Program Targets Rehab Help for Federal Inmates

One of the first federal programs to ease the re-entry of inmates into society is under way in Washington, D.C. It's a comprehensive 30-day program designed to give inmates the help they need: counseling, drug-abuse treatment and a healthy dose of attitude adjustment.

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RENE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Rene Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Take three prison inmates, set them free and wait a few years. Statistics say that two of them will return to prison. States are spending millions of dollars to change those bleak numbers. And now, the federal government has joined them after years of lagging behind. One of the first programs aimed at federal inmates marks its grand opening this week in the nation's Capitol.

As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, it only took a decade to get here.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Ten years ago, D.C.'s reentry program was a mess. James Lanier(ph) was trying to place parolees in treatment, but drug addicts were ending up in housing programs. Sex offenders wound up in drug programs, and many got no help at all.

Dr. JAMES LANIER (Director, CSOSA Reentry and Sanctions Center): Folks who reentered just came back into the city without any services in most cases.

SULLIVAN: So Lanier created his own plan - a 30-day intensive course to figure out what kind of program each parolee needed and to get them to embrace treatment. The results were stunning - his offenders were 35 percent less likely to get rearrested. He begged for money, and last year he finally got it. Congress gave him 15 million to rehab an old city building, and 15 million to house 102 parolees a month.

Dr. LANIER: This is the epicenter. (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: How you been?

SULLIVAN: Here is a seven-story building compound at the edge of the city. Kevin Lineberger is leading a group of 18 former inmates in a counseling session. He's pointing out the window to buildings next door and says it's a warning.

Mr. KEVIN LINEBERGER (Clinic Manager and Therapy Group Leader, CSOSA): What's on this compound?

Unidentified Man #1: Hospital.

Mr. LINEBERGER: The hospital.

Unidentified Man #2: Jail.

Mr. LINEBERGER: Jail.

Unidentified Man #3: Jail.

Mr. LINEBERGER: Detox, the morgue…

Unidentified Man #4: Cemetery.

Mr. LINEBERGER: Cemetery.

SULLIVAN: These one-hour sessions go on all day long. Psychologists test offenders for everything from reading skills to mental illness. There's even acupuncture therapy. One floor below, discussion leader Adrian Thurston(ph) has another group engaged.

Ms. ADRIAN THURSTON (Group Therapist, CSOSA): What was the feeling? You told us about the thoughts. You told us the whole story. What was the feeling?

SULLIVAN: Some of the men are old, some are young - all have been arrested at least nine times, mostly for drugs. It's easy to spot the men who have embraced the 12-hour days of counseling, journal writing and personal awareness classes. They ask each other questions.

Unidentified Man #5: So how did you work through all this? How did you negotiate that anger or whatever while you've been up here?

Unidentified Man #6: Oh, I started to speak.

Unidentified Man #5: Okay.

Unidentified Man #6: You know what I mean? And taking in the information, man. That's all.

SULLIVAN: None of the doors here are locked. The former inmates don't have to stay. But they're participation is a condition of their parole, so they could be sent back to prison. And that makes a lot of the offenders upset at first.

Unidentified Man #7: Yes, I was angry. And somewhat, I'm still angry.

SULLIVAN: One newcomer in jeans and a sweatshirt is leaning far back in his chair. He says it's not fair he has to be here. Thurston asks what the group can do to change his mind.

Unidentified Man #8: You tell me to stay focused. I do need y'all and I do need help, because I am mad for real. And man, becoming aware of that. I do need this program. I do need it. I truly need it.

SULLIVAN: Counselors here say the hardest part isn't necessarily an addiction to drugs, but to the drug lifestyle. Counselor Lynwood Wright(ph) was one of the first offenders in the original pilot program.

Mr. LYNWOOD WRIGHT (Counselor, CSOSA): I spent 20 years in the streets of D.C. just selling drugs and using drugs and doing everything else that came with it - sex, drugs and money.

SULLIVAN: Now, Wright is one of the centers most effective counselors.

Mr. WRIGHT: When I got here, I found out that these people were seriously trying to do something, you know, like teach some old dogs some new tricks. If you want to stop going to jail, okay? If you want to your life to get better, you're going to have to abide to this process.

SULLIVAN: So far, 90 percent of the inmates this year have done just that. They stayed at the center for the 30 days and then voluntarily went on to three-month programs based on what they need most - job skills, housing or more drug counseling. As program officials and members of Congress cut the official ribbon this week, they're hoping these men prove 10 years was worth the wait.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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