State program helps prepare inmates for life after prison

When Gary Mohr was summoned to meet Governor-elect John Kasich in late 2010, he planned to be there for 15 minutes and politely decline an offer to become director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

After all, Mohr had retired from the state prison system and he and his wife, Linda, had launched their own corrections consulting business. They also were spending a few days a month at their place in North Carolina.

So much for best-laid plans. The meeting lasted three hours and Mohr took the job.

Mohr was sworn in on January 4, 2011, and almost immediately got to work changing the way Ohio rehabilitates prison inmates — 41 percent of whom are released in less than a year. His career in corrections had made one thing abundantly clear: previous methods were not working.

Consider the numbers:

  • In 1974, the year Mohr started working in corrections, Ohio had 8,300 inmates in state prisons. By 2015, that number had mushroomed to nearly 50,500.
  • In 1974, only 4 percent of state employees worked in corrections. Now, its 12,000 employees make up about 23 percent of the state’s workforce.
  • In 1974, the state prison budget was $67 million. Now it’s $1.66 billion. The state has 27 prison facilities and Mohr insists, “I will not build one more prison.”

Mohr’s administration has established 12 re-integration programs in prisons across the state. The first was launched in early 2012 at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, about 60 miles northeast of Dayton.

Rows of razor wire inside the chain-link fence made a sobering first impression on inmate Felicia Bradley, 31, serving time for aggravated vehicular homicide.

“At first, I just thought the world was gonna end and it was just gonna be over,” she said.

Four years later, Bradley says, “My time is just going by because I’m up every day and I’m doing things and I actually feel good about what I’m doing.”

Bradley lives in the re-integration unit, called Arn 1, where Mohr says “the purpose is to build a positive, pro-social model.”

“We’ve got a lot of folks, both male and female, in these 12 re-integrations units all over Ohio that we drug test, that are involved 8-to-10 hours a day, that they’re learning skills, that they’re doing things for others, paying back in community service,” Mohr said.

On a Wednesday in mid-October, Bradley was crocheting plastic grocery bags into mats for homeless people.

Nearby, inmate Karen Carter, 55, told Mohr she was “knitting a hat and gloves and scarf, and all this will go to a small child.”

The community service is important, says Marysville warden Ronette Burkes.

“We understand that the folks here have harmed someone. It’s important for the women to give back to the society that they’ve harmed,” she said.

In addition, the women in re-integration have jobs they go to five days a week. Bradley works for the Ohio Department of Transportation, picking up trash along highways.

Carter, a former registered nurse, helps maintain 13 parks and “all the landscaping and yardwork for the city of Marysville.”

“I love it,” she says of the manual labor.

Carter has been at Marysville eight years for multiple counts of theft and forgery — the result of an out-of-control gambling problem. She’s taken advantage of lengthy cognitive behavior groups that have allowed her “to sit down and think rationally.”

A few yards away, 110 women who suffer from alcohol or drug addiction live in a unit that houses the Tapestry program. Director Annette Dominguez says Tapestry is a highly structured program.

“It’s peer run, so the community members are empowered to be responsible for themselves, held accountable, and hold each other accountable,” she said.

Tawanna Talbert, 40, graduates this month from the 15-month program. She was addicted to heroin when she was arrested for burglary.

“I think the only structure I had was maybe getting up and getting my kids ready for school or cooking dinner, but the rest of the time may have been hunting for drugs,” she said.

At Marysville, Talbert and her Tapestry sisters have daily routines.

“We clean, we have meetings, we have jobs. Basically, just every day is something and it’s all planned out.”

She hopes to go to cooking school while at Marysville “and just better myself.” She says she has a large support system that will continue after she leaves prison.

Her relationship with her three children is better than ever. Wiping her eyes, she says, “They’re very proud of me and they’re just happy that I’m alive.”

Ohio inmates all over the state are learning job skills. Director Mohr says they’re training to be auto mechanics, carpenters, and commercial truck drivers. He hopes employers will hire former inmates and pointed out that “50,000 jobs around this country are going unfilled for truck drivers.”

The state’s recidivism rate alone indicates that re-integration is working. Recidivism is defined as “the rate of return to prison in three years.”

“The (national) recidivism rate is 49.7 percent,” Mohr said. “In Ohio, it’s 27.5 percent.”

Mohr says Ohio’s approach is saving taxpayers money. Within a year after he took the helm “we were spending $85,000 less a day than we were the day we came in.”

He strongly advocates investing in community corrections — programs he says are “twice as effective at one-third the cost.”

Mohr said building a new prison would cost $1 billion, plus operating costs. Still, he agrees that people who are a risk to others need to be in incarcerated.

Marysville houses Ohio’s lone woman on death row and others serving life terms for murder. But because most inmates will be released at some point, he believes re-integration ultimately will keep the state’s 11.5 million residents safer.

“It’s the neighbors that don’t have their houses broken into because our folks have learned a trade, they’ve learned to pay back to the community, they’ve learned more about themselves and what they stand for,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing.”

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