Ohio prison inmate Marcus Walker cradles Izzy the dog in his arms and quietly whispers to her until the 10-pound terrier’s yips subside and she is ready for her haircut.
With the electric trimmers buzzing expertly across Izzy’s gray coat, Walker, 29, of Cincinnati, explains why switching from drug dealer to dog groomer makes sense.
“No inner city drama. No shootings. No gang-related activities. You don’t have to worry about any of that,” he says, wearing a khaki uniform with “DRC Inmate” stamped on the back of his shirt.
Other upsides: no dodging police, no getting robbed and no time in prison, he said.
Belmont Correctional Institution Warden Michele Miller said Walker probably never would have done such a self-analysis before being immersed in the new “reintegration unit” within the minimum-security prison in eastern Ohio.
The reintegration unit is the first of its kind in Ohio and in the nation, according to state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr, a 39-year veteran of the prison business.
Mohr is embarking on a large-scale experiment that he hopes will further reduce recidivism and crime.
The state’s 50,000 inmates are being reshuffled and assigned to prisons based on their behavior and their risks. Bad actors go to control prisons where privileges are very hard to come by. Others are held in general population prisons. And the best-behaved felons who are nearing the end of their sentences will go to reintegration units where they have access to opportunities such as vocational training to be barbers, janitors, landscape workers or dog groomers.
Mohr aims to have 11 reintegration units opened statewide by the end of the year. So far, six are operating.
The first to open is at Belmont, where 250 inmates are funneled into tracts of programming based on what they need: alcohol and drug counseling, GED and literacy classes, mental health classes, and more. In many cases, inmates lead the classes, resolve disputes in the dorms and act as mentors to new arrivals. Inmates in the reintegration units must be engaged in work, training, physical activity or community service 8-to-12 hours a day – similar to how adults operate in the real world.
Even a game of cornhole counts toward their programming. Why? Gisela Sattler, case manager at Belmont, said it is an example of learning to blow off some stress and socialize without drugs and alcohol.
Inmates in the unit are expected to perform 90 hours of community service each quarter. Over the summer, Belmont prisoners washed, waxed and detailed hundreds of buses for area school districts.
Recidivism rates – measuring the percentage of former inmates who return to prison – will be measured by institution, rather than department wide. That way, DRC can see what impact the program is having.
“I’d like to say this. It sounds like a football coach, I suppose. We are going to make mistakes, but no one is going to outwork us,” Mohr said. “And we’re going to continue with the belief that people can change and we ought to be part of that change process, understanding that there will be people who don’t agree with us and that’s fine.”
Justin Taylor, 30, of Dayton, is at Belmont serving his third stint in state prison. He says he is making significant changes. He has ambitions to open his own barber shop and hair salon in west Dayton so he can provide for his three daughters, ages 6 to 12.
This time around, Taylor said it’s different. Inmates are more positive, staff is more helpful and his schedule is so packed with classes, training and counseling that he’s exhausted by 9 p.m., he said.
“Hopefully, this is my last time in prison,” said Taylor, who expects to be released in November 2014. “I hope I can find a good job and head toward my goal in life and not just trying to settle.”