Keeping former inmates ‘stable’ critical to community safety, says Director A.T. Wall
With one-third of those having completed their prison sentences being sent back to adult correctional facilities within 12 months, Ashbel T. “A.T.” Wall told members of the Warwick Rotary Club Thursday, “The outcomes are not particularly good.”
It was the second time Wall, director of the Department of Corrections, spoke to the club this year. The first speaking engagement was at Medium Security in Cranston, where Rotarians, after a lunch in the same facility used by inmates, were taken on a tour of workshops, classrooms and a cellblock.
Wall said the department is working on programs directed at reducing the rate of recidivism, but that he won’t be trying to introduce halfway houses that have proven successful in introducing former convicts into productive roles in society, as he advocated while Lincoln Almond was governor.
“I tried to introduce halfway houses and I got my head handed to me.” He said the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers is a “very strong union … they are leery of options to incarceration.”
Further, he observed, halfway houses “seem like a great idea until it’s in your neighborhood. The public is not really ready for them and that is a shame.”
But that doesn’t mean that Wall isn’t looking to make the state’s largest and most costly department, with more than 1,500 employees and a budget of $186 million, do its job more effectively.
In following his presentation, Wall said programs while offenders are incarcerated stress alternatives to violence, like drug treatment and education, so they are able to find jobs and adjust on the street. Playing a key role, he said, are enhanced relationships with local law enforcement and human service agencies. In Warwick, for example, those with completed sentences attend a meeting at the police headquarters where they are informed of support services. Wall said the goal is to build partnerships with community providers so as “to keep the individual stable.”
Even with such efforts, Wall is convinced some people are doomed to a criminal lifestyle. He said inmates have told him that their lives have been changed by incarceration and that they will take a new path when they complete their sentences. He said he believes these are genuine statements.
“They are all full of good intentions, but life on the street isn’t that easy,” he said.
In his 14th year as director, Wall gave a brief overview of the department and its role. He said the department handles 15,000 admissions annually, which he described as a “very diverse group of people.”
“Our job is to keep everybody safe. If you don’t feel safe, then nothing good can happen there,” he said.
He said the prison population averages in their mid-30s, pointing out that most are in their 20s when incarcerated. He said 50 percent of the population is Caucasian, 26 percent African American, 20 percent Latino with the balance being Southeast Asian. The Southeast Asian population is the fastest growing.
The average cost of housing an inmate he placed at $40,000 a year.
“We’re necessary but we’re not cheap,” he said.
Making up a large part of that cost is health care, which the state has an obligation to provide. He said health care could be extremely costly, citing how treatment for an inmate with a rare form of disease cost $2 million.
“Part of the issue is that we can never say ‘No.’ If the courts send them to us, we have to take them,” he said.
He said maintaining a safe environment is very challenging.
“It’s a pretty volatile mix,” he said, citing the close quarters and how inmates get on each other’s nerves and “can’t just walk it off.”
“The question for us is if we’re running it well, the public is protected.”
Yet, he acknowledged the ultimate test comes later. That’s where he looks to make improvements.
“When they’re released, that’s when the rubber hits the road,” he said.