We must break the shackles of prejudice

Jails are not meant to be pleasant places; they are punitive. They also serve to separate those who have committed crimes from the rest of society.

But what happens when inmates rejoin society? If they’re released back on the streets with no skills, no way to earn a living, no place to live, and no sense of their own worth, they are likely to commit more crimes. And that is costly for all of us.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics for the United States Department of Justice reported on offenders released from state prison and found just over half were back in prison in three years. A study from the Pew Center, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, showed that more spending doesn’t decrease recidivism.

The Pew report pointed out that, if just the 10 states with the greatest potential cost savings (New York is second behind California) reduced recidivism rates by 10 percent, they could save over $470 million in only one year.

Albany County’s sheriff, Craig Apple, is trying to emphasize the “correctional” in the Albany County Correctional Facility and believes it will reduce the recidivism rate.

We wrote on this page last month about changes that should be made at the jail in the wake of an inmate’s suicide; Adam Rappaport had been addicted to heroin. We stand by those recommendations (online at altamontenterprise.com under “Editorials” for Nov. 13, 2014). Apple declined to comment on whether progress is being made with those as he said the inmate’s mother was planning to sue. Maryanne Rappaport is waiting, she said, for the sheriff’s report, which was promised by Dec. 29, in addition to her subsequent investigations before she decides if she’ll sue.

At the same time, however, we commend the sheriff for programs at the jail that allow inmates opportunities to progress. Apple told us two years ago, when he started a program putting inmates to work, “The message is: If you come to Albany County, you’re not here to sleep your time away for 23 hours a day and play basketball for the other one, or watch TV. You’re here to work. This is a correctional facility and it’s supposed to correct behavior.”

We talked then to inmates cleaning up a park in Preston Hollow that was ravaged by the remnants of Hurricane Irene. One of them told us, “I just thought it would be a good way to do my time — go out to different places, and work, and get gratification out of helping somebody else....”

Doing time: That’s what prisoners call serving their sentences. Time weighs heavily inside the jail as the minutes creep by in their petty pace.

We visited two young women at the county jail last week. Each knew to the day when their time would be up, or even the chance of it through a court date.

But they had something to help them pass their time productively — training dogs. The program, started a year ago in April, puts four unadoptable dogs from the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in the jail for six-week periods.

“It makes time go by a lot quicker,” said Jeanna Motler of caring for her pit-bull mix, Lady. Sheriff Apple said he got the idea for the program from the humane society’s director, Brad Shear.

“A lot of people have great ideas,” said Apple. “I’m game for listening.”

He listened to Phyllis Rosenblum, a master gardener, when the jail started a gardening program last summer so that inmates could harvest vegetables — grown from donated plants — and, in turn, donate them to local food pantries.

The plan was, thus, to help others as the prisoners benefitted, too, learning gardening skills, and more. To Rosenblum’s way of thinking, “A lot of people suffer from nature deficit disorder.” She explained, “They have no contact with growing things. It’s empowering to learn how to grow something you can use.”

Apple also listened to Jack Downing, founder of Soldier On, a not-for-profit that helps homeless veterans. Downing, whom Apple called “one of the nicest men I’ve met,” testified in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 11 before the United States House Committee on Veterans Affairs. His program, where veterans help each other, is a model.

About three months ago, the county jail started placing its veterans on one wing, said Apple. “They’re the most respectful inmates in the jail,” the sheriff said.

However, many of the two-dozen or so veterans living on the wing are drug addicts and have felony convictions, said Apple. Each is matched with a peer in the Soldier On program; they live in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and travel to the jail in a van.

“Once they’ve served their time, they won’t be out on the streets,” said Apple. “They’ll have a transitional home at the Soldier On facility and continue to work with their peer mentors...Just throwing them back on the street, the cycle is never broken.”

Apple said of the programs he has initiated at the county jail, including the dog training, “The bottom line is, there are other arenas to pursue besides crime. This keeps minds stimulated; they do something productive. It keeps recidivism rates lower.”

Apple didn’t have any numbers but he said the program has also been good for those currently in jail. “It’s made a difference in the whole jail,” he said. “The dogs run free...the officers and other inmates play with the dogs. It has a calming effect.” Apple said the number of assaults, and the amount of weapons and contraband has “plummeted.”

The program is free for the county since the trainer volunteers his time and talents, and the dog food is provided by the humane society. Once the dogs are trained, they can be adopted, taken into homes and loved.

We see a parallel between the dogs — most of them are at least part pit bull just like most of the dogs at the shelter — and the prisoners. A lot of the unadoptable dogs were abandoned on the streets or came from rough backgrounds. They became bad dogs that no one wanted. But, with the right training, they will find their place in the world.

When we asked the sheriff if he saw a parallel, he answered our question in a surprising way: “There really is a parallel there,” he said. “I had that stigma towards pit bulls like the public has about inmates.” The first two dogs in the jail’s program were pit bulls, he said. “They were the best darned dogs...They changed my whole outlook,” said Apple.

The trainer, too, said the stereotype that people have about pit bulls is “just like prejudice against people.” If we hold a preconceived notion, we don’t give that person or dog a chance to become something better.

As we watched Glenn Pierce training the dyads of inmates and dogs last week, we were impressed with his approach. He was at once strict and encouraging — to both the dogs and the people.

The instructions he gave could apply to almost any human situation:

— “He was totally ignoring you and that’s really rude. Try again”;

— “Make it easy for him...Set him up to succeed”;

— “You can do it; it’s OK”; and

— “Yes...Perfect.”

The universal translation goes like this: Something is wrong and needs to be fixed; tackle the task in steps that are possible; keep at it without blaming yourself until you’ve got it right.

That sort of patience and persistence is useful for any person to develop.

“A lot of them never had the opportunity or were shown the right way,” said Apple of both pit bulls and inmates. “There’s better opportunities in life than sitting in the county jail.”

How you are treated makes a difference in who you are. We commend this program and hope to see it expand not just because it is training dogs so they can find homes but because it is encouraging prisoners at the same time, making it more likely they will find a home in society when they are released.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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