when they were jailed and 80 percent are drug addicted or in prison because of drug crimes.

Non-violent drug offenders convicted of a drug crime that carries a mandatory sentence are prohibited by law from participating in work release. As of Sept. 22, there were 1,917 inmates serving a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense, the DOC said.

Patrick filed legislation to let drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences participate in work release, but lawmakers did not take up the measure.

“We have seen again, not just in Massachusetts but elsewhere, that mandatory sentences can unnecessarily crowd systems,” said Clarke. “Inmates are not going to benefit from just sitting there. And it’s going to impact their attitudes as well. They are going to leave there angry. Who’s well-served then?”

Steve Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said a push for more inmate work-release opportunities is risky.

“Although an inmate might be eligible to go down to a lower-security, he may not be suitable for moving down,” Kenneway said. “That’s how the Willie Hortons happen. Inmates can escape from lower security when they should not have been there in the first place.”

State Sen. James E. Timilty (D-Walpole), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Security, said it’s in the state’s “best interest to see a low recidivism rate,” but added, “I hope this effort isn’t just to solve overcrowding. I think the mission is always to punish and protect,” he said.

Leslie Walker, director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said “real work needs to be done with the governor and Legislature to modify sentencing laws.”

“If there were fewer prisoners in prison, the deparment would be able to devote resources to drug treatment, education and job training in an effort to prepare prisoners to reintergrate into their home neighborhoods,” she said.

source

http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/general/view.bg?articleid=1125030

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