Prisoners of Bureaucracy
The RESTART Program May Transform Maryland’s Penitentiaries--If Sinking Staff Morale and Increased Violence Don’t Do It First
“Are you going to write nice things about RESTART,” a uniformed officer says from his armored booth.
“I’m going to write things about RESTART,” the reporter replies. “Do you have something to say?”
“I do,” the officer growls, “but I don’t think it would be publishable.”
Two days later, on March 20 at a VFW hall 175 miles across the state in Delmar, about 40 state correctional officers and their supervisors give an earful to five state delegates and two state senators from the Eastern Shore, including Del. Norman Conway (D-Salisbury), chairman of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations. As their brethren from the western part of the state did at another meeting in Hagerstown in January, these officers complain of deep staff cuts, lowered training standards, and poor equipment—all leading to increasing violence in the state’s 27 jails and prisons. They tell of plummeting morale and increasing fraternization between young, newly hired correctional officers and inmates. They describe an administration that puts the safety of correctional officers below the need for fresh paint in the prisons and perks for the staff at headquarters.
The legislators listened respectfully, asking for more detail on some matters and expressing surprise at other claims. Conway has been demanding budgetary answers from Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar since her arrival in 2003, but at the meeting, held late on a Sunday during a spate of 16-hour legislative hearings, Conway sounded weary.
“This has been an issue ever since the program has been set up,” Conway said of the RESTART initiative. Especially, he added, “questions about the staffing analysis,” which lead to cuts at several facilities and increases at others. Conway has been asking the division for data on prison assaults for nearly a year and has received the official numbers—which show declining assaults. “And then to have the contradiction of people who work there every day—it really makes you wonder,” he said.
The correctional officers at the Delmar meeting told stories similar to those of more than 20 other current and former Maryland Division of Correction (DOC) employees who spoke to City Paper. Over the past two years, the DOC employees say, Saar’s administration has mismanaged the division by cutting line staff—the people who actually deal with the prisoners day in and day out—and underfunding basic “control and custody” security measures in order to fund and staff RESTART, which stands for Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation, and Treatment.
RESTART is not a single program, but a compendium of programs and “best practices,” part of a turning tide in the corrections industry nationwide to refocus efforts on rehabilitating inmates, not merely housing them. Many past and present DOC employees interviewed say they like the idea—in theory. But in practice, they say the result of Saar’s effort to implement it has been more inmate-on-inmate assaults—six murders since January 2004, including the February 2005 murder of Philip E. Parker Jr. on a prison transport bus—and more violence against correctional officers. And, the officers say, the trouble is likely to get worse because Saar does not listen to their concerns and fires those who question or complain.
RESTART “is an excellent program if funded and staffed correctly—if funded and staffed correctly,” says the Rev. Sewall Smith, the warden of Baltimore’s Supermax prison until his abrupt retirement last summer. “I had some problems with it. And you can put this in the paper because I’m not one to lie—I had some problems with it, and as a result I was forced to retire before I was ready.”
Several other former wardens and high-ranking prison staffers say they were also forced out after questioning RESTART or other orders from above. These and several other former high-level correctional officials—who serve “at the pleasure of” Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) and can be dismissed without cause—say they followed orders, but relayed staff complaints or questioned other aspects of Saar’s proposals before being fired.
Saar says she encourages workers at every level to tell her about problems and she denies anyone was forced out for questioning RESTART or any other policy. “Not one single person lost their job,” she says in an interview at her Towson office, with DOC spokesman Mark Vernarelli at her side. “And if anybody says they did, I would like to know who they are.”
But even as Saar distances herself from the personnel decisions of her underlings, such as DOC Commissioner Frank Sizer and Sizer’s deputy commissioner, Bobby Shearin, who’s in charge of human resources, Vernarelli interjects: “It’s only natural that they would put their own people in.”
In fact, at least 14 correctional officials, including security chiefs, assistant wardens, wardens, and other higher-level staff, have left the division over the past two years. Some, like former acting assistant commissioner Bill Scott, who was in charge of training and retention, left on good terms. Most, like Smith, say they were told to retire or offered a choice between that and a demotion, according to more than 10 former officials who spoke to CP on background. Despite several requests, the Division of Correction would not release a count of “at-will” personnel departures since Saar’s arrival.
