A Prison for Parolees?
On June 29, the Transitional Treatment Program (TTP) at Pondville opened its doors to parolees in what the Massachusetts Department of Correction is calling on its Facebook page “a groundbreaking collaboration” between the DOC and Parole.
Forty men officially granted parole are now living 36 miles south of Boston in Norfolk. They are sharing the woodsy unfenced-in setting with 98 prisoners classified as “minimum” and 39 as “pre-release,” depending on how close they are to their official release date. Pondville has beds for 48 parolees, said Superintendent Douglas DeMoura.
While it is certainly unprecedented for the Parole Board and the DOC to co-run a program for parolees (it’s “unique” Demoura and current Board chair Charlene Bonner said during a tour of the facility), some experts are questioning the move. They are asking if housing parolees in a prison will lower recidivism and give returning citizens the best chance of success.
The idea seems to have come, at least in part, from Daniel Bennett, Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety and Security, who submitted a project proposal to the Pioneer Institute, a public policy research organization that hosts a “Better Government Competition” each year. The idea was to “repurpose” Pondville, an “underutilized” facility, as a cost savings to the state; and Bennett received special recognition for this idea from Pioneer. He proposed more parole beds that are sorely lacked—the proposal stated there were 400 parolees on a wait list for transitional housing. The name “Pondville” never appeared in the Pioneer bid, but it is clear that since its recognition in May, Pondville has been on a fast track to get up and running.
But how will this new prison for parolees stack up when measured against well-known transitional housing such as Dismas House in Worcester?
Pondville’s rate of recidivism—a rearrest or return to crime—won’t be measured for at least one year, according to Chris Mitchell, DOC Director of Program Services. Bennett’s proposal projects that the TTP can reduce recidivism between 6 to 11.3 percent. However, Dismas detailed its low recidivism rate of 18 percent for their residents in 2013. Compare this to the whopping 60 percent of recidivists from all Massachusetts state prisons reported in 2013 by think tank Mass Inc.
Near the newly painted visiting room at Pondville, a room that looks much like a typical prison visiting space with a child’s play area and chairs lined up around the walls, I meet with Dave, a current parolee, who came from Old Colony Correctional Center on his second time around. Dave said that Pondville is closer to home, which is good because his mother is ill, and his fiancé is nearby.
He added, “The upside is that it’s a relief in that I wake up every day saying ‘I’m on parole.’ The downside is that although there are no fences, I’m in a prison setting.”
Part of the problem with Pondville seems to be that prison setting. Leslie Walker, Executive Director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services, which provides services to prisoners across the state, said in a phone interview, “These guys are out in the woods instead of working in the communities to which they are returning.”
Pondville’s website says that those on pre-release work in the area, from “cleaning streets and parks to assisting schools with painting and general maintenance during holidays, to general clean up and landscaping at municipal buildings.” Some also work at nearby correctional facilities “doing grounds work, landscaping and janitorial duties.”
But so far, “Parolees are working on their resumes for when they return home,” said Shawna Anderson, the Parole Board’s Research and Planning specialist who is also working at Pondville.
Although parolee Dave has been at Pondville for three weeks, he doesn’t plan to get a job until he goes home in a little more than two months. Pondville expects the average stay to be three months.
Christine M. Cole, Executive Director of the Crime and Justice Institute, which works with governments around the country to improve public safety, said in an interview, “We know that among the things that reduce recidivism, one is work.”
She added, “While Pondville is a “creative use of a facility that is underutilized,” she prefers that parolees go to a “community, not an institutional setting, not a facility that resembles a prison more than group home or halfway house…with the freedom to come and go from the place where you sleep—a personal space that’s like a bedroom, as different from a prison environment as it can be.”
Parolees at Pondville do have their own unit, living two to a room.
But while the 40 parolees have their own unit, they are not always separated from men on “pre-release” and those classified as “minimum security”—doing chores, eating meals in the Chow Hall, going to family visits on a schedule in the prison visiting room, and at this point, wearing the same clothing—and they are hardly coming and going as they please. The TTP Parolee Handbook says parolees must follow the rules of DOC as well as the rules of Parole and Spectrum Health Systems, the treatment provider for Pondville. Transportation from Norfolk to surrounding areas must be approved.
Cole said she finds the best opportunity for success in “programs that have a ‘wrap-around’ in the community.” She added that “community-based” means a parolee can do work with his family because “physical geography and accessibility by public transportation support family reunification.”
Men who live at Dismas House can have computers and cell phones, and are free during the day to find work and go to jobs, go to school, or visit with family. Some have cars, but many utilize public transportation. Chores, a curfew, and community dinners are required. Substance abuse programs are usual for most residents. Dismas House is a sober house, but subject to the rules of the Parole Board, not the DOC.
Pondville, on the other hand, like all Massachusetts prisons, doesn’t allow prisoners to have on the property devices such as cell phone, iPads, or computers, which means they are mostly dependent on counselors to help them with outside contacts for jobs.
In all fairness, Pondville is evolving. They do plan for a computer lab. The Facebook page says it is aimed at substance abusers, but on site, officials said that whoever parole designated for the facility would go there, usually for 90 days. Parolees take a regimen of classes such as “Healthy Living Checks” and “Pro-Social Thinking.” They have counselors who help them design a home plan. TTP also aims to support the men’s transitioning from substance abuse programs on site to substance abuse programs in the community, but at this early stage, that remains to be seen.
Officials say they have research to back up the Transitional Treatment Program. Anderson, in an email, said, “States that provided me with information about similar evidence-based programs were Pennsylvania, South Dakota, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina.”
But in the Parole Board’s own words, Kira Dunn and Stephanie Coughlin point out that we may have had the better idea 10 years ago. Writing about “Housing after Prison” in 2008, they said that when the Massachusetts DOC was allotted money from the U.S. Department of Justice for prison construction in 2004, they diverted some funds to the Parole Board. The Board decided “to develop and manage a reentry housing program where some of the new institutional bed capacity was transferred to the community. Simply put, the beds on the inside were brought to the outside. With this reallocation of funds, Massachusetts joined a growing national trend of shifting focus and resources from incarceration to reentry programs that directly affect barriers to successful community reintegration.”
The nation is shifting away from incarceration. And so, the question remains: will Pondville Correctional Center help parolees build new lives and stay out of prison? Or is the answer: Massachusetts should return to a lesson learned 10 years ago and invest in more transitional housing programs near the communities where parolees will live and work?