A Rehoboth resident who asked to be identified as John listened patiently as an official spoke about rehabilitative programs in Delaware prisons at a recent forum. Then he decided to weigh in on the matter.
“This system is so broken it's staggering,” he said. “I'd like to see something done about it.”
John was one of about 50 who attended a forum Jan. 10 that focused on incarceration in Delaware held at Trinity Faith Christian Center in Lewes and sponsored by the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.
He said gambling and substance abuse problems have given him years of experience with the prison and probation systems. He has been out since 2014, but when he was in, he said, he observed a system where gambling and other vices were rampant.
“There was more gambling going on in there than on the street,” he said.
He said he watched inmates come into the system, go back on the street, and return to prison after only a short time. “I can tell you first-hand, based on my experience, there is no rehabilitation. It's a warehouse,” he said.
Christopher Klein, bureau chief of the Department of Corrections, was part of a panel that included Nancy Dietz, director of Juvenile Rehabilitative Services, and Lisa Furber, a senior paralegal with Community Legal Aid Society.
Klein said DOC has made changes since 2014 to improve programs and services. He said Alcoholics Anonymous now operates in all corrections facilities and a KEY Program to treat substance abuse is getting results at Baylor Women's Correctional Institution, Howard R. Young Correctional Institution and Sussex Correctional Institution.
Klein said he has also requested more money from the state budget to pay for improvements, partly as a result of a 2015 Community Legal Aid Society lawsuit filed against DOC on behalf of inmates in solitary confinement.
“We were hoping to end what was happening as far as solitary confinement,” said Furber of Legal Aid.
Furber said a settlement with DOC included at least 17.5 hours a week of unstructured recreation outside of the cell, 10 hours of structured therapeutic time, and training for prison guards to learn more de-escalation techniques.
Valerie McNickol, a rehabilitation counselor in Sussex County, said she has worked with too many people on probation who have ended back in prison for noncriminal incidents. “If they had no job, they're tossed back in. No housing, tossed back in. Meanwhile, I'm trying to provide a service,” she said.
She said she has pleaded with prison officials to keep her clients out of jail, and she got nowhere.
“I didn't find the cooperation that I expected,” she said.
Klein said 85 percent of people on probation complete it. He could not speak about McNickol's particular cases, and he said those instances would have to be looked at on an individual basis.
Brian Winward, a former inmate of 28 years, now helps with the prison's Alternatives to Violence program and he encouraged others to volunteer.
“We're just all imperfect people in an imperfect system trying to help other imperfect people,” he said. “We're just trying to give guys like me a second chance.”
Rick Grier-Reynolds, statewide coordinator for the AVP program, said the program has been successful, but the group has had to cancel workshops at SCI because of a lack of volunteers. He also encouraged people to volunteer.
“If you want to make a difference and help men on a better path we would love to have you on board,” he said.
For more information on AVP, visit avpusa.org.
For more information, on the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, visit www.sdarj.org.