Lower-ranked employees, nominally protected by the four unions who represent correctional officers, say they fear the ax, too. Their supervisors in several of the state’s largest prisons say Saar has made major cuts to line staff in order to free up resources to create positions at headquarters and for a RESTART project that has not yet gotten off the ground.
“In the past two years, we lost 28 positions [at Eastern Correctional Institution], while 99 positions were created in headquarters, 78 of which are contractual,” a female corrections officer told the Eastern Shore legislators at the March meeting.
The staff members who remain at Eastern Correctional Institution, the officer went on to say, are less safe on the job—and Saar’s office is less likely to know that because of a new computer system.
“The administration wants us to use FIRM—the Facility Incident Reporting Manager,” the officer said, explaining that FIRM is a new computer software program designed to track violent incidents. “The only problem with the FIRM is, most of the people at [Eastern Correctional Institution] have not been trained to use it.” So instead of the FIRM computer reports, which travel online to Saar’s computer at headquarters, the Eastern Correctional staff is still using the old paper report system, the officer explained. Those files are kept at the facility, in the warden’s office.
“In 2002 we had three assaults on staff,” the officer said. “In 2003 there were 19. In 2004 there were 24, including one that was life-threatening. This year alone—and it’s only March—we’ve already had four assaults on staff. These incidents come straight from our Serious Incident Reporting log.”
Correctional officers say Eastern Correctional is just one of several Maryland prisons to see an increase in violence and injury. But the official numbers record 38 inmate-on-staff assaults at ECI for fiscal 2004—a reduction from the 44 counted in 2003. Regardless, Saar would not dismiss the officers’ concerns out of hand.
“I have asked them to send me the paper records so we can look at it,” she says. “I need accurate data. I can’t go to every facility and look at what happens every day.”
The Division of Correction is the largest part of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. It is the state’s second-largest civil division, with more than 9,000 employees and an annual budget of more than half a billion dollars, all devoted to overseeing 27 prisons and other facilities and some 25,000 incarcerated convicts.
No one person can know everything that goes on in every facility, but when Saar wants to she can make the place shine for visitors. And she sets the tone.
In a brightly lit classroom at Hagerstown’s Maryland Correctional Training Center, Assistant Warden Paul O’Flaherty, who has a master’s in psychology, states a key purpose of RESTART: Saar, he says, “wants a normalization in relations between staff and inmates.”
RESTART is not a “program,” O’Flaherty says, but a policy, or philosophy, requiring the identification of inmates who can benefit from intensive substance-abuse counseling and vocational training in the months before their release. A core element is “cognitive restructuring,” a kind of group therapy in which inmates are taught how to correct their “thinking errors.” The industry-standard program is called “Thinking for a Change” (sometimes shortened to “Thinking for Change”).
Jonathan Stevens, who heads up the RESTART pilot at the Hagerstown prison, explains that through Thinking for a Change inmates “develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings around certain situations.” Participants are taught to look out for knee-jerk responses, for example: “All custody staff are bullies.” Corrections officers, on the other hand, might make a thinking error along the lines of “All inmates are dangerous and can’t be trusted.”
During Thinking for a Change sessions, Stevens says, “the amazing thing is that quite often they come to realize that they both have identical thoughts about each other.”
“My life changed here when I first got locked up,” says Jameel Abdur-Rasheed, a Baltimore native who was known as Eric Wilson before his prison conversion to Islam. He is one of two star inmates brought in to speak to a reporter in the presence of the RESTART pilot staff. “I was 33 years old, with four children, it was time to change,” he says. Serving time for a drug conspiracy, Abdur-Rasheed got into Narcotics Anonymous and later took a Thinking for a Change-type course offered before the official RESTART pilot began.
Khalid Shakua Muhammad, who as Montay Johnson got sent up for 15 years after committing an armed carjacking, echoes Abdur-Rasheed’s praise for RESTART.
