It is hard for inmates to break the cycle of crime — and returning to jail.
Somerset County Jail Warden Greg Briggs said at the March jail board meeting that Somerset County has a 41 percent recidivism rate of inmates sent to state prison who return to state prison after their release. That was lower than the state average of 50.7 percent. The county jail’s statistical report shows that 68.4 percent of the current population of jail inmates are returning offenders. Briggs asked members of the county re-entry group to attend Tuesday’s jail board meeting to tell the board about their work.
Danielle Bowers, program coordinator for the Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Somerset County Tableland Services Inc., said her job is rather unusual.
“It is my job to make them (inmates) feel bad about the weaknesses that made them commit the crimes,” she said. “That is because they have to make life changes. I tell them if they want a fresh start they should leave Somerset County so they do not get involved with the same group of people. If they have kids it is easier to get through to them because everyone loves their kids.”
She also helps inmates create resumes and practice for job interviews. The most difficult thing when former inmates are meeting with prospective employers is to explain their criminal history. It can be done, she said. One former inmate who was convicted of manslaughter got a starter job after his release and then got another job after the first one.
Erin Howsare, director of the single county authority for drug and alcohol, said of the 120 inmates who were in jail on May 3, 67 percent were drug and alcohol clients. The agency tries to get inmates into recommended treatment within a week of the recommendation.
Drug addiction is a serious problem among inmates, Briggs said. He once had to tell an inmate that the inmate’s brother had died of drug abuse. When that inmate was released, Briggs said he hoped he did not go back to using drugs. The inmate replied that he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t because it is such a tough addiction.
Elissa Gies is employed by Peerstar, a community behavioral health care service for individuals recovering from mental illnesses and/or substance abuse disorders. Her company provides one-on-one counseling and group counseling for inmates.
“We also work with people who are seriously mentally ill,” she said. “There are about five to 10 people in that category in jail in treatment at any time. The goal is to work with them for 90 days before they release so they know how to manage their illness. Only about 12 percent follow through after their release. We provide services at five other jails and that 12 percent is about average in all those jails.”
Tom Bender, of Bedford-Somerset Mental Health/Mental Retardation, said on average about half of the jail’s inmates have mental illnesses. If the diagnosis is of a serious mental illness or a critical mental illness the level of care the inmates receive is higher. His office can intervene if a mentally ill inmate gets into trouble while in jail. He said he is not surprised by the 50 percent mental illness rate as that number has held steady during the past 10 years.
Vicki Rascona-Saylor, adult probation supervisor, said parole officers assess what can be done while inmates are in jail to help them to not reoffend.
Amanda Allen, another CAP employee, said she has a course for inmates to learn to become good tenants. The five-week course teaches inmates the responsibilities of being a tenant, how to maintain housing and how to resolve conflicts with landlords and neighbors. A lot of inmates have burned the bridges with their families and are no longer welcome home, she said.
Tracy Shultz, a project manager and trainer with the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said the county received a $50,000 federal grant to develop a plan for inmates with mental illness or substance abuse problems.
“I’m really excited about our collaboration,” she said. “We are a model for other counties.”
“Not many in the public realize how complex the problem is,” Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said. “We thank you for your phenomenal collaboration.”
District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser said her first contact with defendants is usually at the preliminary hearing or when a bench warrant hearing is held.
“They are usually extremely angry at me or at my office,” she said. “Then because of the treatment they receive while in jail I often hear them say ‘Thank you for not believing my b---s--- and holding me accountable.’ They now are realizing that they don’t have to continue on that path.”