New report finds that social connection is key in turning inmates’ lives around
Nebraska Corrections Vocational and Life Skills Program created in 2014 as part of prison reform effort
Workers construct new homes. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
LINCOLN — A new report on a Nebraska prison inmate rehabilitation program found that social support is more important in leading to a crime-free life than programs focused on changing one’s behavior.
Twenty-one former inmates were recently interviewed by researchers from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to determine what’s working, and what isn’t, in the state’s Vocational and Life Skills Program.
Part of prison reform
The VLS program was created as part of a prison reform effort by the Nebraska Legislature in 2014. It funds a variety of programs to better prepare inmates for jobs as carpenters, welders, drywallers and other trades, and helps them overcome hurdles to living crime-free lives.
Current grant recipients include Metropolitan Community College, Associated Builders and Contractors, York College and the Lincoln-based Center for People in Need. About 6,000 inmates have been served since the program began.
This year, the Legislature upped spending on the training programs from $3.5 million a year to $5 million. The UNO school has been hired to monitor the program, and issues quarterly and annual reports.
Michael Campagna, one of the co-authors of UNO’s study, said that social support from those teaching the trades and re-entry skills was cited by many former inmates as important in giving them optimism and motivation to leave behind lives of crime.
“They’re the first people, in years who have treated them like real human beings,” Campagna said of the program providers. “(Inmates) appreciate that and want more of that.”
One inmate quoted in the report, identified as “Cain,” said: “I wasn’t believing in myself. There wasn’t too many people around that were believing in me, but these folks, they did.”
Providers ‘lent me support’
“So they helped by believing in me. They lent me support,” Cain told the UNO researchers.
This sort of rehabilitation work is not easy. Most of the inmates involved in the VLS program have never held a real job and, the researchers found, had begun committing crimes, doing drugs and joining gangs as teenagers.
There are barriers to becoming crime-free, such as finding “safe” housing, resisting temptation to return to old habits and friends, finding affordable mental health counseling and overcoming employers’ reluctance to hire former inmates.
One inmate, identified only as “George,” became frustrated after being turned down for a job by a major manufacturer because of his criminal record. But he later was hired after a program provider told the employer that he would “stake his career” on George’s ability to be a good worker.
Toward that end, the 34-page UNO report urged the Nebraska Department of Corrections, which runs the VLS program, to begin providing a “certificate” that inmates have dedicated themselves to a new life.
A program launched in Ohio provides employers with a “Certificate of Qualification for Employment” that, Campagna said, has helped quell concerns of companies about hiring ex-inmates.
Mental health services lacking
Among the other recommendation in the UNO report were:
- Advocate for increased, affordable mental health services — a common refrain heard among state legislators in recent years. Several of the inmates suffer from mental illnesses, and they said it was difficult to find affordable counseling services once they left prison.
- Reward law-abiding behavior by expunging some criminal offenses after five or 10 years of success. Inmates said their criminal records served to deter their success.
- Increase computer training options. Campagna said that some inmates, who may have spent years in prison, have never seen a smart phone, much less learned how to use one or learned how to pay bills online.
- Ensure that individuals are engaging in “pro-social” peer groups so they remain on a crime-free trajectory. Some inmates lamented that they led lonely lives for fear of regrouping with old buddies.
71% success rate
Campagna said that many of the program providers had prior experience with the criminal justice system, which resonated with the former inmates.
The most recent annual report on the VLS Program, for 2020-21, said that 71% of participants successfully complete their classes. Campagna said that was “unexpectedly high” due to limited access to prisons due to COVID-19. The report also cited prison staff shortages which impacted the ability to conduct programs.
But, the report said, while the VLS program has been successful in teaching inmates a skill, helping them obtain a job and teaching them how to be self-sufficient, research has not shown VLS to reduce repeat crimes.
Reducing repeat crimes has been a goal of the VLS program, along with finding jobs for inmates returning to society.
Repeat crimes on the rise
The percentage of inmates who return to Nebraska prisons within three years of their release has been dropping in the last three years to a current 29.8% But that compares with fiscal year 2009-10, when the state’s recidivism rate was 27.7%. That figure had risen to 30.2% in 2017-18.
The report said inmates who weren’t successful in VLS or re-entry tended to deny that they had issues to address or lacked the right skills to obtain a job and stable housing.
Campagna said one recurring theme in successful inmates was maturity and a desire to reconnect with family and children and leave a life of crime behind.
One inmate named “George” put it this way: “I started looking at the fact of, where am I getting in this life? ”
“My daughter made it clear,” he said. “If you continue to live the lifestyle you used to live, you will not be a part of your granddaughter’s life.”
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