“I think it’s one of the greatest things that could have come to the Division of Correction,” Muhammad says. “It’s given [participants] the drug treatment that they need. It’s given them the opportunity to get the vocational skills that they need. It’s given them sufficient enough skills to go out there tomorrow and get a job. It’s given them the opportunity to get into group situations and be able to represent themselves as men. It gave them the boost to get what they need.”
These programs are not all new, but in the past they have been uncoordinated, underfunded, and understaffed, many correctional officials say. Several years ago, for instance, Muhammad helped design and implement a RESTART-style “youth counseling” program at Maryland Correctional Training Center to try to turn around the younger inmates. RESTART holds the promise of expanding and bolstering such efforts.
“They say they care,” Muhammad says of the Thinking for a Change group facilitators. “They really want me to come uptown and be productive. I see that change in men, a lot of them in the Project RESTART programs.”
Maryland Correctional lost more than 23 positions last year after a staffing analysis ordered by Saar. But that was before the RESTART pilot program got underway. “One of the great things about Ms. Saar’s initiative is we have had a staff increase,” O’Flaherty says, adding that he now has 29 positions devoted solely to RESTART. But still more staffing is needed to cover the workload demanded by the RESTART programs at Maryland Correctional, much less at other DOC institutions.
Currently, each of the 28 case managers at Maryland Correctional often oversees the cases of nearly 200 inmates, case management manager Howard Whittington says. “And most recently they’ve been asked to co-facilitate these Thinking for Change groups,” he says. “Ideally it’d be better to have lower caseloads.”
DOC spokesman Mark Vernarelli says the division is training eight more case managers for the RESTART program at Maryland Correctional.
Mary Ann Saar got a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1965 and took a job as a probation officer the same year. She worked for the federal government in the early 1970s and as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore from 1972 until 1983, when she joined the administration of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. She followed Schaefer to Annapolis as an aide, and then as secretary of Juvenile Services, before taking a job at the Maine Department of Corrections in 1995. In 2000, she went to work as state director for Sen. Barbara Mikulski. In February 2003, Gov. Ehrlich appointed her secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Admirers and opponents alike call Saar “a tough lady.” Her bearing military, her platinum-steel hair pulled back in a severe bun, she cuts the figure of a stern headmistress.
After taking over the Department of Public Safety in 2003, Saar announced that RESTART would be a central tenant of her reorganization of the DOC. But when she requested $9.2 million from the General Assembly to fund the effort, she ran into a buzz saw. “The legislature, for whatever reason, said they’re not going to let us do this, except in two of the 30 facilities,” she recalls.
The problem was that Saar and the Division of Correction had not—or could not—supply the legislature with sufficient detail about RESTART or proof that it worked. The Department of Legislative Services noted major problems with RESTART’s planning documents. The Office of Policy Analysis told Saar that she would have to explain RESTART in much greater detail if she expected the legislature to hand more than $9.2 million for a systemwide roll-out.
The legislature made several requests for a detailed report, but received only a short summary of the RESTART concept and its aims. “While the report is compliant with the budget bill language and represents the department’s most comprehensive and comprehensible effort to date, fundamental concerns and planning gaps exist that have not been satisfactorily addressed,” Department of Legislative Services director Warren G. Deschenaux wrote in a June 28, 2004, letter to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. He recommended that the legislature “refrain from releasing any restricted funds until the department satisfactorily responds.”
State Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s County), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, repeatedly asked Saar for more detail and repeatedly likened RESTART to what he regards as a failed state boot-camp program. In a July 12, 2004, letter, for instance, Currie and Del. Conway, asked Saar for “an explanation of the assumption that the RESTART program/philosophy can reduce recidivism when the virtually identical Boot Camp program has no impact on recidivism.” The back and forth continued for months.
In December 2004, the DOC finally submitted a chart-heavy 18-page report. It still lacked recidivism rates, not only for the planned RESTART but even for the boot-camp program the legislators had disparaged. “While recidivism data is not available, it does not appear that one can conclude that . . . boot camp ‘does not work,’” the report concluded, adding that changes to that program and beefed-up staffing would “reinvigorate” the boot-camp program as well. (Shortly thereafter, Saar transferred and promoted former boot-camp commander Brenda Shell to acting warden at the Women’s Correctional Institution at Jessup, a RESTART pilot site. The two-step promotion for Shell, who other correctional supervisors say oversaw a deterioration of discipline at the boot camp, mystified some observers.)
