Sunday, September 03, 2000

Kinder, gentler jail of the future?


With emphasis on rehabilitation, River City Correctional Center - and its residents - proud of its success

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        No bars. No gray walls. No uniformed guards with handcuffs jingling behind them. No inmates in orange jumpsuits. No doors banging with that steely clang heard only in jail houses.

        Thisis River City Correctional Center, (RCC) a facility for non-violent felons where four pods house 150 males and 50 females. It has been open since September 1998 on the Camp Washington site of the old Workhouse.

[photo] Strolling down the halls of River City Center are Judge Norbert Nadel and the center's executive director, John Baron.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Yes, a jail.

        Never mind the huge windows letting in tons of light. Or the spacious great rooms with meticulously clean carpets and sprawling sofas. Or the airy dining rooms serving Frisch's Big Boys on Fiestaware.

        It's a jail where residents in street clothes laugh, guards in red T-shirts are called resident supervisors and walls are lined with posters reminding, “We are our brothers' keeper.”

        Former residents even send thank you notes. “About a year ago, I didn't even have a mind to motivate, my only motivation was drugs ... I am thankful for having come to River City ... it made me open my eyes,” James Laidlaw wrote.

        “Doesn't seem like a jail, does it?” beams John Baron, the executive director (i.e. warden). The former probation officer has been with the facility since planning began in 1994.

        “But it is a jail, and no one ever forgets it. The difference is a traditional jail is for punishment with rehabilitation second, if at all. We reverse that.”

        The prison industry calls it a community-based correctional facility — and it may be the future of jails because of the emphasis on education and vocational training. Ohio now has 17 like it.

        Most residents (don't call them inmates) are in for substance abuse. They stay four to six months, then re-enter society while returning to RCC twice a week for up to 18 months of “aftercare.”

        What many of them don't do is go back to jail: Recidivism is a tricky term, Mr. Baron says. But if you use the common definition — rate of relapse or released felons who return to custody — then RCC has a 50 to 60 percent success rate.

        Meaning up to 60 percent do not go back. The traditional prison system averages about 25 percent success rate, with 75 percent going back.

        Judge Norbert “Nick” Nadel, chairman of the Judicial Corrections Board (JCB) that oversees RCC, cites better results: “They use 60 percent as the rate, but in my courtroom it's 70 percent. Of course, it's only two years old, but it's off to a wonderful start.”

        Maybe it's the educational thrust Mr. Baron and Judge Nadel insist on: With eight teachers, RCC has had 81 residents get GEDs (high school equivalency diploma) while residing there. Their names hang in the reception area. In bronze.

        Or maybe it's the vocational thrust: “I'm proud of that,” Mr. Baron says, referring to the culinary arts program run by former Petersen's chef Greg Janneck, in partnership with Frisch's.

        “I explained what we were doing to Karen Maier (Frisch's vice president) and she liked it. She sent her architects out to work with ours when we built the kitchen. Then she supplied Frisch's computer software for further training.

        “Now, residents can walk out of here today and start at Frisch's tomorrow.”

        Baking courses were added recently (“bakeries really need people,” Mr. Baron says), and a landscape program is in place.

        There is no opera program, although RCC has a batch of fans: This summer, when the Cincinnati Opera needed non-singing extras for Aida, it recruited 21 residents in a deal that received national attention.

        Come Saturday, RCC's neighbors are invited to assemble on the grounds for the third annual RCC Community Picnic. Residents will grill burgers 'n' brats.

        When they do, you can be sure they'll call each other Mr. or Miss, and hear plenty of “thank yous.” Such scenes bring a smile to Mr. Baron's face: “It's our treatment modality, a technique called therapeutic community (TC). It's a holistic approach where we demand respect of the residents and we give it in return.

        “When I started hiring staff and telling them about TC, they thought I was crazy. Now, I don't think I could find one who wasn't sold on it.”

        Heaven knows the state of Ohio is. According to Judge Nadel, the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections has proposed an identical facility for 2003, provided the budget is approved and Hamilton County can find a suitable location.

        The TC concept is kinder and gentler but not easier: Residents are up every day at 6 a.m. for morning meeting, group sessions, quiet time, more group sessions, counseling, work at the facility and more work around the community cleaning parks, washing police cars.

        Forty hours of community service is required in addition to service the court has ordered, Mr. Baron says.

        “In prison you can sit there and do nothing,” Mr. Baron says. “Here, we have an intense program that requires full participation and a commitment to take responsibility for your actions as well as each other's actions.”

        Treat people like they belong in cages and they act like it,” he says. “You treat them with respect, they return it.”

       



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