“Just because it sounds and feels good doesn’t mean it’s effective,” says Ross Carew. He is assistant director of Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), a corrections and rehabilitation program for the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, which has commissioned a UVA study of a recently added re-entry program.
Inmates prepare for life after jail
Begun in 2005 for men (and in 2007 for women), New Horizons is an intensive eight-week course that aims to prepare inmates for their life outside. Skills like CPR are taught alongside financial planning.
“We’re conducting an evaluation of what we’re doing right now,” says UVA professor and clinical psychologist Ann Loper, who has dedicated her career to studying the effects of prison on inmates. “What kind of things are we doing that are helpful, and what kind of people does it help?”
Loper and her students also taught a parenting skills class for the New Horizons students who just graduated. Now, she is preoccupied with collecting the initial information on departing inmates. While Loper currently has 50 people in the nascent study, she is hoping to follow at least 200, but says the jail poses unique challenges. Because it is regional, there is a transitory population. Some people may only be there for a few days, some a few months, others years.
As a result, she describes the study as an “evaluation,” one that will track three different groups of prisoners: those who have had the re-entry program; those whose sentence is too short for New Horizons; and a third class who refused any services at all. Loper will conduct regular followups over the next year, beginning July 1.
Psychology Professor Ann Loper consults with Patricia L. Smith, executive director of OAR. The two are collaborating on a study of former Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail inmates.
“We’ll call them up,” she says, “and ask if there’s anything you learned that has helped you.” By doing so, Loper and her team will be able to tailor the program to inmates and evaluate how well the program is working.
At this point, New Horizons is largely taught by volunteers—so far, neither the jail nor OAR have sought state or local funding. Even though the idea of equipping outgoing prisoners with life skills seems logical, the jail’s program is actually a little controversial.
“Lots of prisons act as warehouses,” says Carew, a 10-year veteran of OAR. He says that the pre- and post-release programs are a progressive alternative to what most of the states’ correctional facilities offer.
“It’s more about how somebody is going to be three years from now than whether they’ve peed in a cup,” he says, adding that they are lucky to be in Charlottesville where so many services (like Region Ten) are available. “We want you to walk out a better person.”
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