The legislature eventually appropriated about $3 million for the RESTART pilot project in fiscal 2005, but state budget analysts continue to look skeptically on Saar’s figures. The Department of Legislative Services notes in its analysis of the fiscal 2006 budget (which projects a RESTART spending increase to $5.2 million), that “the division should be prepared to comment on its projected division-wide rollout costs [of $9.2 million] in light of the fact that division is spending $5.2 million to run RESTART at only two institutions.”
Undeterred by the legislature’s openly skeptical response and paltry funding, Saar presses on with her agenda.
During a two-hour interview in her office, Saar expounds on a staffing study and its aftermath, which she says has given her critics the “unfortunate” and mistaken impression that cuts to line staff in some prisons were done as part of the RESTART initiative. She explains that she began her tenure in January 2003 by asking her wardens to tell her what their staffing needs were. “They were all over the map,” she says, and so she called a team of consultants from the National Institute of Corrections to help analyze all the facilities.
“My expectation was that maybe we’d need a few more [people], maybe we’re OK,” Saar says. “I did not expect them to say we had some extra [staff], but that’s what happened. And I’m not going to lie about it.”
The analysis was finished by fall of 2004. Saar then asked Gov. Ehrlich to approve the conversion of some of the positions at various facilities to RESTART counselors, and by that September the personnel shifts were underway. “And everybody thought that was a good idea,” Saar says. “But that was seen in the media as connected.”
It wasn’t just the media who saw it that way. Several former wardens and other DOC higher-ups told City Paper that they estimated between 400 and 500 vacant positions were cut, and that an additional 300 jobs—mostly correctional officers—were eliminated to free up salaries for use in RESTART. Some positions were also shifted from facilities found to be “overstaffed” to facilities seen as understaffed.
The 15 percent increase to DOC headquarters staff—Saar did not provide an exact head count for her office, but budget documents indicate it totaled 641 positions, up from 542 in fiscal 2002—was also the product of a consultant. “We tried to follow what the experts tell us,” she says. Among the changes, Saar replaced her department’s single longtime public relations spokesman, Leonard Sipes, with a staff of four. Sipes declined to speak to City Paper about his old job or the circumstances of his departure.
While going over these matters, Saar often refers to figures on paper and on the big computer screen that dominates her desk. When confronted with facts she’s uncomfortable or unfamiliar with, she changes the subject. Asked about concerns raised by correctional officers, she becomes impatient, depicting their complaints as phantoms.
“My answer is always the same—give me what your issues are,” she says, referring to a complaint last year from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union. “But they would never say what they are.” Last fall, Saar says, the union wanted a meeting, and she told them she would meet them after they sent her a list of their specific issues. “I have never gotten those issues,” she continues. “So, either they have gone away or they didn’t want to meet with me.”
Actually, according to Ron Bailey, executive director of Council 92, AFSCME, the union did put its concerns in writing to G. Lawrence Franklin, Saar’s deputy secretary for administration, who acknowledged receipt in a March 10 hearing before a legislative subcommittee. Bailey says he’s still waiting for a meeting.
“We have always known what the issues are, we have always provided our issues,” Bailey says. “For [Saar] to say we don’t know what the issues are, that sounds ridiculous. It sounds like a case of amnesia.”
Saar leaves little doubt in the interview about how little she trusts the word of her subordinates working inside the prisons, who, since she took office in 2003, have complained to legislators, picketed prisons, and circulated at least one petition calling for mass grievances over the staffing cuts.
“They keep telling me they have other figures, and I keep saying send them to me,” Saar says of disputed assault numbers. “There’s not much I can do except go by what’s in our computer system.”
But besides the new FIRM software, there is another reason that the official computer count of prison assaults is not comparable to counts made in previous years: Saar changed the criteria for what counts as a “serious incident.”
