Inmate violations at halfway houses

This article, previously published on Oklahoma Watch, discusses inmate violations at two of Oklahoma’s halfway houses, citing issues including the admittance qualifications and staff oversights. With issues like this prevalent across the country, there is a definite need for a change in the way the justice system responds to criminal offenders.

Questions of oversight: inmate violations at halfway houses
by Clifton Adcock

Serious violations by inmates plagued Oklahoma’s two largest halfway houses for three years before the state took action in January by removing all inmates from one and later demanding a corrective plan at the other.

State data analyzed by Oklahoma Watchshow that from 2010 to 2013, the rates of serious “misconducts” by male offenders quadrupled at the Avalon Correctional Center in Tulsa, run by a for-profit company, Avalon Correctional Services Inc. After a video of an alleged guard-sanctioned fight there came to light in January, the Department of Corrections pulled out all 212 inmates.

Ten months later, more than 200 inmates again are in the facility.

Violations also spiked at the Carver Transitional Center in Oklahoma City, also operated by Avalon. The rate of serious misconducts nearly tripled from 2010 to 2012 before slipping last year. In March, the corrections department gave surprise random drug tests to 153 Carver inmates, and more than half tested positive. The state ordered an action plan to fix the problem, and since has added offenders to the facility.

A prison watchdog group, OK-CURE, questions whether the state Department of Corrections should place so many inmates in Avalon-run facilities given the history of oversight problems. Avalon Correctional Services, based in Oklahoma City, now houses more inmates in its two male halfway houses than it did two years ago, when serious violations were climbing.

Corrections Director Robert Patton said Avalon has taken steps to address concerns of oversight at Avalon Tulsa and is paying for a corrections department monitor to stay at the facility. The department also is monitoring the Carver facility, corrections officials said.

Preliminary data show that in recent months serious violations by inmates have dropped at the Carver and Avalon Tulsa halfway houses.

A big reason the state wants to reduce violations, such as drug use, at halfway houses is because the rise in serious misconducts has hampered the state’s ability to shift more inmates from overcrowded prisons to halfway houses, Board of Corrections minutes show. Inmates with egregious violations are usually moved back to higher security levels, taking up beds that might be filled by other inmates eligible to be gradually moved down into halfway houses.

To ease the problem, the state earlier his year revised its policies to expand the pool of offenders eligible for placement in halfway houses.

A Surge in Violations

The goal of halfway houses is to help nonviolent offenders near the end of their sentences find a job and prepare for life outside of prison walls.

Oklahoma has eight male halfway houses holding about 1,050 inmates. Avalon operates the two largest facilities in addition to running the largest female halfway house, located in Turley. (Lawsuits filed earlier this year allege problems there, including a failure to report sexual abuse.)

Inmates live at the facilities and can leave for a job or to find work or attend church; halfway house staff members are supposed to track their whereabouts. Drug tests are also given to the inmates.

When halfway house inmates violate rules or laws, they are subject to discipline. They can be removed and returned to a higher-security facility and, until recently, were ineligible for halfway-house placement again for at least a year.

With serious violations, called “Class X Misconducts,” offenders are almost always removed and rarely, if ever, returned to a halfway house, corrections officials said. Examples of Class-X violations are escape, possession of drugs or a weapon, and assault of staff members.

In 2011, serious violations began to rise sharply, driven largely by increased numbers and rates of violations at Carver and Avalon Tulsa. Many of the violations were possession of an unauthorized substance and escape. From 2010 to 2013, the annual number of egregious misconducts at Avalon Tulsa more than doubled, to 48; the rate, meaning the number of violations per 100 placements, quadrupled, analysis of data shows. At Carver, the number of Class-X violations more than doubled in 2011, to 49, and the rate more than doubled; the rate and numbers at Carver dropped in 2013.

Empty Beds

From 2011 to 2013, the total number of inmates placed in Oklahoma halfway houses declined by nearly 30 percent. Late last year, more than 380 halfway house beds under contract were not being used, Board of Corrections minutes show.

Read the article in its entirety on oklahomawatch.org

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The two moments you know they’ve succeeded

by Lance Eaton

I’m a newbie to Changing Lives Through Literature, so what I say here might seem old-hat to some or naive to others. I’m about two-thirds through my second group and there are two moments in the program that I find most rewarding.

I choose a mixture of challenging and strange texts. There’s a method to my madness in terms of the range and type, as well as the alignment, but I often get raised eyebrows from the participants and even the parole officers. The texts are evocative, usually leading the participants to come in with clear opinions. These opinions are usually a mixture of confusion, frustration, and dislike because the readings don’t always have clear endings and are sometimes outright confusing.

As participants enter, they’re often ready to engage with the story, sometimes venting before the meeting starts. They want answers to what they just experienced, which is always great to see. You know you’ve chosen a good text if you have to encourage them to refrain from discussing it too early.

The first moment of success is towards the end of the session. After spending nearly two hours discussing the text, the tide turns. Frustration and confusion give way to excitement and enthusiasm. Opinions move from disliking to liking, or at least a better appreciation of the story. It’s worth doing a quick poll at the beginning and at the end about participants’ feelings on the story to see what has changed.

It’s the change of opinion and thought about the story that I think is most important because it’s the best indicator of their learning and investment in the process. The program’s charge to change lives is generated by learning, which happens when there is investment. However, the program (rightfully) doesn’t require any more than participation: read, show up, discuss. This formula in itself doesn’t guarantee learning. We’ve all met on rare occasions the person who resists learning and performs the bare minimum. But overwhelmingly, the participants do so much more. Therefore, any change of opinions and thoughts becomes an indicator of their investment and their learning, which sets them down the path of changing their lives.

The second moment of success happens sometime past the half-way mark in the program. By this point, a sense of rhythm and expectation has been established. Participants know what to expect of the facilitator and the facilitator is familiar with the rhythm of the meetings. It’s usually around this point that the participants start to make the observation that the readings are “easier”. It becomes clear that they’re picking up on more ideas and significance within the stories. It’s usually around this time that I start to hear lines like, “This was easy” or “I knew what was going to happen after that first sentence”.

I mark this as success because the readings themselves don’t necessarily get easier. In fact, I often choose increasingly harder texts, recognizing that with the flow established, they’ll begin to feel more comfortable with more difficult texts. This comfort stems from knowing we will clarify things they don’t understand. However, their remarks indicate they’re developing stronger reading and analytical skills. They often overlook this but I take the time to draw out the point. When I do, I see not only smiles about the fact, but also realizations about their own abilities. It’s a great moment for facilitator and participant. It’s the crux of why we’re all sitting in the room, and it’s proof positive that their lives have value and meaning and that they have some control over it.

These two moments are part of the major reason I enjoy Changing Lives Through Literature. I don’t believe that the program directly produces grand change in every participants’ lives. But I believe the nature of the program does set them down the path of learning, self-reflection, and inner-value, which can change their lives in the long run.

Lance Eaton is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. He writes for several magazines and websites. He also serves as a social media consultant for several companies. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog or you can find out more about him on his website.