Closing prison's revolving door

During the last decade, the percentage of people released from Maryland's prisons who re-offend within three years has dropped by more than 11 points — and by 3 points in just the last year. Considering the cost to society of the revolving door prison has become for too many in this country, that's a laudable achievement. Yet the fact that more than two in five who are released from prison will still get arrested or violate parole within three years shows just how much more progress remains to be made.

Maryland corrections secretary Gary D. Maynard's reputation has taken a hit — to some extent, deservedly — from the corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, which his department manages. Indeed, it would be hard to live down the embarrassment of an inmate bragging on a wiretap that he ran the jail — and backing it up by impregnating four guards. If that's all you knew about Maryland's prison system, you might assume that Mr. Maynard is a clueless, disengaged political hack. On the contrary, he is an experienced, active and caring manager who, despite having much to answer for in one instance, has enjoyed notable successes during his tenure here.

The reduction in recidivism is a testament to a wide variety of reforms enacted under Mr. Maynard's watch, some big, some small.

The department now focuses on re-entry as soon as prisoners enter its facilities. Educational programs behind bars are now run by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation rather than the Department of Education, a shift that has given them a more vocational focus and has helped ensure that inmates leave with skills that are in demand. The prison system has worked with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to improve health care delivery behind bars and to ensure continuity of care when inmates are released. Prisoners can now much more easily get government IDs while in custody so they will have an easier time getting a job or services when they leave. Employment in Maryland Correctional Enterprises — which puts inmates to work doing everything from butchering to furniture making — is up more than 15 percent.

During the last several years, the department has placed much more emphasis on the re-entry process, particularly in Baltimore, where about half of the system's inmates come from. In the old days, when an inmate from Baltimore was released, he was, at best, returned to an institution here for a few months. Now that timetable has stretched to years for some inmates so that prison officials can help connect them to services like health care and drug treatment as well as to family and local employers. The department is now working to expand that effort to other regions.

Mr. Maynard is also unusually attuned to the degree to which inmates are alienated from the communities they left behind. He has embraced a concept called "restorative justice," in which prisoners work on projects to improve the state — whether through planting trees or installing wheelchair-accessible curbs on sidewalks. The idea is to help them feel they have atoned in some way for the harm they have done to society.

Mr. Maynard has also embraced re-entry mediation to a degree no other state corrections chief has. Starting in 2007, Community Mediation Maryland, a non-profit funded in part by the state judiciary, began sending volunteer mediators into the state's prisons to help soon-to-be-released inmates to reconnect with family or others on the outside. Inmates frequently have unresolved conflicts with their families stemming from harms and betrayals committed before they went to prison, and they don't magically disappear when they are released. It seems intuitively obvious that working to resolve them before re-entry increases an inmate's odds of success, and data from Community Mediation's efforts show that it does. Having one mediation session reduces the risk of recidivism by 10 percent. A full course of three sessions makes an inmate 22 percent less likely to end up back behind bars.

Still, Community Mediation only has the resources to provide the service to a small fraction of the thousands of inmates who are released every year. If lawmakers are looking for a way to further reduce the recidivism rate, more funding for mediation would be a worthy investment.

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