It was part of Saar’s continuing effort to institute uniform standards throughout the division. “When we put our new system in place, we delineated a number of categories and we made it very clear what the categories were, so you could always compare apples to apples,” Saar explains. Before, she says, the DOC relied on “someone’s subjective idea” of what constituted a serious assault vs. a minor one. As a result, assault statistics from 2002 and before are not comparable to those from 2003 and later—a fact Saar acknowledges, although she also emphasizes that before 2002 all year-to-year comparisons were dicey at best.
In a Dec. 20, 2004, report on RESTART to Sen. Currie, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, and Del. Conway, who chairs the appropriations committee in the House, “Serious” assaults on correctional officers were listed as having been flat since 2001, at about 15 per year. But according to the report, “Less Serious Physical Assaults” have increased dramatically, from a reported 97 in 2001 and 134 in 2002 under the old definitions to 212 in 2004 under the new definitions. But because “Less Serious Weapons Assaults” and “Other Types of Assaults” have dropped dramatically, the overall rate of reported assaults is flat—with 343 reported in 2002 and 341 in 2004.
Saar did not disclose in the report that her administration had made changes to the way the assault figures were tallied. Neither do the report’s figures include any assaults that may have gone unreported to headquarters because of problems using the new FIRM system.
One former warden says Saar’s new definitions have contributed to a systematic underreporting of assaults throughout the division as reports are passed up the chain of command to Saar’s computer. This former warden, who spoke with City Paper on condition of anonymity, says he saw assaults he regarded as serious downgraded and even eliminated this way.
“You could have assault upon assault upon assault,” he says. “It could be a major assault or a minor assault. It goes unreported. Why put it out there?”
On October 10, 2004, DOC Lt. Aubrey Fletcher ordered inmate Letory Jones to return to his cell at the Eastern Correctional Institution near Salisbury. When Jones stopped to talk to another inmate Fletcher walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and told him to move along, according to correctional officers familiar with what happened. Jones spun around and punched Fletcher in the head, knocking him to the ground. Then Jones and at least one other inmate kicked and stomped Fletcher’s head.
They kept at it for four minutes—longer than a boxing round.
The beating—which also sent another correctional officer to the hospital—lasted so long because of a continuing staff shortage, witnesses told the legislators at the March meeting. They said it was just luck that Fletcher survived. Jones and Thomas Cook, another inmate charged in the attack, await trial on charges of assault and reckless endangerment. Fletcher still bears a mark on the side of his head that he says came from an inmate’s boot. He has reportedly suffered brain damage and remains out on workers’ compensation.
He isn’t alone.
“We had 46 lieutenants in 2003—today we have 27,” an Eastern Correctional major told the legislators, seated on a riser under a bingo scoreboard at the VFW in Delmar. “We have 11 vacancies and eight more are out long-term.” The major, like every current and most former correctional officers City Paper spoke to for this article, asked that his name not be used because he fears retaliation for speaking out.
Figures kept by the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission suggest the they may be right about assaults and injuries. The numbers show a 30 percent increase in claims from correctional officers statewide since 2003, when Saar’s tenure began.
In the handful of years before Saar took office, according to the tally, workers’ compensation claims from DOC’s employees actually fell, from 491 in 1999 to 392 in 2002. After Saar took over in 2003, claims jumped to 480. In 2004 there were 595 workers’ compensation claims filed from the prisons and parole and probation. Despite receiving in 2004 “the Governor’s Health and Safety Group Excellence in Risk Management Award in recognition of the continued reduction of on-the-job injuries and their associated costs,” Eastern Correctional Institution saw its injury claims nearly double from 21 in 2003 to 39 in 2004, according to the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission’s records.
Saar brushes the figures aside.
“I don’t know if they’re up or not,” Saar says of the increased workers’ compensation claims. “But I am personally appalled by what has come up. For example, one of the officers put in a claim for a mosquito bite—and got 500 bucks for it! And then he put in a claim for another mosquito bite and got another $500—and nobody was reviewing it. We’re reviewing it now.”
Citing confidentiality laws, Saar refuses to divulge the correctional officer’s name. Later, after state workers’ compensation officials said they could not verify the story, Vernarelli revised it to “four . . . insect bites” costing “more than $426.”
