CSOSA Goes to Prison
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr., Office of Legislative, Intergovernmental and Public Affairs
(CSOSA Newslink, April 2004)
On March 29, 36 staff members from CSOSA, faith-based institutions plus allied agencies such as the Parole Commission, Public Defender, DC government and community social service providers traveled to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton, NC. The goal of the trip was to provide pre-release information to returning offenders, and to learn more about the need for future endeavors. This was my first trip to "Rivers," but many on the bus were veterans of prior visits. Most traveled by chartered bus. We left at noon on Monday for the long ride to North Carolina.
I discovered two things about the trip; the organizers like barbeque and all you can eat restaurants, and the constant flow of jazz on the bus's sound system came from a broken overhead speaker (at least mine did) with too much bass. After the six-hour ride, a North Carolina motel room was sweet release. Well, it was sweet release after our mass "packet stuffing" session at 10:00 p.m. to make sure the inmates would have the information they needed during the session the following day. We were told to be in the lobby and checked out no later than 6:00 a.m. Breakfast would be in the prison at 7:00 a.m. Yaa-hoo!
But the day turned serious as 220 inmates from the District filed into a large meeting room. The inmates were scheduled to come back to DC during the next three months.
A major problem for reintegration in the District is the level of information provided to those returning. The Federal Bureau of Prisons provides hundred hours of pre-release programming to returning offenders, but the contractual institutions are not necessarily held to the same standards. "Rivers" is a contract facility. Out of a standing population of 1,300 offenders, 1,000 are DC residents. While there are 6,000 DC inmates at federal prisons throughout the country sentenced by the Superior Court, "Rivers" holds more than any other federal prison. Please note that there are approximately 1,000 additional DC inmates in federal prisons sentenced by the District Court. CSOSA, as you know, does not supervise District Court inmates.
"There is a need to make sure that the Rivers inmates have the information they need to successfully make the transition home," said CSOSA's Associate Director Cedric Hendricks. "We are attempting to look at a variety of methods to make vital information available to returning offenders at Rivers and other federal institutions." Hendricks offered some possibilities for the future. "We installed video equipment at Rivers to facilitate faith-based mentoring, so maybe the best method is to present future courses via closed circuit television. This tactic could be expanded to additional federal facilities. In fact, we are looking at expanding the effort to two female institutions."
Hendricks suggested that the TIPS Unit could offer risk and need assessments via closed circuit television. Connecting offenders with their children could be another worthy goal of the video equipment.
But the future would have to wait. There were hundreds of returning offenders sitting in front of us, and we needed to attend to the matter at hand.
The large meeting room reminded me of cafeterias at many high schools. If you could imagine this room, and the fact that two entire walls were filled with CSOSA staff and friends, then you would have some perspective as to the size and scope of the effort.
"The responsibility is yours. You have to become accountable for your own behavior." This was the theme set by supervision staff as they took center stage. The morning belonged to the rules of supervision with an emphasis on programs available for returning offenders. One of the most popular themes of the segment was the need to report to the CSOSA field office quickly upon return to DC. Inmates tried their best to expand upon the time allowed. Staff insisted that it must happen the day of return in the vast majority of cases.
But the primary theme delivered by supervision staff, members of the TIPS unit and the Parole Commission was an emphasis on firm but fair supervision and services.
The afternoon was devoted to VOTEE staff and the activities they provide, the services of the faith community, courses offered by the University of the District of Columbia, and health services provided by DC government.
Finally, the moment the inmate population waited for arrived; questions for the individual participants. Although inmates asked questions throughout the day, they were told that they would have the final hour to go from provider to provider and ask all the questions they want. The representative from the Parole Commission quickly found herself very busy. But all attending were actively engaged. The members of the faith community provided instant counseling and encouragement. "Come see me when you get out" was the constant refrain. Rev. Donald Isaac, CSOSA partner and leader of the East of the River Clergy Police Community Partnership, stated, "Government can only do so much. Real change will come from God."
The day ended with the return bus trip, an "all you can eat" barbeque place for dinner, and the same broken speaker with too much bass. We returned to the District at 10:00 p.m. While we were glad to return to our families, all of us had a better understanding of the needs and complexities of providing critical information and services to returning offenders. The better prepared they are, the more productive they (and we) will be.
For additional information on CSOSA media releases contact:
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Senior Public Affairs Specialist
Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
633 Indiana Avenue, NW Suite 1263
Washington, DC 20004