Prison offers a new lease on life for inmates battling drugs

Prison offers a new lease on life for inmates battling drugs

When Charles Truitt began working in the Illinois state prison system in 1992 after more than seven years as a military policeman, he described himself as assertive and eager.

"I wanted to come to work. I have never been a quitter," he said.

But he was also living on edge.

"When I started in 1992, at the beginning of my day, I was not certain I would depart the facility in the same way I entered," Truitt said.

His first assignment was at Stateville in Joliet as a guard. In 1995, he transferred to the Sheridan Correctional Center.

"In the early years, the gang control in these facilities was overwhelming. From 1992 to 2006, the Department of Corrections has overcome by leaps and bounds," he said.

Truitt, now 40 and a lieutenant, said he "absolutely" likes coming to work now. That's because he's part of a unique team that is putting into practice a concept that they hope will keep men from ever returning to prison. It's called the therapeutic community concept. While not new in psychology circles, it is a relatively new concept in prisons.

"I've seen the worst and now the best," Truitt said.

'We are Sheridan'

Nestled in northeastern LaSalle County, not far from the Fox River and the town of Sheridan, population 2,411, is the Sheridan Correctional Center.

The medium-security prison sits on about 270 acres – 95 acres inside a fence and 175 acres outside. The nearest big city is Ottawa, about 15 miles to the southwest. Chicago is about 70 miles to the northeast.

Formerly a traditional medium-security prison, it closed in August 2002 after budget cutbacks.

But not long after his November 2002 election, Gov. Rod Blagojevich decided something had to be done about the highest recidivism rate in state history – nearly 55 percent – and the record number of inmates being released from prison.

"That is not a good combination," said Deanne Benos, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections and a former policy director for Blagojevich's election campaign.

It was decided to reopen the Sheridan prison – as the only Illinois prison whose entire population is being treated for the drug and alcohol addictions that prompted them to commit crimes.

"This is politically brave because everyone knows it's a long-term thing," Benos said.

In the planning stages for about a year, the prison reopened in January 2004 with many of its former staffers. Working alongside them now are drug counselors, vocational educators and job placement experts whose goal is to reshape the men sentenced there into productive members of society. There are no women at Sheridan.

"All too often, people forget that today's inmates are tomorrow's citizens. They are going to come back to my neighborhood," Benos said. "We're all better off knowing they've gone through some sort of program to reduce their risk to society."

And for local judges dealing with repeat offenders with entrenched addictions, Sheridan is a welcome option.

"Most of the sentencings I do are after someone's probation is revoked and they've not been able to successfully complete (drug) treatment. Having (Sheridan) as an alternative certainly helps out. It is the form of treatment they really can't walk away from," Champaign County Judge Tom Difanis said.

Statewide, there are about 45,000 inmates in Illinois' 28 adult prisons. Sheridan houses about 770, and the hope is eventually to accommodate as many as 1,300.

Officials also hope that by late 2008 the prison will have a separate unit to deal with the system's growing number of methamphetamine addicts.

Of those present now, most are from Cook and the collar counties. Their average age is 31.5. About a third of them abuse cocaine and heroin; about a quarter abuse marijuana. Almost half, despite numerous prior prison sentences, have not had professional help dealing with addiction.

At the helm as warden since November 2003 is Michael Rothwell, an expert on chemical dependency treatment in prisons who has worked with juveniles and adults in five states in 32 years.

Rothwell said the overall philosophy behind Sheridan is to treat the inmates' substance abuse at the same time as the inmates are beefing up their education and being trained in a vocation they can pursue when released. All those factors combine to make it less likely for an inmate to return to prison.

"You just don't treat the addiction," Rothwell said, noting there is the disease itself, the need for inmates to change their unhealthy thinking and, finally, education and training for a vocation. "If you pull any one of those legs out, the whole stool is going to fall over.

"We can't guarantee you won't come back, but we can guarantee you're less likely to come back."

While incarcerated, the inmates are getting drug treatment provided by Fresno, Calif.-based WestCare. They get ongoing support for their addictions and other life needs from the Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities – TASC – program while in and out of prison. And they get help finding jobs suited to their skills once they're out from the Chicago-based Safer Foundation.

Representatives of all those agencies work side by side with Department of Corrections employees at Sheridan. There are about 400 workers – 287 are corrections employees; the others are contract staff.

"Everybody is involved as part of the treatment team. We are the Sheridan project," said John Nunley, assistant warden for operations. "It's unique in that we communicate with the vendors. We are all part of the same team. Everybody in every area has seen the benefit of that. It's a really good place to work."