“The Deputy Secretary for Operations and the Risk Management/Emergency Preparedness folks are reviewing this and all similar claims, with an eye toward identifying folks who have filed multiple claims and seeing if there’s anything we can do to eliminate any risk—or fraud or misuse of the system.” Vernarelli wrote in an e-mail.
Several correctional officers at the Eastern Shore meeting acknowledged that some workers’ compensation claims are bogus, but they added that plummeting morale leads to these kinds of claims.
Saar says poor morale is to be expected by managers who change things. “I’ve been in this business for 37 years,” she says. “And in all my career iterations, when there’s a change, there’s a hue and cry of poor morale. It just seems to be a natural response to change.”
Poor morale, staff shortages, and underfunding are hardly new to the Maryland Division of Corrections. In fact, underfunding is a tradition and a point of pride. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service’s web site prominently displays the following statistic: “While it is the second largest in terms of staffing, the DPSCS operating budget is just 3.9 percent of the State Budget.”
Maryland gets what it pays for, starting with a poorly trained, inadequately equipped work force plagued with turnover. “[In Maryland] corrections isn’t law enforcement, it’s a service, same as general housekeeping,” says Robert LaRhue, a 23-year veteran correctional officer who retired last May. In other states, LaRhue notes, corrections is “one of the largest law enforcement contingents.”
But there are many differences between Maryland correctional officers and those of other states. Maryland correctional officers must complete a six-week training course—just increased last year from four weeks—and the job starts at $27,700. (The minimum annual salary for a “correctional maintenance officer,” such as a prison plumber or electrician, in the Maryland DOC is $1,800 higher.) By contrast, New York correctional officers train for eight weeks in the academy before being deployed for a full year of on-the-job training. The job starts at about $30,000 per year. New Jersey recruits are required to complete a “14-week in-residence NJ Police Training Commission course,” according to the New Jersey DOC web site. A New Jersey correctional officer takes home about $40,000 per year to start.
Pay for Maryland state correctional officers is so low, in fact, that Maryland counties regularly poach the best graduates from the state correctional academy, says Bill Scott, former DOC acting assistant commissioner in charge of development and training, adding that Prince George’s County would often “raid the state academy of the best grads and offer them $3,000 or $4,000 more for less problems on the job.”
Saar acknowledges the problem. “What happens is, we train them and they leave,” she says. “Retention has been a problem for this area and this state forever.” She says she’s “working on” it.
Yet low pay is only part of the baseline frustration of being a Maryland correctional officer. “Equipment is a hand-me-down thing,” LaRhue says. “For example, back in 1984 we had very little equipment among the officers.” When correctional officer Herman Toulson was stabbed during a Baltimore prison uprising in 1984, LaRhue continues, “they allowed radios to be transferred to maximum security from other areas.”
Those radios—or others of their vintage—are still in service today, according to Eastern Correctional Institute officers who spoke in the VFW hall in Delmar. “We’ve got a lot of radio communications equipment that came to us in ’87, that then was surplus,” a transportation supervisor told the legislators.
The old radios might work if the batteries weren’t constantly dying. But they won’t take a proper charge because nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries of that era require the user to run them down completely, then charge them fully, and the officers say they don’t have enough batteries or radios to do that. “I send out men with inmates in a van with communications equipment that essentially serves no more purpose than a paperweight,” the supervisor said.
When asked about the vintage radios, Saar blames the officers for improperly charging the batteries. “No matter how much this was explained,” she says, “it didn’t work.” The division has delayed purchasing new radios because of changing technology, Saar says: “We would hate to buy several thousand radios and find that there is something better out there.”
But Saar apparently did not extend the same concern for technological obsolescence when it came to her senior staff. Many received top-of-the-line Blackberry pagers last year, an insider says, despite the fact that the cell phones they replaced “were completely adequate.”
Saar ignored questions about the Blackberrys during her interview with City Paper. Vernarelli, who pointed out that he did not receive one, later acknowledged in an e-mail to City Paper that the Division of Corrections “purchased seven Blackberrys for $306 each. [The] money came from the DOC equipment fund.”
