As crime rates continually rise, one of the many questions that is continued to be asked is how many of these crimes are perpetrated by repeat offenders and why do they feel like they need to return to a life of crime when they know what the outcome will be? Over the years, public outcry over crime has led the Minnesota Department of Corrections to focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation, so many programs have been disbanded and/or reduced to the bare minimum and moved to lower custody institutions. This has led to many offenders left wanting and needing positive programs to better prepare themselves not only for release, but also for success in the world.
When asked, many offenders who have returned to prison due to parole violations or new crimes responded that the unwillingness of employers to hire someone with a criminal record is one of the reasons that they return to what they know, that is, crime. If the objective is to stop or curb recidivism with those offenders being released, isn’t it imperative for Minnesota to provide as many programming and opportunities for those who want it in all of its prisons, rather then cut them or move them to lower custody facilities where only a limited few are able to take advantage of the ones they do have?
To many of the offenders who were questioned, the overwhelming sense is that either education, cognitive thinking, and/or the lack of job skills was the underlying reason for their returning back to prison. For some of the offenders, the opportunity for some of these programs have been removed from them because of their classification and are unable to take advantage of them, even though they will be released within a year or two.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell told KSTP television, “We know that having a good job when people get out makes a huge, huge difference to their success.” With more and more offenders expressing their desire for the types of program that would help them have better success in the world, the question becomes why there aren’t more programs or better opportunities for these offenders within the prison system.
Josh DeRosier, an inmate at Stillwater prison who is currently residing in the Atlantis program [a substance use treatment program at Stillwater] said, “I would like to see more programming and opportunities that provide more support programs with networking, job set-up and survey classes to help guys get a heading to know [what] their strengths [are]. Where those jobs are and how to go about creating that network and process to have that primary income established, or training started and/or completed prior to release.” DeRosier would also like to see programs that would help shorten prison time, in exchange for longer parole after release.
During his stay in the Atlantis program, DeRosier participated in a number of cognitive programs, such as restorative justice, criminal thinking, relapse prevention, and building character. However, not all offenders are given this opportunity, due to the length of the waiting list. Although the Atlantis program has helped him correct his thinking and behavior, his job skills in today’s technical world are severely wanting.
With the recent resurgence of allowing the release of long-term offenders, or lifers, these individuals are now finding it hard to find the type of programs that would help them utilize the technology of today’s world and better prepare themselves for success in being employed upon being released. They have continued to ask for the types of programs that would provide education and computer training that fits today’s world. Along with better training for the type of technology that they would face upon leaving prison.
Some offenders have brought up the possibility of VR (Virtual Reality) and its use in that training. As a person who has been away from the free world for almost 30 years, I find the possibility of putting individuals into a position to interact with the world through virtual reality amazing. A program that that not only would allow offenders to gain the skills for gainful employment, such as creating an LLC (limited liability company) and the experience of driving semi-trucks, but to be able to become familiar with the real word without being in the real world would give offenders a head start on becoming acclimated to this world that they have been away from for so long.
Another program would be classes in computer tech. Today the technical world is so vast that offenders who have been away have drastically fallen behind. Creating programs such as computer coding, websites, games, firewalls, and virtual reality could benefit these offenders in gaining jobs that would help keep offenders from committing new crimes and/or from violating parole on the basis of not being employable.
In interviewing Natalya Kandakova, who is the Atlantis Program Director, I put forth a number of questions concerning the viability, limitations,and the possibility of offenders in helping to facilitate the type of programs that would help offenders.
Ms. Kandakova went on to say that prisoners and others are certainly welcome to be in touch with potential partner organizations. “We are constantly looking at viable programs that would be able to provide the clients to not only better themselves in their recovery, but also their reentry into the community,” she said.
However, she strongly stressed that any proposals should be vetted through the DOC and that they should be evidence-based. “Remember,” she said, “it’s our job to care for the clients (offenders), and to be certain that any resources…provided [are] for the betterment of the client.”
I asked her about training for work in the field of virtual reality.
“In bringing in something like VR,” she said, “we need to know what are the benefits in utilizing such equipment. But she acknowledged that it could be useful for prisoners.
However, the reality of bringing in such programs that are beneficial for offenders is just that, possibilities. The Minnesota Department of Corrections recently started a program to train prisoners to get a tattoo license on release. Although the program has garnered much support and momentum, one must ask how many offenders will this really help?
With staff shortages throughout the DOC [Department of Corrections], many programs and jobs have been cut. And then there is always the dreaded word when officers don’t want something, or don’t think we should have it: security. Though security can be an issue in a prison setting, it should not be used without an actual security threat.
If we are truly looking to stop the recidivism, we need to start looking at incentive base type programs, along with cognitive thinking and addiction base programs, parenting classes, 1 on 1 family counseling, along with any type of programs like VR training to help offenders upon release. Offenders who have made the decision to make a lasting change within their lives, and have shown that they can stay discipline-free would be allowed to enter into these programs that give them better opportunities. In utilizing these types of incentive-based programs, offenders could be gaining the skills needed to help them not only get released, but the added benefit and incentive to stay out of prison. An example of some efforts being made include DEED, which will offer grants to non-profits, community groups and other organization to help place former prisoners in jobs.