From Prison to Community: Part 1, Conditional Reentry

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(Host) Depending on the prison, Vermont spends between $40,000 and $70,000 a year to house a single inmate in-state.

Because of the high incarceration costs and over- crowded prisons, most Vermont inmates now finish their sentences, heavily supervised in the community.

In the first of a series, VPR’s Nina Keck examines what it’s like to do time out of jail.

(Keck) In the movies it seems so simple. Once a prisoner has served their time, the jailers open the gates and the offender walks out, hopefully never to return. These days, however, there’s a kind of gray area between being released from prison and true freedom. In Vermont it’s called the Conditional Reentry Program. And in the Rutland area nearly 200 men and women are taking part.

(Steve Bernier) “We need a U.A. on you as well as the fact that you’ve missed three days of work this week.”

(Offender) “Yeah, I talked worked and talked to Rick. . . .”

(Keck) Every Thursday, Community Corrections officer Steve Bernier checks in offenders. He goes over their weekly schedules and oversees random urine samples for drug and alcohol testing. He also helps ensure offenders are finding and keeping jobs.

(Bernier) “We’re out there. We’re checking on these people. We know what’s going on. We know where to go and look for them and we can see if they’re working their way back into the community, they’re associating with the proper people and everything where they’re not going to go back to jail.”

(Keck) Bernier says the first few months out of prison are highly stressful, so the extra oversight and structure of the re-entry program are critical. Jamie Lertola spent 11 years in prison on grand larceny and escape charges. While he doesn’t like people watching him all the time, he admits it helps.

(Lertola) “‘Cuz it keeps you from screwing up. You know? Cuz I’ve been locked up for so long, if I was actually free free I might make some mistakes. Nothing major, cuz I’ve learned from that. But, simple mistakes that could get me in trouble again.”

(Keck) But many offenders, like Dan Bauer of Willmington, argue that the rules of the reentry program are too cumbersome. Bauer had three years left on his sentence, and he says he seriously considered serving out his time in prison just to avoid the restrictions of doing time in the community.

(Bauer) “You’re not allowed to work second shift so then you find a job on first shift. And I have to do some programming. And that’s two days a week in the middle of first shift. Then you need to find a boss who’s understanding. It just puts so much stress on you immediately.”

(Keck) The programming Bauer talks about varies with offenders. For some it’s behavioral counseling. Others have to attend meetings for substance abuse. And most offenders aren’t allowed to drive because of past offenses or lack of insurance. So, transportation becomes a major issue. Jennifer Litch lights up a cigarette and nods her head. It’s overwhelming she says.

(Litch) “You have to know what you’re doing 2 weeks from that day to fill out your first schedule. So, you’re just getting out of jail. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know if you’re going to be working or needing to go to the store – or if you want to take a walk, what day it’s going to rain and it’s just very very frustrating at points in time.”

(Bill Wiles) “You have to ask for help.”

(Keck) That’s Rutland probation officer Bill Wiles.

(Wiles) “They don’t ask for someone to explain how it works. They simply ask why can’t I do this?’ Why can’t I do that?’ Well the reason you can’t do it is you’re still in jail. You just don’t happen to be behind bars. Because they’re in the community, all of a sudden they think, well, I’m done.’ I’m good to go.’ And that’s not the case.”

(Keck) The reentry program isn’t easy says Wiles, but studies show the structure and intense monitoring works.

The re-offense rate in Vermont’s conditional reentry program is 17%. That’s considerably lower than the 56% three year recidivism rate for all Vermont offenders. And compared to jail, the reentry program is a relative bargain at $3,000 a year per inmate. Those savings have prompted lawmakers to allow some prisoners to be released even earlier – 90 days before their minimum sentences are served. For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

(Host) We have an update to this story: Jamie Lertola is back in prison, after an incident with his Parole Officer .

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