There is a note of exasperation in Saar’s voice when discussing the correctional officers, their unions, and their complaints. She gives the impression of a bewildered sovereign in the weeks before a palace revolt, or a strait-laced parent dumfounded by her pierced daughter’s decision to drop out of Boston University and devote herself to the anti-globalization movement.
“What we want to do is have a structure in place . . . to have a trained, well-equipped work force,” Saar says in an almost maternal tone. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Grumbles from below aside, Saar is looking ahead and looking forward to continuing her overall effort to make professional the DOC. Elements of her plan include an ongoing computer system upgrade to track inmate cases from intake through parole, conforming staffing levels to industry norms, and developing leadership in the ranks.
But she has a lot of hopes—and DOC resources—pinned on RESTART. She says that Thinking for a Change has been “researched for years by top international experts and they have proved that these programs work.” She paints the legislature as obstructionist, standing in the way of “common sense.” She drops the name of Edward Latessa, head of the Division of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati and recognized by many to be the pre-eminent expert on correctional psychology.
And yet, asked to supply peer-reviewed evidence that RESTART or its components reduce the propensity for ex-felons to commit new crimes, Saar falters. She says that all the studies were supplied to the legislature last year. Asked for reference copies, Vernarelli delivers a 35-page report with 16 footnotes—the same one that some state legislators found so inadequate. While it quotes several studies showing favorable results from RESTART-style programs, it included none of the studies that generated the data.
A City Paper review of scholarly literature found that RESTART-style programs are not “proven.” And many of the available studies appear flawed—or at least overblown.
ýor example, a 146-page study by Lori Golden of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas stated that “results for changes and improvements in criminal sentiments found in the present study [are] disappointing and counter to expectation,” although “there are significant positive changes in social skills and social problem-solving. More importantly, new criminal offense rates for group completers—inmates who stick with and finish the program—dropped 33 percent.”
That 33 percent drop in recidivism, trumpeted on the National Institute for Corrections web site, would likely impress correctional officials—and it’s right in line with claimed results for many other studies. The problem is that it’s not statistically significant, being in line with expected recidivism in any random sample—a fact noted only deep in the main body of Golden’s report.
Criminal psychology guru Latessa himself served as principal investigator for a 2004 study that looked at RESTART-like programs in Ohio. This 72-page study spends the first 37 pages detailing methodologies and adjustments to the various inmate groups being compared. On page 38 the reader learns the bad news: “The results indicated that the cognitive-behavioral treatment program was not more effective than other forms of treatment.” In fact, Latessa found, “in two programs . . . offenders were more likely than the comparison group offenders to be (re)arrested” after release.
Some observers say the field of corrections research suffers from a tendency to cherry-pick the “good” results from a broader—and otherwise disappointing—array of findings. “They only count the completers, or they look at the ones who volunteer for aftercare,” says David Farabee, a Ph.D. psychologist with years of experience assessing correctional programs. For his own recent monograph, he reviewed the literature on hundreds of studies that claimed good results for RESTART-like “best practices” programs, and found most of them wanting.
“What you can see from an objective reading of the reviews is the results are very mixed,” he says. “Then when you layer onto that the quality of the evaluations that produce those [positive] results, you find that the largest effects are for the least rigorous evaluations.” In other words, the better the study, the worse the results.
Farabee says he wants the programs to work as much as anybody, but that the evidence, so far at least, has been hyped. “The quality of research is so poor,” he says, “it really wouldn’t fly in most other sciences.”
Asked why, given the inconclusive scientific evidence, Saar claims RESTART’s components are scientifically “proven,” DOC spokesman Vernarelli responds this way: “What most have been doing for 100 years obviously hasn’t been working well. We are obligated to protect the public, and the way to do this is to give RESTART a chance.”
And so it is getting one.
Saar says she sees no Thinking for a Change-style parallel between the way she perceives her underlings and the way her underlings perceive the motivations of most prisoners. She says more training for middle managers will straighten out any problems among the 8,000-plus correctional officers under her charge.
The good news, Saar says, is that inmates’ complaints about the prisons—every one of which she reads personally—are subsiding.
“The numbers,” she says, consulting the big computer screen on her desk, “seem to be going down.”
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