Not cheap

Running Sheridan is more expensive than the average cost of housing an inmate in a medium-security prison.

"Annually, it's about $10 million more a year to operate this than when it was opened previously as a prison," said Benos, who said about 80 percent of the department's $1.2 billion annual budget is spent on staff.

The annual cost per inmate is about $38,250. That figure, Benos stresses, includes the costs for services provided to inmates after their release such as finding jobs, housing and continued drug counseling.

By comparison, Tamms Correctional Center – the southern Illinois prison that houses the worst of the worst population, most of them in segregated cells – costs about $55,424 a year per inmate.

Lincoln Correctional Center, a medium-security prison, lists an average annual cost per inmate of $20,846. East Moline Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility, runs $20,209 per inmate.

But Rothwell said programs like Sheridan do pay off.

"The bottom line is whether you are Democrat or Republican, if you're a realist and you're concerned about saving taxpayer dollars, there is a cost savings to reducing recidivism," he said. "Regardless of what party is in power, it makes sense to continue this."

Department of Corrections officers who work there earn about $45,600 a year.

Truitt said many of the officers who worked at Sheridan before it closed in 2002 came back, but they had to accept a new way of doing things, working alongside addiction counselors.

"IDOC has its own discipline system in place for inmates who violate the rules. The (drug treatment) program has its own rules in place for those who violate protocol. Officers had a hard time transitioning from DOC standards of discipline to the programmatic form of discipline," he said.

"What we had to do was find some form of trust between security staff and program staff when it came to issuing discipline to see if the discipline was consistent."

Truitt admits to being initially skeptical about the program, but "I've noticed a definite demeanor change in the inmates from when we were open before versus the way inmates are today.

"The majority want to be here," he said. "There are some who sign up, come and find out it's not for them because it's a very stressful environment."

And correctional officers who have seen the value are also cross-training.

Lt. Rebecca Worth, who's been at the prison 13 years, is studying to be certified in the substance abuse area. Wardens, parole officers and other security officers also are taking the classes.

"When we first opened, there was such a gap between the treatment and security. The more I can learn, the more we can start working to jell together," she said, adding that because of the low pay of the drug treatment counselors, she has no desire to switch roles.

It's working

David Olson is an associate professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago who is under contract with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to evaluate the Sheridan program. Olson has a doctorate in political science and public policy analysis and 20 years of experience in the criminal justice field.

In May 2006, he wrote an evaluation with three others based on Sheridan's first two years of operation. An update is in the works.

"The bottom line is it's working," Olson said. "It, like most things in this field, is not a magic bullet. It is reducing criminal behavior by the traditional measures we have: rearrests, returns to prison. Not everybody is a success story, and that's something that some people don't want to accept.

"This is not a program that is trying to pick the best of the best and provide them with services and know they'll do well. This is clearly a population of individuals, who, while not the worst of the worst, are the ones that the criminal justice system has continuously struggled with how to address the ... needs that they have."

Olson said Sheridan inmates are not ones who got picked up for their first DUI and ended up in prison. Most have been in prison more than once, and some have never held a job.

"Being arrested hasn't deterred them," he said. "Going to prison hasn't deterred them.

"You're really trying to address 20 to 30 years of lifestyle and experiences that have led them to this point within a relatively short period of time."

Rothwell points to other measures of success.

At a June 2006 job fair at the prison, 12 employers were present – and 41 of 95 inmates were offered jobs on the spot, he said.

"We tell employers, when you hire someone off the street, what are you getting? With our guys, you know you're getting a drunk or an addict, but they have been through the program and are more likely to succeed than those off the street," Rothwell said.

Although Rothwell concedes his staff is working with a "drug-seeking population," the instances of drugs in the prison have been rare.

"We've only had one instance where we found somebody brought something in through visitation. We search very thoroughly at visitation," he said. "We have dogs search visitors' vehicles as they come in. We've been very fortunate that our officers really stay on top of that. It boils down to staff being vigilant and thorough in doing their jobs. We randomly drug-test inmates. We listen to calls, read mail. We know guys try to plan things.

"We have 200 to 300 gang members, but (the gangs have) leaders who have told the younger guys this is not the place for that," he said, adding that a high-ranking member of the Latin Kings reported upon his release that there is no gang activity at Sheridan.

Rothwell reminded that the inmates at Sheridan are there because they want to beat the addictions that led to their imprisonment and have a huge stake in succeeding.

"About half of our population doesn't earn good conduct. They're here because they want to be here," he said, explaining that good time is spelled out by statute. Not everyone is eligible depending on several factors, including whether they've received it on previous prison sentences.

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