October 23, 2014
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Rotarians go from cold to cooler
ACCUSTOMED TO CROWDS: A black lab, being trained to work with the disabled under the NEADS program, seemingly is oblivious to a group of Warwick Rotarians as an inmate, not pictured, describes the rewards of working with the dog.

Dancer and instructor Carolyn Dutra spent Thursday afternoon in the cooler. So did realtor Robert DeGregorio; and so did Judy Earle, director of the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center and 39 other members of the Warwick Rotary Club.

That’s hardly news. It was cold last week. Everyone was in the cooler.

As it happens, the Rotarians weren’t alone in their cooler – the John J. Moran Medium Security facility at the Department of Corrections – there were 1,016 inmates on Thursday.

And, without doubt, the Rotarians found it more difficult to get behind the locked doors of the facility than the inmates; and that’s a good thing. It was far easier for the visitors to get out after the tour.

The tour was the brainchild of DeGregorio, the club’s vice president, who is charged with arranging the club’s weekly programs. Making it happen involved some doing. Background checks were conducted on those planning to attend and, as they arrived Thursday about noon, they had to part with their cell phones, car keys and everything else metallic.

After entering the prison yard, with its high fences topped with razor wire, they made a beeline for one of several dining areas, relieved to get in and away from the frigid cold. This was no epicurean palace. The group lined up along a wall before a metal screen rolled up just high enough for a pair of rubber-gloved hands to slide a plastic tray. This was a $1.80 lunch, Warden James Vierra informed the group. He didn’t eat. He watched over his new charges with guards and a couple of other administrators. The Rotarians didn’t relish their first taste of prison life. They sat at metal tables with round metal seats. Their trays held molded plastic dishes with a puddle of what looked like gravy, a handful of lettuce, a dab of mayonnaise and colorless processed meat topped with four slices of white bread. A clear plastic glass was filled with yellow-green liquid and a plastic spoon and fork combination was rolled in a paper napkin. The “gravy” turned out to be thick pea soup served hot. It wasn’t bad, but probably not a winner in the Rotary Club’s annual Pea Soup Cooking Contest.

Vierra gave an overview of the visit that, apart from sampling culinary fare, included a tour of the industrial shop area, the education center and a cellblock called Residence A. From the wide windows of the cafeteria, an assembly of inmates, wearing dark woven caps, long light brown coats and boots crossed the yard. They looked in at the Rotarians as they made their way to an adjoining cafeteria. For a moment, it was an odd juxtaposition; they were outside, the Rotarians inside.

As director of the institutions Ashbel T. Wall II later said, there have been many more charges on the outside than behind the walls of the buildings that make up the prison system. Those behind bars number 3,150 with an additional 22,000 “on the street,” he said. Of that population, 94 percent are male; 71 percent test below an eighth grade education; and 31 percent are back behind bars within a year of being released.

Wall welcomed the Rotarians, saying that the DOC is the state’s largest public agency with 1,400 employees, but because so much of what they do is behind walls, “imaginations run.” This was a chance for the public to see for themselves. In his words, they would find a clean, quiet and orderly environment. He attributed that to his staff.

Joseph Flaherty is one of them. Associate director of correctional industries, Flaherty accompanied the tour through the garment, license plate, upholstery and auto body shops. Flaherty, who has been with the department for 20 years, matches outside demands for products – office furniture at the University of Rhode Island, for instance – with materials and the prison labor force. Not all inmates are eligible to work in the shops. Jobs are sought there because they pay more than any other prison job, at $3 a day, and offer “good time” that can lessen a sentence.

The body shop is especially busy. Work is done on state, municipal and RIPTA vehicles. The license plate shop, under the direction of Michael Rossi, never runs out of work. None of the Rotarians received a complimentary low number plate, although, if there was an opportunity to ask, this was it.

Vocational classes are offered in another building on the 29-acre campus. They provide carpentry, barber, sheet metal welding and automotive training. Educational programs enable inmates to take adult basic education, general educational development (GED) and college courses from CCRI to earn an associate degree. The ACI also offers a range of treatment and rehabilitative programs.

Rotarians got to see the much-publicized NEADS program, where inmates train service dogs for the deaf and disabled. An inmate demonstrated the skills of a black lab he is training; from opening and closing a refrigerator to fetching items and turning lights on and off for the disabled.

“We’re working toward helping to change their lives,” the inmate said.

The Rotarians were ready to linger and talk with the inmates about the dogs, but Vierria knew the time without looking at his watch: Prison life is run on a rigid schedule and the shops’ inmates would soon be returning to the cellblock. As inmates crossed the yard, Rotarians headed toward a door to the visitors’ area. From there, it was through another door that was locked before a second was opened. And then it was a search for car keys and freedom.


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